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Why Ehud Barak's 'Responsible Left' Argument Won't Convince Israelis

Micah Goodman responds to Ehud Barak's review of his book 'Catch-67': Someone who aspires to lead the public should know where the public stands

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Ehud Barak during a conference in Rishon Letzion, August, 2016.
Ehud Barak during a conference in Rishon Letzion, August, 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ehud Barak’s critique of my book “Catch-67” is incisive, profound and lucid. His criticism contains a sober analysis of the book, a study of the ideas it addresses, an investigation of its arguments, and finally, an attack on some of its conclusions. It is a work of serious intellectual skill and it constitutes a powerful contribution to enhancing the discussion of political ideas in Israel.

Barak’s criticism is also interesting from a literary perspective. After all, he is one of the major characters in the drama described in the book: He is the leader who tried to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David in 2000, and the prime minister on whose watch the second intifada erupted. These two events play a central role in “Catch-67” — and it is a fascinating twist for one of the story’s heroes to offer his critique of its narrator.

Barak’s criticism scarcely touches upon the first section of “Catch-67,” which investigates and elucidates the fundamental ideas that ground Israel’s numerous political arguments. Nor does it address the third section of the book, which proposes a mode of thinking that can help us escape the deep abyss into which we have fallen. Barak’s criticism focuses on the book’s second section, which deals with the arguments that rage in our war of ideas over the future of Israeli control in Judea and Samaria. Four types of arguments fill this debate: existential, Zionist, Jewish and ethical. Of these four, Barak focuses on just one: the way the book analyzes the existential arguments made by both the left and right.

The left makes a compelling case about national survival: If we remain in the territories, we will not survive. The left’s existential argument is rooted primarily in the demographic problem, which is analyzed in depth in its own chapter. The right also makes a compelling case about national survival: If we withdraw from the territories, we will not survive. The right’s existential argument is centered predominantly on the geographic problem, also explored in its own chapter.

Briefly, the left argues that if Israel remains in the territories, over time it will be unable to survive as a Jewish and democratic state. The right argues that if Israel withdraws from the territories, it will contract to weak and indefensible borders, thereby endangering its very existence. The book treats both these arguments with tremendous gravity. It also endeavors to present both of them in their most convincing forms – hence the symmetry between the arguments of the left and the right. This symmetry is what most infuriates Barak. He argues that there is no symmetry between the arguments of the left and the right. In Barak’s mind, the left’s argument is valid, while the right’s argument is erroneous.

Barak levels a specific critique against how the book presents the left’s argument deriving from demographic concerns, as well as a fierce critique against how the book presents the right’s argument deriving from security concerns. I would like to address both critiques.

Micah Goodman.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

The purpose of the book’s discussion of demography is to persuade the reader that remaining in the territories endangers Israel. As part of this treatment, the book presents the right-wing counterargument that in fact there is no demographic problem in the first place. Some on the right argue that the number of Palestinians in the territories is far lower than generally thought and that their rate of population growth is slowing down, meaning that there is no demographic danger at all. Barak thinks that this argument from the right does not merit serious consideration and criticizes the book for this: “The right-wing version of the demographic challenge, which is presented in the book as deserving serious consideration, is totally wrong. It reminds me of the arguments of climate-change deniers, a collection of half-arguments and half-wishful thinking in the ‘alternative facts’ style.”

I respectfully submit that Barak is wrong. To convince readers that the demographic problem not only exists but constitutes an existential danger, we must take the right’s concerns seriously – because even if we assume that the right is correct about the numbers, we can still demonstrate that it is fundamentally wrong in the conclusions it draws. “Catch-67” argues that even if there is not and never will be a Palestinian majority in Judea and Samaria, Israel still cannot continue holding on to the territories and remain a Jewish and democratic state. I conclude that the left is still correct in its demographic argument, even if the right is somehow correct in its demographic figures. This is an important rule in the art of debate: One who attempts to beat a rival by arguing over facts is unlikely to persuade, while one who manages to use his rival’s own facts against him wins the day.

The book presents the left’s demographic argument immediately after elucidating the right’s security argument. This is the central issue to which Barak objects. He is convinced that there is no existential danger involved in withdrawing from the territories. According to Barak, the security vacuum that would arise from the Israel Defense Force’s withdrawal from the Judea and Samaria ridge line has serious and reliable solutions, including “for example, by way of technology, weapons acquisition or operational conceptions.”

In Barak’s view, the demographic problem is a strategic problem that threatens Israel’s very future, while the security problem is purely tactical and technical, and addressable with tactical and technical solutions. Hence Barak’s conclusion: There is no symmetry between the demographic argument favoring territorial withdrawal and the security argument in support of remaining in the territories. If there is no symmetry, there can be no trap. The trap described as “Catch-67,” according to Barak, is just an illusion.

No strategic danger?

Ehud Barak presents himself as part of the “responsible left.” This is the left that continues the legacy of Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, and aspires to lead the country once again. For it to do so, however, Barak will need to persuade a critical mass of Israelis that there is indeed no symmetry between these two arguments. He will need to convince us that withdrawing from the territories will not endanger us, and conversely that remaining in the territories will bring about our certain demise. To succeed, he will have to provide far more compelling reasons than he presents in his critique of the book. This is because denying the security dangers of a territorial withdrawal sounds no less absurd to most Israelis than denying the demographic problem sounds to Barak.

