View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Friday, March 12, 2004

Yossi Klein Halevi Speaks 

Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of hearing Yossi Klein Halevi speak at Temple Emmanuel here in Denver. For those of you who don't know, Halevi is, as Bill Eigles puts it, a "partially reconstructed leftist," who once supported Oslo but has come to recognize the folly of that path. Halevi writes for the New Republic, the Jerusalem Post, and has his column syndicated in the L. A. Times, as well. He writes clear-headedly about the past and the present, and even about the immediate future, but still betrays some of that self-admitted self-delusion when discussing anything beyond that.

Halevi was in Colorado Springs to conduct a 3 1/2-week seminar at, of all places, Colorado College, on Israeli society, culture, and politics. Colorado College, some of you will recall, was the scene of some controversy in which yours truly was tangentially involved. The College had invited Hanan "May Her Name Be Blotted Out Forever" Ashrawi to speak. We got Daniel Pipes to address a demonstration on the college campus, protesting her appearance there as offensive and insulting to Americans and Israelis alike. Halevi credits that demonstration with sensitizing the College to the problem, and, as he kindly put it, "allowing them to feel more comfortable with discussing the Mid-East on campus."

Halevi made the point that over the course of that seven years of Oslo, he noticed that many Israelis had made an effort to put themselves in the Palestinians' shoes, and to understand that they had a case. The first Intifada had forced them to do that. But he had yet to come across a Palestinian who had effectively done they same. The Hebrew term for self-examination, "Cheshbon HaNefesh," or literally and "Accounting of the Soul," had only happened on one side. Most Israelis had come to understand that the Palestinians had a case. Almost no Palestinians had come to the same conclusion, but it was precisely this faulty assumption of symmety on which Oslo was premised.

It was also only belatedly that Halevi came to understand that Arafat never intended for Oslo to work - that he intended this war from the beginning, as the endgame of the struggle. It is well-known now that Arafat, along with much of the Arab leadership, speaks with forked tongues in different tongues. But in September of 1993, according to Halevi, the very night of the signing, Arafat flew to Amman, and gave a speech saying that he didn't understand all the criticism: he was just implementing the two-stage solution. Halevi now admits to having allowed his own hopes, and his dim opinion of the conservative Jerusalem Post, the only new outlet to report the story, to interfere with his judgment, both journalistic and otherwise.

If the Left was right about the corrupting effects of occupation, the Right was right about trying to negotiate with terrorists. So if you can't occupy, and you can't negotiate, you're left with separation. A couple of notes about the mechanics of the Fence. First, it is a fence. For about four or five miles, it's a wall, where Palestinians were taking up sniper positions overlooking highways. While the general route is a political matter, the tactical route has been dictated by military concerns. Roughly 85% of Israeli Jews, who couldn't agree on the color of the sky, support this fence. Moreover, the murderous Intifada has essentially taken the Green Line off the table. It has, at this point, no legitimacy or authority, and the fence will, he hopes, make produce facts on the ground to support that change. In reality, it was just the 1948 cease-fire. There's no particular reason why it should have held more authority than the post-1967 borders.

The effect of the Fence will be to finally force partition, and give the Palestinians a chance to build a state. While they could have had 80% of the land in 1937, under the Peel Commission Report, or 45% in 1947, or even 20% in 2000, they have now lost any chance at any part of Jerusalem. The question for them isn't viability, it's whether a state born in this way, with this leadership, can have any moral integrity.

Halevi believes that it might have been possible to reach a modus vivendi with the post 1967 Palestinians, since for them it was a border dispute, rather than an existential question. His hope for the fence is that it can, after a period of violent Palestinian upheaval, transform the question back into one about borders rather than existence. He hopes this even as he acknowledges that the fence is not a Chinese Great Wall, and that conflict will continue.

Halevi did have good things to say about the Iraq War, saying that its effects on Arab society were only beginning to be felt. The obvious benefits of a potentially democratic Iraq were supplemented by the development of an anti-Baathist movement in Syria, a human rights movement in Saudi Arabia, and other internal developments in other Arab countries. That this hasn't happened to the Palestinians, because the Europeans and the other Arabs have been too busy enabling their transition from adolescence to pathology.

In the end, I think he is perhaps once again being overly optimistic. It is certainly possible that the Palestinians, deprived for the most part of Israel as a target for their anger, will turn on their leadership and demand something better. He regards the fence as a chance for "if not peace, then at least stability." But one of the lessons of the Middle East is that stability requires freedom. Left to their own devices, the Palestinians are at least as likely to come up with another Saddam or bin Laden as they are to come up with Sadat or King Hussein. Such a leader would be no more successful in alleiving his people's suffering, but might provide enough order to mask his failings with another war.

Moreover, Halevi notes that each side represents the other's worst nightmare. For the Arabs, the Israelis represent Western colonialism and the Crusaders, and have made some mistakes which add to that impression, such as allying with Britain and France in 1956. (Whom Israel should have picked as allies in a war that even Halevi describes as "necessary" he can't or won't answer.) And the Arabs have come to symbolize the truly eternal Jew-hater, Hitler and the Tsar and Torquemada, and have done much to justify that image in the Jewish mind. But even as he says this, even as he says that the Arabs haven't really tried to come to terms with Israel's existence, even as he must know that Israel has tried mightily to undo this impression, the Arabs have done everything prove their fitness as a nightmare.

It's a shame that someone who so thoroughly understands his mistakes of the past seems unable to keep from repeating them.

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