December 5, 2013
The ‘Like Dreamers’ Exchange, Part 3: Does the US Need to Understand Israel Better?
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of the New Republic. An internationally respected commentator on Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, he writes regularly for leading American publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs. He is author of 'At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land' and 'Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist'.
This exchange focuses on his new critically acclaimed book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Harper, 2013).
Thank you for your comments. I'm not sure you fully answered my specific question, but it is possible that there's no better answer than the one you gave. Anyway, speaking about those reviewers - you mentioned those who criticized some aspects of the book, so it is my duty to say that most reviews were raving, and most reviewers enthralled with the book - I'd like to ask you about a specific piece of advice given by my friend Peter Berkowitz last week. Berkowitz, writing for RealClearPolitics about your book, said this:
Do you see that? Do you think there's a lesson in your book that can specifically make peace-making easier for foreign diplomats (besides generally saying that it can help them to understand Israeli sentiments better)? Do you really think that a lack of US understanding of the "real" Israel has been one of the major problems of peace making thus far?
The main obstacle to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement remains what it has been all along: the refusal of the Palestinian national movement, in all its factions, to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders.
As for American misreading of the Israeli public: I’m far more concerned about Obama’s misreading of the Arab world and of Iran. Obama’s visit to Israel in March went a long way toward reassuring Israelis that the President is a friend who understands our needs. He reaffirmed our historical legitimacy, our fears, our spurned overtures for peace. He said all the right things – the kind of statements we waited four years to hear from him.
But in the end it doesn’t matter whether Obama is a friend or not. President Eisenhower had warm feelings for the Jews but was a disaster for Israel; conversely, President Bush Senior didn’t especially have a strong emotional connection toward Jews but was on the whole a very good president for Israel. The only relevant question for Israel about Obama is whether his policies in the region are making us more safe or more insecure. And an Israeli looking around our borders has little doubt about the answer to that question.
We are, I believe, heading toward what could be one of the worst crises in the history of the American-Israeli relationship. If Obama signs an agreement with Iran that Israel opposes – or if American-Iranian negotiations drag on toward the point where Israel will lose ability to strike – I believe that the Israeli government will order an attack.
Here I think there is a danger that the administration will misread the Israeli mood on Iran, and underestimate our resolve to stop a nuclear Iran at almost any cost. When Secretary of State Kerry accuses Israel of hysteria on Iran, he reveals an ignorance of the urgency of this moment, as perceived by Israelis. I heard Kerry address the AIPAC Summit a few weeks ago: He devoted a few perfunctory remarks to Iran and then proceeded to speak for long minutes about peace with the Palestinians. As an Israeli I was appalled.
Stopping Iran goes to the core of the Zionist promise to create a safe refuge for the Jewish people, to create the conditions for Jewish self-defense. A nuclear Iran would undermine, perhaps fatally, both promises. I don’t believe any Israeli leader could allow that to happen – least of all Netanyahu, who has made this the issue by which history will judge him.
The international community, of course, routinely misreads the Israeli public. When Israelis are isolated, ostracized, stigmatized, they tend to react by becoming not more compliant with international demands but more resistant.
One of the more interesting findings I came across while researching my book was the link between the empowerment of the settlement movement and the isolation of Israel. When the UN voted to equate Zionism with racism on November 9, 1975, the Gush Emunim settlement movement called for a mass march into the territories. Until then the settlement movement hadn’t managed to win the hearts of a majority of Israelis. Now, though, the Israeli public was so enraged by Zionism-racism that many embraced the settlement movement as a way of pushing back. A young Likud Knesset member named Ehud Olmert, who joined the march, called it the Zionist response to the UN, and that was indicative of the mood at the time.
The marchers pitched tents around an abandoned Ottoman railway station in an area called Sebastia. Every previous attempt to squat at Sebastia had resulted in the Labor-led government dispatching the army to uproot the would-be settlers. This time, though, the government hesitated – partly because the public’s mood had shifted. For the first time the settlement movement stared down the government and won a major psychological victory, thanks to the UN.
There’s a lesson there for those supporting the boycott-Israel movement.