Part IIIB: Reconsidering the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process – Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Letters 6-10

Letter 6 took another turn – away from consideration of different dimensions of unity (letters 1-3), away from a potted narrative of the past one hundred years (letters 4 & 5), towards possibilities of peace at the present time. We are 50% through the letters but 57% through the book.

The formulation of moving towards reviving the peace process is simple. Not lines on the map. Instead, address each nation’s deepest anxieties, Recognize each nation’s right to survival, to exist. Note, survival, not complete self-determination.

Second, recognize that each nation has its own narrative and critical historical memories. Third, revive partition and accept that each nation regards partition as self-mutilation, as amputation. The corollary – reject a one state solution shared by two nations. Fourth, and perhaps most controversial, accept the legitimacy (not realism) of the other side’s maximalist ends and that partition entails partition of justice not just of land, and that both nations are partners in the mutual pain of partition.

Jews need a Jewish state defined by Jewish culture values and needs. But they do not need all of historic Palestine. However, unlike the Left, most Israeli Jews need to recognize the attachment and rights to the entire land, an attachment that the Left unilaterally abandoned almost from the start. But it was the Right that uprooted settlements – Begin in Sinai and Sharon in Gaza. Though the Right refused to surrender its attachments, it implemented land for peace nevertheless.

However, with respect to Judea and Samaria, the attachment is so strong, the numbers are so great, that settlement withdrawal should not be enforced even as settlements are left on the other side allowing Jews to become citizens of a Palestinian state. Nor need it depend on a final peace agreement which, of necessity, would include dealing with the “right of return.” The trade-off is that the Israelis contract settlements and the Palestinians contract the right of return, not to original homes, but to a Palestinian state. Most of the gains of 1967 will be surrendered for the surrender by Palestinians of the losses of 1948. But Abbas has been two-faced, accepting no right of return to original homes on the one hand while insisting that, “No one can give up the right of return.”

One problem is that Halevi is historically incorrect in terms of negotiations. As one example, in historical terms, Halevi believes that UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, was created by a convergence of interests among Islamic, the Communist and the Non-aligned blocks. This is historical nonsense. UNRWA was the standard model for taking care of refugees through humanitarian means rather than seeking a permanent solution of return, settlement or resettlement which emerged shortly thereafter. Korean refugees were treated with an equivalent Korean agency. And the prime initiator for Arabs from Palestine was the United States which envisioned using humanitarian and development tools to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Arab lands, primarily in Iraq using the equivalent device of a Tennessee Valley Authority to reclaim agricultural land while providing a source of electricity and water.

UNRWA is the only agency devoted to a single refugee issue because the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with its universal and solutions approach was created after UNRWA and because humanitarian means were used to deal with other refugee crises before that time.     

On letter 7, Halevi tackles the third ostensible intractable problem, not just borders – which he has thus far side-stepped, not just refugees, but the disposition of the governance of the religious sites. In this focus, Halevi reverts to letter 1 and the underlying unity of Judaism and Islam, the shared ideal of hospitality, the shared proclamation of the oneness of God, a shared founding father, a shared antipathy to idolatry.

But on the ground, there are also shared religious sites, the Temple Mount and the Haram al Sharif, the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. It was a Jewish terrorist and extremist – Baruch Goldstein – who, in murdering 29 Muslims at prayer and wounding many more, destroyed the ease of sharing; a rigid separation followed. Similarly, Jews, while never relinquishing their rights, have been relegated to the Western Wall. Practical implementation need not be congruent with claimed rights.

In this, for Halevi, the Jews have set the model, have practiced restraint, which thus far the Palestinians have refused to do with respect to the Hebron religious site. But how can this be the case if sharing was the general practice before Goldstein? Does the Palestinian narrative not differ from the Jewish one in acceding to Jewish practices while denying Jewish rights? With respect to refugees, Jews deny a “right of return” but concede actual return in practice, nominally by a small proportion to Israel under family reunification, but practically to the truncated Palestinian homeland? Perhaps pragmatism and restraint have not been the exclusive prerogatives of the Jews?

Finally, Halevi shifts to another Jewish precept to support withdrawal and shared responsibility for religious sites – the norm that Jews are only sojourners on the land that, in the end, always remains God’s. Jews are only its custodians. With the addition of another Jewish moral precept – the prioritization of the holiness of life over all else – Jews have a solid ethical foundation for making concessions. The emphasis in Islam on surrender to God’s will, on humility before God, can be used as a parallel lattice work upon which to hang the battered peace.

There it is – three letters discoursing on unity, two letters discoursing on the Israeli narrative and two letters on the implication of shared and different religious precepts. But there are three letters remaining. Letter 8 is entitled, “The Israeli Paradox.” While calling for a different approach to peace, the chapter acknowledges a growth of rage and hatred on each side.