On what basis does Barak conclude that there is no strategic danger in a territorial withdrawal and that any threat is purely technical? Indeed, Barak presents no meaningful evidence anywhere in his critique – other than the trust he expects us to have in his authority as a security expert. If a former IDF chief of staff and world-renowned defense expert says so, then he must know what he’s talking about. In other words, the only proof Barak brings to support what he says is simply the fact that he said it. Just as Haredi Jews are expected to blindly subordinate their own religious judgement to the figure of the rabbi, Barak similarly expects Israelis to blindly subordinate their own strategic judgment to the views of a security expert.

Barak stresses that he is not speaking only for himself but for an entire battery of security professionals to whom reasonable Israelis must defer and on whose superior judgment we must rely. Here one wonders: Must the opinions of some generals remain beyond criticism? Is it not better for an open and democratic society to ground its strategic deliberations in evidence-based arguments rather than blind appeals to authority? For as soon as such discussions defer to authority, they rapidly degenerate into such petty questions as: who understands security better, Moshe Ya’alon or Amiram Levin? Yaakov Amidror or Ami Ayalon?

The truth is that it is not only inappropriate but also unwise for Barak to rely on appeals to authority. Even if we were to count and discover that the security experts on the left are more numerous than those on the right, few Israelis are likely to defer suddenly to those security experts and blindly accept their viewpoints. Israelis are generally disinclined to blindly obey others and tend to see through the lens of their own individual experiences and memories. The repeated occasions on which territorial withdrawals presented Israel with grave new strategic threats have been etched painfully and deeply into the Israeli collective memory. The numerous occasions that gave rise to such widespread concerns about withdrawals are considerably more powerful than the authority of any particular security figure who may deny the existence of the strategic threat inherent in further withdrawals. In Israel, memories tend to bear more power than public figures.

“Catch-67” explores the security argument against a territorial withdrawal in great depth in one chapter and elaborates on it even further in the footnotes. Barak never attempts to debunk the security argument presented therein by presenting a security argument of his own. Instead, he attempts to discredit it by chiefly pointing to its supposed “right-wing” roots. I assume that Barak – whose intellectual prowess I do not doubt – is fully aware that one cannot logically detract from an argument’s value merely by framing it as “right-wing.” Such an approach is not only logically but rhetorically fallacious.

An experienced debater like Barak doubtlessly knows that for such an argument to prevail, he must first assume that his interlocutors are already opposed to being labeled ideologically as right-wing. But such an argument cannot persuade precisely the people Barak needs to convince if he wishes to replace the country’s current political leadership. It is doubtful that right-wing voters will be persuaded that their arguments are mistaken just because those arguments are labeled as “right-wing.”

Here we arrive at the section that I found personally grating when I read the critique. Barak attempts to label me – personally – as “right-wing.” Unlike many Israelis, I despise being labeled or having my thoughts labeled according to the simplistic logic of opposing political camps. Since publishing “Catch-67,” I have reaffirmed that this approach really does not suit me. From the moment the book hit the shelves, I have been attacked repeatedly by the right-wing and religious end of the Israeli political map and told that I am actually a leftist in disguise. After the publication of a long feature on the book in the national-religious newspaper Makor Rishon, I received a torrent of emails – including from prominent rabbis and public figures – accusing me of being a left-wing ideologue camouflaged as a philosopher. Barak’s criticism in Haaretz is but a mirror image of these instinctive attacks from the right: Barak argues that I am actually a right-winger in disguise.

Why does Barak say that I have a right-wing agenda? Because I am ready to take the right’s arguments seriously. Why do right-wingers say that I am a leftist? Because I am ready to take the left’s arguments seriously. The healthier mode of political discourse I promote in the book is one in which Israelis can truly listen to the left without being perceived as left-wing, and truly listen to the right without being perceived as right-wing. Such a mode of political discourse seeks a way forward by being concerned more with ideas than with identities.

That said, to my surprise and joy, the great majority of readers responding to “Catch-67” have focused not on fruitless attempts to label its author, but on elucidating their own feelings. Many feel that the book succeeds in giving expression to the profound bewilderment that they have long felt. Barak writes that the book is “interesting, challenging, readable, and recommended to all who can sustain their critical alertness throughout the reading.” I thank him for the compliment, but ask to bring to his attention that many readers do not feel that the book “challenges” their thinking, but rather that it expresses it.

Narrator, not hero

An individual who aspires to lead the public should know where the public stands. To the best of my understanding, while those on the left-wing and right-wing poles have clear-cut views, the great majority of Israelis – those between the poles – do not share such ideological clarity, but rather labor under the nuanced complexity of reality. “Catch-67” seeks to articulate the confusion and bewilderment that arise naturally from that complexity.

Barak did not only write a lively critique of “Catch-67,” but also penned a manifesto. In both, he argues that the alleged symmetry presented between left and right in the book is what is leading us to paralysis and a dead end. He is wrong. “Catch-67” does not restrict itself to articulating this confusion, nor does it halt at a dead end.

The third section of the book, which Barak neither explores nor acknowledges, presents a few potential thought frameworks that could help us escape the trap we are in and forge a way out of this apparent dead end. In this section, I outline a number of possible plans that can be explored and perhaps even adopted or borrowed from to move us forward.

In the end, Barak criticizes the book for highlighting the positive value in the positions of different sides without crowning a winner. In this, he is absolutely correct. I am one of this story’s narrators, not one of its heroes. I am not a statesman, and unlike Barak I do not aspire to political leadership. My role is merely to help members of the public explore different ideas and perspectives, to present dilemmas, and to think aloud about potential ways to rescue us from this trap.

As for crowning a winner – on this task, I defer to the reader.