The most popular new book in Israel is not a crime thriller, a romance or a military sci-fi romp, and contains not a single teenage wizard or vampire. It’s a political treatise written by a professor of medieval philosophy. And it’s making a lot of people very angry.
Its author, Micah Goodman, is an affable 42-year-old famous among his students for his enthusiasm in the classroom. Courteous and disarmingly talkative, he seems an unlikely candidate for the role of iconoclastic upsetter of Israel’s frenetic national debate about the future of the West Bank.
But upset he has. Over the past few weeks, Goodman’s Hebrew-language book “Milkud 67,” or “Catch-67,” a play on Joseph Heller’s iconic “Catch-22,” has angered some of the most respected dons on right and left. It drove the 75-year-old former general and prime minister Ehud Barak to pen his first-ever book review, a sprawling, scathing 4,000-word critique in Haaretz that depicts Goodman as “saturated with right-wing ideology.” And it drove the editor of the highbrow right-wing Makor Rishon newspaper, Hagai Segal, to write a column charging that Goodman was a closet leftist who had “adopted the left’s central moral premise – the claim of occupation.”
It is being read in Israel’s halls of power — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen carrying it in the Knesset’s corridors with a bookmark peeking from its pages — and by many top officials involved in administering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. IDF Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa bought copies for his top officers.
But it isn’t just the elites who have taken notice. Since its publication in March, Goodman’s book has steadily risen in the bestseller lists and is now sitting pretty as the number 1 nonfiction book in the country.
But what is it that’s so maddening — and so attractive — about this book? And why did it take a political outsider, a student of medieval philosophers, to tell Israelis something new about their endlessly debated and incessantly scrutinized predicament?
The book is written in clear and lucid prose, and wraps up quickly at page 166. That’s surprisingly short for what it attempts to accomplish: tracing the history and development of the defining fracture in Israeli political life across five decades — the question of what to do with the West Bank.
The first third of the book, titled “Political ideologies in crisis,” offers a bird’s-eye view of the ideas behind what are today broadly referred to as Israel’s “right” and “left.” The second part, “Political arguments in crisis,” traces the political narratives that evolved from these ideologies, and how they crashed and collapsed in the face of hard, unexpected realities, leaving Israelis perplexed and despairing.
The pro-settlement right, he explains, failed to convince most Israeli Jews that acquiring the land was worth the risk of becoming an ethnic minority — or even only a small majority — in their country. But it succeeded in instilling its second argument: that withdrawal from the West Bank, especially after the bitter experience of Gaza and Lebanon, would endanger Israelis.
The peace-making left, meanwhile, failed to convince most Israelis — again, especially after bitter experiences such as the Second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal — that its “religious” (in Goodman’s words) yearning for reconciliation was reciprocated on the other side. But it succeeded in its second argument: that Israel could not afford to absorb millions of Palestinians.
Each side has lost the fight to impart its idealistic creed to the majority of the nation — but convinced the country of the urgency of its fears.
There is deep empathy in the book for both stories, an empathy that led Barak to complain that Goodman was creating a “false equivalence.” The right-wing fear of withdrawal was a “tactical” issue that could be solved by security, technological and intelligence means, explained the former IDF chief of staff, while the left’s warning of losing the Jewish state through demographics could not be staved off by any measure other than withdrawal.
Goodman’s response, also in the pages of Haaretz, is surprisingly simple and straightforward.
He accused Barak of misunderstanding the problem, arguing that the left has failed not because it is wrong — there is no ruling in this book as to which side is correct — but because most Israelis, even among those who agree with its ideals, don’t trust its judgment.
“For most Israelis,” Goodman wrote, “to deny the existential security danger of withdrawal from the territories sounds just as ridiculous as the denial of an existential demographic danger sounds to Barak… He expects Israelis to surrender their strategic judgment to a security figure… [But] for most Israelis, memories are more powerful than their impulse to obey. The territorial withdrawals that ended in the rise of new strategic threats are etched deeply into Israelis’ collective memory.”
