Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor
Yossi Klein Halevi
HarperCollins, $24.99 (cloth)
After decades of violence and diplomatic failure, even holding meaningful conversations across the Israeli-Palestinian divide has become a challenge. Pessimism and vitriol prevail, built not only on the absence of a common political solution but also on the inability simply to talk constructively about how to overcome the impasse.
Many who officially endorse a two-state solution remain devoted to a prevailing narrative of Israeli Jewish moral superiority.
The writer and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has spent his career thinking about this impasse, authoring several books on Israel and Palestine that aim to reach across the divide. His biography itself straddles several worlds. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he was born and raised in the United States but has lived in Israel for over thirty-five years. Unlike many Israeli Jews, he is open to a two-state solution. He also calls himself a “religious Jew,” a “person of faith.”
Halevi thus slots neatly into bridging roles: he has served as chairman of Open House, an Arab-Israeli/Jewish-Israeli center in the Israeli town of Ramle, and he has partnered with an Imam to open a Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is a senior fellow. He seems poised to help the political center open doors that have long been closed. That is explicitly his goal in his latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, which offers hope for finding a mutually acceptable, durable resolution to the Palestinian–Israeli struggle.
Yet the book’s bridge-building efforts fall flat, exposing a larger problem among those who officially endorse a two-state solution while remaining devoted to a prevailing narrative of Israeli Jewish moral superiority. That outlook, Halevi’s book shows, often obstructs new pathways rather than forges them. Halevi’s one-sided treatment of history, his partisan representations of the victims of violence, and his distorted portrayal of the two national-territorial claims all add up to a missed opportunity for a truly conciliatory book.
• • •
In form, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor is just that: ten letters written to a generic, unnamed Palestinian, mixing memoir, historical narrative, policy analysis, and spiritual reflection. Its central tension is between being open to a two-state solution intellectually and being open to it emotionally. This conflict between head and heart is subtle, but what comes through is not so much a desire to resolve the conflict as an argument that the long and deep Jewish religious-historical claim to the land is the superior one—more compelling, natural, even self-evident. It is difficult to imagine this approach winning over his Palestinian neighbor.
The book suggests the Jewish claim to the land is superior—more compelling, natural, even self-evident.
On the emotional side, Halevi’s heart tells him that the land—all the land—is Jewish. “Our claim to the land,” he writes, “comes from our very being.” “On my emotional map,” he even says, “there is no Palestine.” While Halevi makes an intellectual effort to advance the case for progress, his uneven treatment of major historical events and his focus on the legitimacy and righteousness of the Israeli Jewish narrative suggest that his Jewish emotional attachment is more central to his thinking than his call for compromise.
Take just one historical episode. Regarding the 1947 UN partition plan, Halevi notes that Zionists largely accepted it and Arabs largely rejected it. He offers what he considers “the compelling” Palestinian explanation for that fact: “If a stranger squatted in your home, would you accept dividing the house with him?” This is a big moment in the book. In presenting this Palestinian explanation, Halevi creates an opening to grapple with the essence of the Palestinian position. But instead he quickly moves on, missing an opportunity to dwell seriously with a criticism of the Israeli Jewish narrative.
What about the 1967 war? In May, Halevi explains, “Israel was being threatened with destruction.” Halevi calls it a “genocidal threat” and directly compares it to the Holocaust. Around the world, Jews “feared Israel’s imminent destruction.” When war came, however, the result was quite different. It was “the greatest military victory in Jewish history”—a massive, rapid victory that humiliated the Arab armed forces and their political leaders.
You can negotiate with a nationalist policymaker but not with a genocidal one.
That outcome would appear less surprising had Halevi mentioned that before the war, both Israeli and U.S. leaders believed that Israel would win—it was only a question of how quickly. On June 1, 1967, Major General Meir Amit, head of Israel’s Mossad at the time, told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that the war would last seven days and “that there were no differences between the U.S. and the Israelis on the military intelligence picture or its interpretation.” The next day, McNamara told British diplomats that he thought it would be longer—seven to ten days. But Halevi doesn’t include this story of Israeli confidence, presenting only the sharply contrasting public story of Israeli fear and Arab threat.
