|Yossi Klein Halevi|
On X-Mas morning, I heard Yossi Klein Halevi speaking at a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (Lincoln Square). He was here for three months, teaching a course at Jewish Theological Seminary as well as hawking his new book, “Like Dreamers,” and heading back to Israel on New Year’s Eve.
It was very different than his talk at a Barnes & Noble several weeks before, with him being more specific on Israeli politics for this second audience, which knows much more about Israel than many at the bookstore. I still see his enthusiasm for what he regards as the pragmatic center as flawed, but I learned more of what he means.
He clearly supports the agenda of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, and extolls its post-election alliance with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, the latter being an amalgam of Religious (Modern Orthodox) Zionists and right-wing nationalists. In line with this, he regards confronting the power of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) as Israel’s number one challenge. But he also sees the secular-religious divide within Israel as fading, and argues (reasonably) that Lapid’s party is not anti-religious. Klein Halevi points out that Lapid belongs to a Reform synagogue and Halevi speaks optimistically of the growth of Reform and other non-Orthodox Jewish streams; similarly, he’s enthusiastic about Ruth Calderon, a pioneer in the re-embrace of traditional texts by non-Orthodox Israelis, who is also now a Yesh Atid Member of Knesset.
Still, he does not see any real prospect for a peace agreement with the Palestinians at this time, and ridicules John Kerry’s warning that the current negotiations are Israel’s last chance for a negotiated two-state solution. Klein Halevi emphasizes the importance of an explicit Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — recognizing the legitimacy of the Jews as a historically indigenous Middle Eastern people — because Israel must make concrete concessions of territory in return only for Palestinian pledges of peaceful intent. Moreover, he correctly points out that the Palestinian national movement is divided between Fatah and the rejectionist Hamas (as well as others), and he obviously does not buy our hopes that Hamas can moderate or that the Gaza Strip can be dealt with separately from the West Bank.
When I questioned him from the audience on his lack of regard for Mahmoud Abbas’s moderation (e.g., his renunciation of the Second Intifada and his recent condemnation of the global BDS movement), he answered forthrightly: He felt some hope when Abbas indicated on Israeli television, a year ago, that he wasn’t claiming his right to return to his native town of Tzfat (the Israeli city rendered in English as Safed), but was disappointed when Abbas stepped back from this potentially game-changing position by later stating that his was a “private” decision, whereas the collective “right of return” is sacred. I was not permitted to follow-up with speculation I’ve heard from some Israelis that the demand for a right of return may be a bargaining chip meant to secure a measure of Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which they claim as their capital.
Yet Klein Halevi agreed partially with my point about the insidiousness of constantly expanding settlements. He declared himself in favor of a partial settlement freeze, not building beyond the three settlement blocs that most Israelis envision being ultimately annexed into Israel proper with a peace agreement. From our more dovish point of view, however, this is still problematic, as any construction within the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) probably violates international law and continues to change facts on the ground in areas that should be negotiated over.
I know where he’s coming from. During his three months here, he’s experienced many American Jews as living in a “time warp”: with liberal audiences confronting his views as if the Second Intifada had never happened, while right-wingers criticized his reference to “Palestinians” as if they were still in the 1970s denying their reality as a people. And he admitted in response to me that “centrism” could be framed to constitute an ill-advised defense of the status quo. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what his centrism amounts to as well.
As if to clinch my sense of his myopia, he contrasted AIPAC positively with J Street. He praised AIPAC as representing the “center” rather than the right, and dismissed J Street as being on the “left” (he made no reference to Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that support BDS and do not express unambiguous support for a two-state solution). Substantiating his definition of AIPAC as centrist, he made the technically correct observation that it rhetorically endorses a two-state solution and would support a settlement freeze beyond the separation barrier. Nevertheless, he credited J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami with a verbal formulation that may provide a compromise on the Jewish state issue, by suggesting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “Jewish homeland.”