The exchange illustrates the deeper argument in the book. Goodman avoids taking sides between left and right not just because he respects both narratives — that respect, he believes, is fundamental to seriously analyzing their failures, and is why he devoted a third of his book to their intellectual underpinnings — but also because he is sick of them.
That Barak, Israel’s last Labor prime minister, whose political demise in the inferno of the Second Intifada augured almost two decades of irrelevance for the left, still seems to believe he is arguing with some right-wing ideologue, rather than the sway-able but anxious majority in the center, is the real crisis of present-day Israel.
The collapse of their respective idealistic visions heightened each camp’s fixation on its own fear, and destroyed the capacity of Israeli politics to carry on a serious discussion of the country’s predicament. As Goodman explains in the book, “The right asserts that if the left’s vision were realized, it would cause the complete collapse of the state. The left asserts that if the right’s vision were realized, it would cause the complete collapse of the state. How can you listen to someone whose vision means catastrophe for us all?”
Without the capacity to listen — and, indeed, with the real possibility that both sides are right — Israeli political discourse can no longer address problems seriously, and resorts instead to acts of “identity declaration.”
Fifty years on from the Six Day War, Israelis thus find themselves caught between two debilitating fears — fear of withdrawal and fear of remaining — and ill-served by a political class that shuns serious debate in favor of identity politics.
That, in short, is the country’s collective national “catch-67.”
‘There is no solution’
The first chapter of part three, titled “The state and its dreams,” is a delicate and crucial chapter. Goodman is about to present his suggestion for a way forward in the conflict. But first, he has to ask Israelis to surrender something very precious: their dreams.
He does so by telling them that the surrendering of dreams was among the primordial acts of Zionism, and that without it Zionism could not have achieved the establishment of the State of Israel.
“When the idea of partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs was put on the agenda of the Zionist movement in the 1930s, it had steadfast opponents,” Goodman writes. “One of the most strident was Menahem Ussishkin [a prominent Zionist thinker and activist], who asked: ‘Is a nation permitted to surrender its birthright?’ And he answered: ‘We won’t.’”
Ussishkin’s fear, Goodman explains, was not merely that the partition, which passed in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, would shrink the borders of the new Jewish state. Rather, the fear, “felt by many in the Zionist movement, was that the extreme territorial shriveling that the partition plan demanded from the Jews would cause a [commensurate] shriveling of their historical consciousness” — and at the most delicate moment of nation-building.
Compromising on one’s dreams often means compromising on the meaning of one’s story and sense of purpose. For Ussishkin and others, it meant shrinking the very heart of the Zionist idea to fit the political exigencies of the moment.
“I think [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion agreed with that,” Goodman said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “But he said, ‘Yeah, and we should do it anyway.’
“Ben-Gurion realized that you have to give up many of your dreams to make the greater dream come true.” He surrendered his socialism, too — that is, his vision of the idealistic Zionist society of the future — in the service of a higher good. Thus he dismantled the socialist Palmah militia to secure a unified military and state, and sided with the US against the Soviets to ensure Israeli prosperity and safety. Even his secularism, a deep-seated rebellion against what he saw as the limited horizons and haplessness of the diasporic “old Jew,” was up for grabs when he handed the nation’s religious institutions to the ultra-Orthodox in 1937 in exchange for their support before the British Peel Commission, which was tasked with determining whether it was feasible to allow the establishment of a Jewish state.
You have to reach page 127, after part two’s perilous journey through the agonizing implosion of Israeli political capacity, to reach Goodman’s earnest defense of abandoning one’s dreams — be it the fantasy of full, permanent control of the West Bank or the fantasy that peace is attainable between this generation of Israelis and Palestinians, or even the next.
“There is no solution,” Goodman says. “If you’re willing to accept the fact that there is no solution, then you can start dealing with the problem.”
He does not mince words about his frustration with the right and left on this point. “In Israel it usually goes like this: The left says there is a solution, by which they mean we need a big peace initiative to solve all our problems. The right says there isn’t a solution, so there’s nothing we should do except hang on to the status quo.
