Jan 7 • 1HR 23M

Yossi Klein Halevi On Zionism

The Israeli journalist brings empathy to an intractable issue.

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Hey, why not start the new year with solving the Israel-Palestinian problem? Yossi is an American-born Israeli journalist and his latest book is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Following our episode with Peter Beinart last summer, many readers recommended Yossi as a guest to balance out the discussion on Israel. I’m grateful for the suggestion and truly enjoyed our conversation — alternately honest and difficult. How can one admire Israel while also being candid about its flaws? How deeply utopian was Zionism in the first place?

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). Read the full transcript here. For two clips of my conversation with Yossi — on the “bizarre, tragic” history of Zionism, and on the intractable nature of the Israeli settlements — head to our YouTube page.

For a refresher on our episode with Peter that spurred Yossi’s appearance, here’s a chunk of that conversation on the state of Zionism:

Below are many unaired emails from readers responding to our Beinart episode. This first reader feels that I’m “deeply wrong about Israel/Zionism”:

I think most Westerners have a delusional view: that a two-state solution was ever acceptable to enough Arabs/Palestinians to have been possible. Many Westerners also have the equally delusional view that a binational state is viable (a view you don’t share, I was glad to hear). Unfortunately, for most Arabs/Palestinians, the dream isn’t about getting East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and a bit more, while leaving the rest to the Jews. They want Tel Aviv, Haifa and everything else, with no Jews.

Every war over Israel has been fought by the Arabs in service of a one-state Judenrein solution, beginning in 1948, when they were offered and rejected a contiguous state in nearly half of Mandatory Palestine, from Sinai to Jordan to Lebanon — the river to the sea. The option for a two-state solution was on the table for more than half a century afterward, if the Palestinians had been willing to take it. Half-hearted participation by the Palestinian Authority in peace talks (which they were dragged to), with Hamas and Hezbollah jeering from the sidelines, isn’t remotely good enough.

Whether or not you think the state of Israel should ever have been created (that discussion was the most disappointing part of your episode with Beinart), there are now nearly seven million Jews in their historic homeland (of thousands of years), out of a little over nine million inhabitants. Some three-quarters of those Jews were born there. Just under half of the Jews in Israel are Mizrahi/Sephardi, whose family members were largely expelled from Arab countries. They know exactly how the Arabs feel about the Jews, so they aren’t signing up for a binational state, now or ever.

Moreover, the Arabs (the notion of a distinct Palestinian identity wasn’t a significant part of mainstream discourse until the 1960s and ‘70s) don’t actually want a single binational state. Agreeing to a peace on the basis of two states would get their leaders assassinated, because Palestinians continue to hope, against all evidence, that one day they’ll get all of it.

Arabs living in Israel proper have far better lives and prospects than their brethren in neighboring states: they can vote, an Arab party is in the government, and Israel is the best place in the Middle East to be gay, among other things. Polls show that a majority of Israeli Arabs would prefer living in Israel to a Palestinian state. It would be ideal if the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza gave up their unrealistic expectation of driving the Jews into the sea and stopped promoting terrorism. Then, security restrictions could be relaxed and their lives could improve a lot.

But I fear things are too far gone. The Second Intifada, and then Hamas’ unwavering commitment to ending the state of Israel, don’t inspire confidence.

The best solution, to be honest, would be for Jordan — more than 20% of whose residents are Palestinians — to take over the Arab areas of the West Bank, and for Egypt to absorb the pestilential flyspeck half the size of Singapore that is Gaza.  But Jordan and Egypt wouldn’t touch those areas with a ten-foot pole because they’re ruled by warlords, gangsters and criminals. They’re Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, but a thousand times worse.

I do agree with you and Beinart that the status quo could persist for a long time. I think if the PA collapses, as Beinart suggests, it’s not going to turn the West Bank into Gaza, because there’s too much economic interdependence between the West Bank and Israel. If it did, though, all that would happen is that Israel would annex the areas with significant Jewish settlements, cut the Jews in the outposts loose and create a hard border, leaving the West Bank population to figure things out for themselves and get bombed if they fire rockets.

