AMERICAN DIPLOMACY is now more intensely engaged in bringing peace between Israelis and Palestinians than it has been in many a year. When Secretary of State John Kerry embarked upon this enterprise it seemed like an inauspicious time to try. Neither side seemed able to make the necessary compromises for peace; recently some Israelis denounced Kerry for pointing out, correctly, that movements to delegitimize Israel in Europe and elsewhere would grow if his efforts fail.
One Israeli who backs Kerry’s efforts is Ari Shavit, author of “My Promised Land, the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” a book that has become a must read for anybody trying to understand Israel. Shavit writes for the left-of-center newspaper Haaretz, and his roots go back to the 19th-century Zionists who came to the land when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
At a recent seminar at Harvard, Shavit said that the occupation was a disaster “morally, demographically, and politically,” and the sooner Israel ended it the better. But Jewish settlements were sprouting up on the West Bank like weeds, he said, and “the option to divide the land is disappearing.”
In his book he writes that the settlements have “placed Israel’s neck in a noose.’’ Their illegitimacy “taints Israel itself. Like a cancer it spreads from one organ to another, endangering the entire body. . . . But because in the 21st century there is no room for a colonialist entity, the West is gradually turning its back on Israel. That’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel. That’s why Israel is at odds with itself.”
Israel’s evacuation of settlements in Gaza was a disappointment, Shavit said, because Palestinians continued to send rockets ever deeper inside Israel. But even so it was a partial success because it removed 1 million Palestinians from Israel’s control and responsibility.
Shavit said he was once an unabashed peacenik, but that now he has come to understand better the grim realities and difficulties in finding a lasting peace between Arab and Jew in the Promised Land. He writes movingly about the expulsion of Palestinians in the 1948 war. He says it was a necessity in places between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv if the new Jewish state was going to survive, but he wonders if the children and grandchildren of the deportees can ever forgive.
It is impossible to talk about the occupation, however, without considering intimidation, Shavit says. Israel deeply fears three rings of danger: the outer Muslim world, the inner circle of Arab states, and the Palestinians at home. And how could it be otherwise considering the history of persecution of the Jewish people over the centuries?
When I lived in Israel almost 40 years ago Israelis would wonder, have we gathered all the Jews in one place so they can easily be destroyed again?
But if it’s intimidation that affects Israel’s world view, it’s humiliation that drives the Palestinians.
Shavit is a hawk about Iran, and from the audience at Harvard he received a hostile question. If Israel was unwilling to consider a nuclear-free Middle East, how could Iran be blamed for getting a bomb to defend itself from “the Israeli Goliath”? The question came as a shock, because Shavit had just been explaining that the key element to understanding Israel was its deep-seated fears about encircling hostility.
But there you have it. Israel may look like a Goliath to its neighbors, especially to the Palestinians who, during the first intifada, were literally throwing stones at their oppressors. But to Israelis themselves, even with the best army in the Middle East and backed by nuclear weapons, they are always the tiny David in Goliath clothing. That is what makes Kerry’s diplomatic dance so difficult.