“I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think there is no solution, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot we can do – precisely because there’s no solution.”
It is only when old paradigms and dreams collapse that one is free to pursue new ones.
The good news, in his view: “This book is mainly about Israelis, and Israelis have already done that. They have already abandoned the old dreams.
“If the vision of the ‘Complete Land of Israel’ used to be part of the identity of so many Israelis, I don’t think it is anymore. If the dream of peace was treated on the Israeli left religiously, [as a line from the iconic ‘Song for Peace’ reads,] ‘Don’t say the day will come, bring the day.’ There was a sense of urgency. If history doesn’t lead toward peace, history has no meaning. But Israelis on the left aren’t there anymore.”
About 70 percent of Israelis are “on the pragmatic side of Likud, Jewish Home, Labor, Yesh Atid, Kulanu. All these Israelis, their labels are weak and they’re open-minded, and they’re the ones my book isn’t challenging at all. It’s challenging people on the right and left, but most of the responses I’m getting is people saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re describing me. You’re describing me.’”
Most Israelis realize, he says, “that I’m not asking them to compromise their identity in order to have a future. We already compromised our identity. Most Israelis on the right want to stay in the West Bank for security reasons, not identity reasons. It’s not about sacred land, but about the unsacred [security realities of the] Middle East. Most Israelis on the left want to leave the West Bank not because of peace, which used to be part of their identity, but because of security, [in the sense of] securing our majority.”
The dreams are spent, “but we didn’t cash that in.”
It’s time to claim for ourselves the upside of abandoning those dreams, he insists. A pragmatic, wary Israeli polity must “find an intervention that will turn the conflict from one that will end our national life” — either through demographics or war — “to one that will be part of our life, like car accidents and crime and poverty, which will always be part of our life, and we have to minimize them and deal with them, but we accept the harsh fact that they will be part of our life.”
This is not what Benjamin Netanyahu or Moshe Ya’alon have in the past referred to as “managing the conflict,” he adds quickly. “This is reorganizing it — in a way that ends the control over the Palestinian people without risking the Israeli people.”
‘Why don’t we do them tomorrow morning?’
The key lies in “thinking about this like we think about art, not like we think about religion. It’s not an all-or-nothing game. We have to think about it quantitatively. Instead of trying to end the conflict, can we shrink the size of the conflict? Instead of ending the occupation, can we shrink dramatically the amount of occupation? Instead of bringing peace, can we bring more peace? Let’s think about it in quantities.”
The book is full of examples, including some buried in footnotes. He shares them eagerly in the interview.
He says, for example, that Israel could “easily increase” the size of Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank.
“That would allow the Palestinian Authority to grow economically. Right now it can’t build homes outside Area A.” But according to Goodman, “If you make [another 20 percentage points] in [Israeli security-controlled] Area B into Area A and maybe add 20 more from C to A, you’ve grown Area A from 22% of the West Bank to 60%.
“Second, invest a lot in a project that will connect by roads and bridges all the Palestinian population [centers]. So even if there’s no territorial contiguity, there’s movement contiguity. You can maximize that.
“A third thing we can do: There are many neighborhoods in Jerusalem that no Jew ever thought were Jerusalem. There’s no strategic need [to retain them] and no historic religious need. There are three Jerusalems: historic Jerusalem is small — the Temple Mount, City of David, etc; Jordanian Jerusalem was larger; and then we annexed another 18 more [Palestinian] villages [beyond Jordanian East Jerusalem].
“Let’s just declare that only Jordanian [East] Jerusalem is Jerusalem.” That would allow Israel to take advantage of a “symbolic gap: There’s a lot of Jerusalem that for Jews is not really Jerusalem but for Palestinians is Jerusalem. Meaning, there is room for some sort of deal where you move some neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.”
It is here that the right gets livid and calls Goodman a leftist. Not only is he talking about concessions — he demands no reciprocity, no Palestinian peace for such extensive gestures.