Consider one final historical example. Regarding the Camp David summit of July 2000, Halevi writes that Prime Minister Ehud Barak “became the first Israeli leader to accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza, with Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as its capital.” Yet, as I previously explained in these pages, that claim overlooks three major shortcomings that show Barak’s so-called acceptance was really partial and insufficient. He proposed that the West Bank, the core of the new State of Palestine, would be split into two or three non-contiguous pieces; he did not propose Palestinian sovereignty in the inner Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; and he had no substantive proposal for addressing the Palestinian right of return. On the central issues in dispute, then, Barak’s so-called offer could hardly be characterized as a simple “acceptance” of a Palestinian state.
In Halevi’s thinking, it is only Jews, not Palestinians, who are entitled to return to their homeland.
Halevi’s treatment of violence is also lopsided. In his telling, Israeli Jews are presented with human detail while nameless Palestinians perpetrate violent acts. The book’s first mentions of violence, for example, are the killings of Israeli solider Amnon Pomerantz, an unnamed Israeli father and daughter who were killed on the “eve of her wedding,” and Koby Mandell, an Israeli boy who was stoned to death. But Halevi doesn’t offer such details when it comes to the Palestinian dead. When he mentions the 1994 Hebron Massacre—when an Israeli Jew killed twenty-nine Palestinians—we are told the killer’s name and that he was “a religious Jew,” but not one detail about the dead and wounded Palestinians, beyond the fact that they were celebrating Ramadan. To Halevi, the violence, say, of the Second Intifada is not an expression of a Palestinian yearning for independence or a militant effort to win land and power. It is a “revolt not against occupation but against Israel’s existence.” That distinction is revealing: you can negotiate with a nationalist policymaker but not with a genocidal one.
Halevi’s interpretation may not be unreasonable—it stems from his own lived experience—but it is certainly not universal, and he does a disservice to his stated conciliatory goal when he assumes all militants have maximalist aims. Marwan Barghouti, for example, an imprisoned Fatah leader whom Israel convicted of murders in 2004, saw the violence of the Second Intifada as a way for Palestinians to force Israel to negotiate a compromise peace. By dismissing or ignoring such examples, Halevi tries too simplistically to infer Palestinian goals from Palestinian tactics.
The book is perhaps most disappointing in its treatment of the right of return. In Halevi’s thinking, it is only Jews, not Palestinians, who are entitled to return to their homeland. In a book that aims to find common ground, it is surprising that Halevi fails to see any symmetry between these two claims.
Halevi indicates that in any plausible two-state solution, Palestinian refugees will not return to the State of Israel but only to the newly independent State of Palestine. He goes so far as to call the Palestinian right of return a “fantasy” and a “deception,” making the common Israeli Jewish argument that a full exercise of the right of return would doom Israel’s existence. But completely dismissing the right of return as a mere fantasy is incompatible with acknowledging the legitimacy of the Palestinian nationalist claim.
Dismissing the right of return as a “fantasy” is incompatible with acknowledging the legitimacy of the Palestinian nationalist claim.
And yet Halevi does recognize that the Palestinians who fled in 1948 did so “because they feared expulsion or massacre.” It was not merely a flight of whimsy, privilege, or nationalist disinterest. It was a flight from war, and after the war, the Government of Israel officially barred Palestinian refugees from returning. Even today, fleeing war does not mean that refugees sacrifice their right to return to their homes, a bedrock of international law and the preferred outcome of many international refugee organizations. The concept of return takes on tremendous symbolic power in Palestinian life because it means re-connecting with the cities, villages, homes, and lands that are the root of Palestinian nationalism.
Halevi juxtaposes Palestinian refugees with what he calls “invisible refugees”: Mizrahi Jews who, motivated by fear of anti-Semitism and murder, came to Israel from places such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria. But as Halevi also notes, they came “partly out of longing for Zion,” and this is where his comparison breaks down. The State of Israel, after all, was hoping for Jews to come—and welcoming them when they arrived. The concept of the ingathering of the (Jewish) exiles was and is a central tenet of Israel. There is no Palestinian parallel. Palestinians were not longing to move from Acre, Jaffa, Lod, and Ramle to Sabra, Shatilla, Yarmouk, and Zarqa; they were, Halevi concedes, “leaving their homeland for exile.” They longed to stay or, after the war, return to their homes.
