November 16, 2013
PRESIDENT OBAMA and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel spoke on the phone for 90 minutes the other day. Wow — 90 minutes! I wonder if Obama has ever spoken to John Boehner for 90 minutes?
But this is just the start of some even longer conversations. Secretary of State John Kerry is teeing up not one, but two negotiations that involve the most neuralgic issues facing Israel today: the Iran threat and Palestinian statehood. Israel soon could face two of the hardest strategic choices it’s ever had to make at the same time: trade West Bank settlements for peace with the Palestinians and trade sanctions on Iran for curbs on its nuclear program. I’d say Obama and Netanyahu better get one of those unlimited minutes plans — or maybe just install a hotline.
Given this situation, I can think of no better time for a good book about Israel — the real Israel, not the fantasy, do-no-wrong Israel peddled by its most besotted supporters or the do-no-right colonial monster portrayed by its most savage critics. Ari Shavit, the popular Haaretz columnist, has come out with just such a book this week, entitled “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”
Shavit is one of a handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel ever since I reported there in the 1980s. What do all my Israeli analytical sources have in common? They all share a way of thinking about Israel — which is expressed with deep insight, compassion and originality in Shavit’s must-read book — that to understand Israel today requires keeping several truths in tension in your head at the same time.
First, that Israel, at its best, is one of the most amazing political experiments in modern history, so much better than its critics will ever acknowledge. Second, Israel at its worst, is devouring Palestinian farms and homes in the West Bank in ways that are ugly, brutal, selfish and deceitful, so much worse than its supporters will ever admit. Third, Israel lives in a dangerous region — surrounded by people who hate it not only for what it does but for what it is, a successful Jewish state — but its actions matter, too. It can ameliorate or exacerbate Arab antipathy.
Shavit winds the history of Israel through these truths, starting with his own family. His great-grandfather, a lawyer, was a founding father; his grandfather helped to build Israel’s education system; his father, a chemist, worked among the scientists who built Israel’s nuclear program. He then weaves in the next waves of immigrants, the broken survivors of World War II who joined up with the idealistic Zionists to rebuild the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient homeland. Israel’s founders were a remarkable lot. They were modest — Golda Meir died in a two-bedroom apartment — pragmatic, but utterly focused builders, who laid the foundations for a country that absorbed Jewish immigrants from 100 nations, built world-class universities and hospitals, its own Silicon Valley and 12 winners of the Nobel Prize.
“Zionism’s goal,” writes Shavit, “was to transfer a people from one continent to another, to conquer a country and assemble a nation and build a state and revive a language and give hope to a hopeless people. And against all odds, Zionism succeeded. If a Vesuvius-like volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii, this is what it would petrify: a living people. People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life.”
But this miracle also produced a nightmare. There was another people there when the Jews returned, who had their own aspirations: the Palestinian Arabs. In a brutally honest chapter entitled “Lydda, 1948,” Shavit reconstructs the story of how the population of this Palestinian Arab town, in the center of what was to become Israel, was expelled on July 13th in the 1948 war.
“By noon, a mass evacuation is under way,” writes Shavit. “By evening, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs leave Lydda in a long column, marching south past the Ben Shemen youth village and disappearing into the East. Zionism obliterates the city of Lydda. Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. ... If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be.”
Shavit wrestles with this contradiction, arguing that it is vital for every Israeli and Zionist to acknowledge Lydda, to empathize with the Palestinians’ fate. “But Lydda does not make Zionism criminal,” he insisted in an interview. History has produced many flights of refugees — the Jewish refugees of Europe were one such wave. Israel absorbed those refugees. European countries absorbed theirs. For too long, the Arab world kept the Palestinians frozen in victimhood. “It is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it,” said Shavit, by helping them establish a Palestinian state that is ready to live in peace with Israel. But, ultimately, “it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to overcome the painful past, lean forward and not become addicted to victimhood.”
Shavit’s chapter on the Oslo peace accords, which he first supported but later denounced, challenges the Israeli left. The great mistake of the Israeli left was that it was right about the evils of Israel’s occupation, he said, “but it was wrong that ending the occupation would end the conflict with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have not overcome the trauma of 1948 and many still oppose a Jewish democracy in this region, no matter what the borders.” But Shavit argues that Israel can’t afford to just wait for every Palestinian to embrace a Jewish state. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank, as it did in Gaza, otherwise the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.