And that’s the point.
“This is not for peace, but for just one thing: That this new entity that we’re expanding and strengthening has greater symbolic weight. I would like this conflict to be between two political entities and not between a political entity that’s in control of a people. I don’t want them as conquered, but as enemies from the outside.”
Combine those ideas with, for example, “a deal with the Jordanians to create easier border crossings to Jordan, and perhaps even a dedicated Palestinian terminal in Amman airport, so they have an easier way to get out to the world,” and you’ve accomplished something that is emphatically in Israel’s interest, and helps Israel escape its catch-67: “Those four things alone dramatically minimize the occupation, the real-world occupation, but don’t risk Israelis. So why don’t we do them tomorrow morning?”
The reason, he believes, is that “the left feels we need to keep those parts [of areas B or C] for the big peace deal, and the right feels we need them for settlements.” Israel is held back by failed ideologies, he argues, “not by things that actually bother Israelis.”
There is already a Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. “We don’t have to create it, only to increase it, to grow it and empower it so it will be what Henry Kissinger called an ‘almost state.’ It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we have now.”
‘Listening to foreigners’
It may be short, but the book is by no means simple, and Goodman is not a simple thinker about the Israeli condition. He’s a research fellow at the left-leaning Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and the founder and director of Ein Prat, a pluralistic and liberal academy in the West Bank settlement of Alon that offers Israelis in their twenties programs for studying and debating questions of Jewish thought and Israeli identity. Goodman’s own life straddles the boundaries he describes in the book.
So he knows how his readers are likely to respond to his suggestions.
“People on the left will say, ‘You still have occupation at the end of the day. You still have troops, you’re still occupying the land.’”
His response is unequivocal: “I would freeze all settlements outside the settlement blocs. It’s important. Israelis and Palestinians are traumatized by Oslo. Israelis are traumatized that Oslo didn’t lead to peace, but to the Second Intifada. Palestinians are traumatized that the settlements grew dramatically during Oslo. So we all feel like we tricked each other. That’s why freezing settlements is so important. It shows this is not manipulation.”
On the right, he adds, the sense of concessions without reciprocity will evoke the right’s own traumas from Oslo, and more recently from the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. The Israeli right (and many on the left) believes that every round of Israeli concessions resulted in an uptick in violence and a belief among the Palestinians that violence is the only way to drive ostensibly powerful Israel to a slow, steady retreat. For the right, that conviction that withdrawals breed war rather than peace turns any “pragmatist” in the Goodman mold into the very blinkered idealist he is railing against.
And Goodman agrees.
“I do not think this will end the conflict. It might amplify the conflict. And you know what? Bring it on.
“I’m not for ending the conflict. It doesn’t seem possible. I want to reorganize the conflict. I want a conflict where there’s a political almost-state entity in front of me, and if that state will attack me, fine. I don’t want to control them, and I don’t want to be threatened by them. I can maximize these two needs by reducing by 80-90% the occupation, but I’m still in control” of the security situation on the ground. “That’s the main thing.”
Will it explode in Israel’s face like Gaza after the Hamas takeover in 2007? “Probably.”
“The precedent of Gaza should guide us, but not paralyze us. We can’t say, ‘Okay, there was a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza [that had negative outcomes] so we shouldn’t even consider anything unilateral.’ We should say, ‘We shouldn’t do anything unilateral like we did in Gaza.’”
The Gaza withdrawal involved two fundamental Israeli mistakes that can serve as lessons for the West Bank, he argues.
“First, we left the Philadelphi Corridor [the border between Gaza and Egypt], which people in the [IDF] General Staff said we shouldn’t do. [Then-prime minister Ariel] Sharon was still guided by the 1967 Green Line. He wanted to show the world that we left all the land behind the Green Line. It would have been a pain in the butt [to stay on that border], and soldiers would have died there, but we would have been able to block the link between Gaza and Tehran. So the [West Bank] parallel [to leaving the Philadelphi Corridor] would be a withdrawal from the Jordan Valley.”