I get it that Bibi’s an asshole and he behaved unacceptably toward Obama, your fave. But Bibi is finished and may go to jail. Time to move on — for you and the Palestinians. Maybe think more about Xinjiang (which I was glad to hear you discuss with Beinart), where a million Muslims actually are in camps, being sterilized and reeducated. They don’t have the option of giving up terrorism and eliminationist pipe dreams for peace.

“Pestilential flyspeck”? It’s that kind of rhetoric that turns me off, however sane the rest of the analysis. There’s no indication in my reader’s email that he understands why people thrown out of their own land and homes might harbor legitimate resentment, even rage. Another pro-Israel reader:

Your discussion glossed over important points that, if discussed, would demonstrate the conflict is more two-sided than you and Beinart made it appear to be. For example, you stated that it’s apparent Israel has never supported a two-state solution, and it was all a lie. But you seem to have forgotten the Oslo Accords, where it was the PLO, not Israel, who ultimately walked away. In addition, Israel made the decision to evacuate its own citizens from Gaza in 2005, handing the Palestinians their own territory.

What has happened since then? While Beinart mentions the UN says that Gaza is uninhabitable, he or you fail to mention that a terrorist group is running the place. In fact, in your discussion about Israel, terrorism is not mentioned once. How can Israel agree to a two-state solution when one of the parties declares death to Israelis in its constitution? 

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the regime in the Palestinian territories is not held accountable. No doubt about it: the occupation creates considerable hardship on the Palestinian people. I just don’t know how the regime, particularly in Gaza, can be negotiated with.

By the way, here is a picture of my grandfather, with my mom, aunt and uncle, on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv in 1962:

My grandparents fled Iraq in 1941 after a horrible pogrom called the Farhud. It bothers me to no end when people call Jews “white colonizers.” My grandfather was far from white! Iraqi Jews trace their history to their exile from the Kingdom of Judea in 6th Century BCE. My grandmother would say she was a “Babylonian,” to signify her direct ancestral tie to the land of Judea.

My grandparents and the generations of persecuted Jews before/around them is why Zionism exists and why it endures. I will be a passionate Zionist until my last breath. It’s the only place I know for sure where Jews will be tolerated. Peter Beinart will only realize this when it’s too late. A world that that is indifferent to the fall of the Jewish state is not a safe world for Jews anywhere.

Yossi talks a lot about the Jews who immigrated from elsewhere in the Middle East, and it’s an overlooked point at times. From a reader critical of Israel:

Thank you for having on Peter Beinart. I have followed you for years and assumed you were either a Zionist supporter or just didn’t want to touch the Issue. So I am pleasantly surprised.

During the past eight years, I have been to the West Bank four times working on behalf of a Christian ministry in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem is now surrounded by prison walls and guard towers on three sides. This cultural capital of Palestine, with its rich history, art, music and food, is being surrounded by settlements, so it cannot grow.  

The situation is horrific. The Israelis have killed three young children just this week [in July], 77 children in 2021 so far. And every day the US sends at least $10.4 million of our tax dollars in military aid.

Another critic of Israel:

Zionism, as an ideology, has stopped progressing. It’s like Communism in the Eighties — all energy has seeped out. It has been replaced by very nasty ethno-nationalism and an optimistic economism (Israel the Start-up Nation). The underpinning ideology has boiled down to a large collection of cliched slogans, like the ones your Israeli readers wrote down. I can already fill in the Zionist trope bingo card. Nothing new has been added in the last 15 to 20 years, except an inflated sense of victimhood.

This next reader, though, points to a Palestinian sense of the same forever-victim mentality:

I believe this is a point that will resonate with you: the settlement project feeds into the “settler colonialism” mantra that is a key component of intersectional doctrine sweeping through much of America. As they say, “From Ferguson to Palestine!”