It is not that Halevi dismisses the notion of return out of hand. He explicitly endorses Zionism, which he calls “a political expression of the longing for return.” Kfar Etzion, the first settlement established in the West Bank, was not controversial, he maintains, because the settlers at Kfar Etzion “were literally returning home” to a location where, until 1948, there had been a Jewish community. Similarly, when writing about Hebron, Halevi says, “I write about ‘returning’ to Hebron, but in fact we never voluntarily left.”
Halevi fails to live up to the charge he repeatedly levels at Palestinians: that they must let go of grand dreams in order to compromise.
Without confronting the dual desire for return, Halevi—along with the mainstream Israeli Jewish perspective he often channels—cannot really get at knowing, acknowledging, or accepting the Palestinian narrative. For Halevi, the Jewish desire to return is so dominant that he sees all the land as one unit. “If we didn’t belong here,” he writes of Hebron, “we didn’t belong anywhere.” Giving up Hebron and other parts of the West Bank would thus be “self-mutilation.” Yet when he characterizes the Palestinian sentiment that Israeli Jews stole “Tel Aviv no less than Gaza,” he fails to see the similarity and instead portrays it as a Palestinian justification for complete expulsion of today’s Israeli Jews.
Halevi also engages in a linguistic battle over who is entitled to be characterized as indigenous. He lays claim to the term, asserting that Jews from Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and Yemen who came to Israel are all “indigenous sons and daughters returning home.” Elsewhere he offers a weaker defense, suggesting the Zionist “success was to re-indigenize the Jewish people.” “Re-indigenize,” of course, suggests a break, hinting that indigenousness has a statute of limitations.
The core Israeli Jewish claim to land is not built on physical presence, but on ancient and biblical Jewish history. The rise of modern Zionism, beginning in the late nineteenth century, saw a push over several decades for land ownership, cultivation, and urban development in Ottoman and then British mandatory Palestine. This tactic had a tremendous impact on the area eventually allotted for the Jewish state. But it is important to recognize that this Jewish land ownership did not organically emerge from the Jews already living in the nineteenth-century Holy Land; it came from Zionism, which justified its claim to the land by turning back to ancient history. In the end, Halevi, as with many Israeli Jews in 2019, fails to live up to the very charge that he repeatedly levels at Palestinians: that they hold onto grand dreams and must let go of those dreams in order to accept compromise. He himself has not come to terms “with the other’s claim to justice.”
Halevi’s heart is so clearly on the side of the Jewish territorial connection that when he does finally open up to compromise—in the sixth letter, “The Partition of Justice”—the gesture rings hollow, as if he is going through the motions rather than seriously committing to a different path.
I see no sane alternative to partition. No matter how much each side tries to erase the other’s map, Israel and Palestine persist. You and I inhabit a land that is, conceptually at least, two lands. Between the river and the sea lie the land of Israel and the land of Palestine. Tragically, those two entities happen to exist in the same space.
Halevi’s spirituality is a double-edged sword. While it leads him to eloquence in expressing the need for compromise, it also fuels his exclusionary, my-side-is-better historical perspective. A two-state solution is rendered as an unwanted but pragmatic and necessary step; the security Israel could gain from such a compromise trumps the more legitimate historical and emotional claim to the land. Indeed, he says he would retract his commitment to two states “if it would place Israel in mortal danger.”
The Israeli Jewish right has advanced this claim since the diplomatic breakthrough at Oslo in 1993. But like every other option—including status quo occupation and creeping annexation—a two-state solution is risky. Calling for a risk-free two-state solution amounts to not calling for two states at all.
• • •
How could the book have done better? For starters, Halevi could have drawn from multiple historical traditions and academic works rather than presenting mostly the mainstream Israeli Jewish version of historical events. He could have acknowledged that there are compelling narratives on both sides, but no progress can be made until we highlight their connections.
Calling for a risk-free two-state solution amounts to not calling for two states at all.
More than a repetition of the past, the parties need, in the words of the social psychologist Herbert C. Kelman, a “transcendent identity” to overcome their rival, “particularistic” ones. Kelman wrote in 1999 that a new Israeli-Palestinian identity would not replace the existing mainstream Palestinian and Israeli nationalist identities but rather serve as a new, encompassing or over-arching identity—one that leaves space for the needs and, to some extent, dreams of both peoples.
Jeremy Pressman is Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor in Political Science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut and author of Warring Friends: Alliance Restraint in International Politics. He also co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.