Second, “the parallel in Gaza to what I’m saying would have meant not evacuating the northern bloc [of settlements adjacent to the Israeli border]. There was no need to do that. Why did we do that? Those villages did not break Arab territorial contiguity. We probably had to remove Kfar Darom, of course, Morag, Netzarim [all settlements nestled between Palestinian cities]. The only consideration in withdrawal should be territorial contiguity, and leaving the IDF wherever it wants to remain.”
It was Sharon’s concern for international opinion, “which became more important than the security factor,” that turned the withdrawal into a “disaster.”
The mistake, in other words, “was listening to foreigners, and thinking that the Green Line gives us any legitimacy. The evidence suggests this isn’t true. When we protect ourselves from behind the Green Line, we’re still seen as war criminals. So the Green Line didn’t give us a lot in Gaza. But not staying in Philadelphi cost us a lot.”
‘Handshake in the White House’
“Catch-67” is a Hebrew book written for Israelis, and Israelis have responded in dramatic fashion to its validation of their competing narratives and anxieties.
But its popularity is also due in part to the way it distinguishes between Israeli interests and those of emotionally invested foreigners, the sort of eager meddlers Israelis no longer trust to bring either security or peace.
“We don’t need a handshake in the White House,” Goodman asserts. “Let’s just do it. Instead of a grand deal, let’s do small deals here and there. We’ll open up land so Palestinians can build here, we’ll sign some investment deal there. We’ll encourage stability and international investments. There are actions we can take when we stop looking for the plan that will redeem us.
“This is an 80-20 proposition. We grow their independence by 80%. We can’t give them the last 20% because that’s the part that threatens Israel. In the last 20% you’ll lose [the support of] Israelis. The Palestinians get 20% of the land for free [in the Area A expansion, if not 40%]. They don’t have to recognize Israel or give up the right of return or anything like that. It’s just a local deal, not a grand attempt to solve the conflict. There’s no memorandum of understanding, no ‘dawn of a new day.’ When Barak was elected [in 1999] he said, ‘This is a new age.’ This is not a new age. Whatever works — let’s do more of it.”
The Palestinians can’t openly accept such a limited Israeli move, he knows, but it nevertheless would solve an acute problem for them as well: immigration.
“Practically speaking, what would happen if there was a completely independent Palestinian state, right now, where they control the Jordan Valley? There are millions of refugees in the Middle East, many of them Palestinians. So what happens when the ethos of return meets the need of emigration [from their current countries]? They’d have to bring them in. It’s my guess — and it’s more than a guess; many Palestinians have told me this — that they can’t say to them, ‘No, you can’t come in.’ They’d want to say no, because Palestine would collapse if a million refugees were to come in.
“But if they’re almost a state, with Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley…we can be the bad cop for them, saying ‘no.’ That’s the only way you could have a stable state.”
‘We can’t talk to them’
In the end, Goodman believes, it is in such quantitative improvements that any chance for a more comprehensive reconciliation and separation might be found.
“We can’t talk to them. No interaction with them is a real interaction because of [the gap in] power. They’ll always react to power, either by over-laughing at my jokes or somehow pointedly showing me they don’t care about me. Power corrupts everything.
“I want to have a conversation with them. I think as a Jew that there’s a reason why we’re in the Middle East. There’s a lot for us to learn from Islam and the Arabs. But there’s nothing we can do because there’s power there.
“I wish there could be no conflict. If I could, I’d end the occupation. But because I can’t without risking Israelis, I want to minimize the power element. If I can reduce the occupation without risking Israelis, I choose that, and that’s the beginning of reconciliation.”
He says the next words almost apologetically, as though unsure how this sliver of idealism was somehow allowed to creep into the discussion. “If we can achieve 40 years where Palestinians almost don’t experience occupation and Jews almost don’t experience terrorism, we’ve broken catch-67. Jews don’t live with anxiety, Palestinians don’t live with humiliation, and now, psychologically, the next generation can reach for reconciliation.”