In this context, my admittedly counter-intuitive argument that Palestinians will not let the Israelis leave the West Bank, just as they have successfully blocked Israel from divorcing itself from Gaza, cannot be processed by the progressive cerebral operating system (“does not compute,” as the robot would say). For this reason, the settlements and occupation are an even greater conundrum for Israel than ever before, requiring the most sober, de-politicized and mature decision-making by the new Israeli leaders. But so long as the international community indulges the Palestinian penchant for utilizing their own self-generated suffering as their most powerful weapon, I see no good solution for Israel. There’s no Iron Dome for what, from our perspective, is this profound dysfunction.

Back to a pro-Israel position — one that is optimistic about a two-state solution:

Thanks for your continued efforts to elevate the discourse. I am a fairly new subscriber to the Dish and very much enjoyed reading the responses to your Beinart conversation. In one of your replies, you posit:

But again, I can’t explain or defend the settlements. It’s really that simple. And it’s striking that neither of my two correspondents mentions them. This is precisely what frustrates me about liberal Zionists: in the end, they always avoid that inexcusable reality.

Consider the Israeli government’s actions in turning over the Sinai in 1982, and the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. In 1982, 1,200 settlers had barricaded themselves in Yamit (Yamit is considered to be part of biblical Israel by Orthodox Jews), and they were forcibly removed by the Israeli army. In the summer of 2005 (I was actually in Israel when the right-wing Sharon government pulled out of Gaza), it was common to see thousands of Israeli protesters in the lead up to the withdrawal. But, when it came time for the withdrawal, the army again removed the settlers from the 21 settlements in Gaza.

My expectation is that when there is an opportunity for a two-state solution, the  course of conduct established in the two episodes above will again rule the day: the Israelis will remove the settlements that are necessary for a viable Palestinian state to exist. I wouldn’t for a moment posit that communities like Efrat will be removed, but assuredly bunches of other outposts in Judea and Samaria would disappear. 

This reality of Israeli history is fundamentally pragmatic. The Israeli right will continue to generate support by offering offer rhetorical support to the settler movement, and the Israeli left will continue to draw adherents by perseverating on the existence of the settlements. The dirty little secret is that when push comes to shove and the moment for a serious Palestinian State arises, it will be the settlers who are again relocated in the face of the national consensus.

Here’s hoping. But I can’t say I agree. One more reader on the settlements:

First of all, I’m DELIGHTED that you’re planning to invite on Yossi Klein Halevi — I was going to suggest you have him before seeing like four other dissenters beat me to it. (In addition to sharing his views on Israel, Zionism, and the Palestinians almost entirely, I also happen to know him personally and he is an absolutely wonderful guy — one of those people whose very presence calms you.)

Anyhow, you said in your response to a reader that “the settlement policy is now and always has been the core obstacle to any deal” (emphasis mine). As a liberal Zionist, I have two problems.

The first is the one you’d probably guess: While I grant that the settlements have certainly been an obstacle, I disagree that they’ve been the obstacle. They have serious competition — for instance, the dream that lives among an all-too-large contingent of Palestinians to displace Israel utterly. Call it “Greater Palestine,” if you will — and of course “displace” is a euphemism. I’d love to hear why you believe the settlements are somehow more “core” than that, a dream that is explicitly stated in Hamas’s charter.

Second (and this is a major reason I’m so glad you're planning to invite Yossi on), is what the settlements symbolize for the Jewish people — that is, what the lands of the West Bank (the heartland of Biblical Judea and Israel, as I’m sure you know) mean for the Jewish soul. And here I’m cognizant of speaking more to your religious side. To renounce our claim to those lands is painful — necessary and right, no doubt, but painful too. And that is never acknowledged even rhetorically, let along with true compassion.

No question that Yossi’s humanity and learning and empathy are impossible to ignore. Just listen to the podcast. And I understand the depth of the religious commitment to place. For the next Israel/Palestine chat, I’d like to invite a Palestinian. Who do you think would be the best? We’re open to any suggestions: dish@andrewsullivan.com.