On the Palestinian side, recent news on 24 April reported on the effort of two Palestinian software development companies on Annual Hiring Day to recruit talent on Bir Zeit campus only to be driven off because working in software would necessarily entail working with Israeli companies and, hence, enhancing normalization with Israel. “We reject normalization and adopt the approach of resistance until the liberation of the entire Palestinian territory.” “Normalization is Treason.” And this in spite of the very high rate of unemployment among Palestinian youth. Once again, passions trumped interests for the extreme position of “resistance,” the rejection of the existence of Israel altogether and an insistence on continuing the armed struggle. Once again, extremism pushed aside moderation using intimidation and coercion.

In Israel, Halevi begins with tales of Jewish coexistence in entertainment and the IDF prosecution of an IDF soldier for killing an unarmed and disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron. Behind this outreach, Halevi claims, lies Israel’s age-old longing for normalization, for Israel to exist as a normal nation amongst the other nations of the world even while seeking to advance a prophetic vision. However, on the international stage, Israel is anything but normal. And on the domestic stage, Israel is a far cry from being exemplary.

Hence the paradox – externally abnormal and internally unexceptional. Even towards Jews with practices and laws that force non-Orthodox Jews to marry abroad. And then there is the gradual easing of transportation and the opening of restaurants on Shabat while commerce still remains highly restricted. On the one hand, there is a failure to reconcile Israelis secular and diverse religious character with a relief from restrictions and a failure to fully embrace Arab citizens as an integral part of the public space. Yet, in spite of the latter, the vast majority of Arab Israelis are surprisingly proud to be Israeli, though many refer to themselves as 1948 Palestinians.

However, the trends are ominous – the passage of the Jewish nation-state law and the inadequate programs for correcting the injustices towards Palestinian Israelis. Is it one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and one step back?

Letter 9 begins with Holocaust Memorial Day that again took place last week. Halevi is correct when he earlier challenged the belief that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel. Halevi said the claim was grossly inaccurate. Halevi was appalled that Barack Obama in his Cairo speech in 2009 to the Muslim world only justified the creation of Israel because of the Holocaust. In this letter, Halevi insists that Western guilt over the Holocaust as the major reason Israel exists is misleading – I go much further: Western guilt over the Holocaust had nothing to do with the creation of the State of Israel. I will argue in a subsequent paper from an address that I gave on Yom ha-Shoah that the claim is not simply exaggerated; it is invalid.

However, Halevi does demonstrate how the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again. Here he is a bit clearer, though still not clear enough, than in his earlier excursus into fate and destiny. “In turning from victims into survivors, they (Jews at a Holocaust Memorial ceremony in Israel) had extracted destiny from mere fate.” Jews not only survived, but emerged as victors. Further, “Israel’s legitimacy is based not on Jewish suffering but on Jewish faith and the attachment to the land.”

Nevertheless, there is a need both to free Israelis from the trauma of the Holocaust and avoid misusing Holocaust memory to ground diplomacy – as Begin did in his speech alongside Sadat in Jerusalem in 1978, or using it to justify the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as Begin did in 1982. He claimed that the invasion was as an effort to preempt another Holocaust.

Further, there is a need to turn away from what others did to the Jews towards taking responsibility for what happened. Jews were responsible for their relative passivity, almost slave mentality, that they incorporated into their psyches in the diaspora in Europe. That slave mentality once again needs to be expelled. Jews must abhor victimhood as much as they celebrate agency and responsibility. That is the main reason for Israel’s enormous success. Judaism is a refusal to be beaten by history.

The reality, however, is that the continuing war against Israel’s existence reinforces those fears of a renewal of victimhood where the only crime of the Jews is their existence. That is why anti-Zionism constitutes the newest expression of antisemitism and is not just an intellectual posture. When the conflict becomes about existence, Israel and Jews can only resist with all their hearts and all their minds. The radical Palestinian triadic trope that the Holocaust never happened, that we are glad it did and that we plan to repeat the exercise, must be fought against by Jews with tooth and claw.

Halevi’s final letter, number 10, offers a paradox about Jewish Israeli religion and culture as exemplified by living in a sukkah for a week a year to remind Jews of the fragility and transience of where we live while, the same ritual in Israel, is a reaffirmation of the determination that Israel will never again be a place of transience and an historical sideshow. Further, the repetition of these ancient rituals is not only a reaffirmation of Jewish persistence over millennia, but a reaffirmation of the Jewish commitment to be a blessing to humanity, a light unto the nations.

Thus, the paradox of letter 8 of external abnormality and internal unexceptionalism. While Israel is retrograde in reconciling Israel’s diverse religious range and its strong secular character, it fails to deliver equality to its Arab citizens. That these Israeli Palestinians largely remain proud of being Israeli offers no excuse. Thus, the paradox depicted in letter 9 of the Holocaust as insignificant in the creation of Israel but extremely significant in the psyche of Jewish Israelis. Thus, the paradox of letter 10 about transience but persistence over millennia.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Next: A Critical Overview of Yossi Klein Halevi

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