Helping Israelis Escape From ‘Catch-67’
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Helping Israelis Escape From ‘Catch-67’

Philosopher-author Micah Goodman calls for ‘shrinking’ the Mideast conflict rather than trying to solve it.

Gary Rosenblatt

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Micah Goodman
Micah Goodman

Micah Goodman thinks the Trump administration is making a serious, if predictable, mistake in trying to resolve the Israel-Palestinian crisis with its much-anticipated One Big Ultimate Deal.

Goodman, 44, an Israeli philosopher, teacher and author known for his clear thinking and ability to break down complex concepts, had the top nonfiction best-seller in Israel in 2017 with a book that asserts the Mideast impasse cannot be solved. Period.

But his outlook is not pessimistic. Instead, he calls for “shrinking the conflict” in his just-published English edition, “Catch-67: The Left, The Right, and the Legacy of The Six-Day War” (Yale University Press), making the case for discarding the all-or-nothing approach that has resulted in 17 diplomatic failures since Oslo. Goodman offers creative ways to apply logic rather than politics in, for example, maximizing Palestinian autonomy while minimizing the security threat to Israel.

The title of the book is a reference to Joseph Heller’s famous 1961 novel, “Catch-22,” which includes the hapless tale of a U.S. pilot in World War II who must plead insanity to receive a formal discharge — but applying for a discharge proves the pilot is sane, and thus fit to continue serving. The term, now widely used to describe an absurd impasse, applies to Israel since the 1967 war, Goodman asserts, since remaining in the West Bank territories spells doom, and leaving the territories spells doom.

“The myth of a comprehensive peace deal paralyzes all of us,” Goodman told a group of Jewish leaders at a recent private meeting in New York. “What we need are small steps to break the zero-sum game,” he said; it’s a game he sees as a tug-of-war between the left, which says “if we stay in the West Bank, it’s a catastrophe” in terms of morality, international isolation and demographic destruction down the road; and the right, which says “if we leave the West Bank, it’s a catastrophe” in terms of making Israel vulnerable to military attack and defeat.

Both sides have a point — they’re at least half right, Goodman acknowledges — but the debate within Israel has gone on for so long that neither side listens to the other, they just blame each other, he says. “The conversation leads not to the exchange of ideas but to the exchange of blows.” Compounding the problem, he notes, is that over the years, Israelis’ views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict transcended politics and became a core identity issue. People are still defined, left or right, by their position on this one issue.

The seventh day of the Six-Day War… has gone on now for more than 50 years…

But according to Goodman, the Israel-Palestinian conversation has devolved and become dysfunctional. His goal, he says, is to “heal the national conversation” so that Israelis can “repair” rather than try to “win” the political debate. He says American Jews don’t realize that “most Israelis today have lost their sense of political conviction” and “no longer identify with the ideologies of the left or the right”; they are indifferent at this point, he says, simply stuck and confused.

Most of the book is devoted to how that came to be. Goodman offers a careful, even-handed analysis of what he calls “the seventh day of the Six-Day War, which has gone on now for more than 50 years,” with Israelis in a dead-end approach to the political situation. In clear language, he explains how the original dream of the secular left after ’67 was peace — to use the captured territories to end the state of war with the Arab world. But those on the left no longer speak of “peace”; instead, they focus on the dangers of “occupation.” And while the original dream of the right was to fulfill the messianic prophecy of redemption of the land, today the rationale for holding the land is “security.”

Both messianic dreams, secular and religious, have been shattered by intifadas, suicide bombers and diplomatic failures.

Reviving The Conversation

In an interview in Jerusalem in late November, Goodman, in his animated, bemused and often cheerful style, told me he takes satisfaction in hearing readers, including political and military leaders, tell him, “you articulated my confusion.” He believes the book’s greatest contribution is to rescue the conversation from “the tragedy of indifference” and to bring the center back into the dialogue, based on logic and pragmatism rather than politics and ideology. “The question should be ‘what do we do now?’”

In seeking to reframe the approach to the problem, he poses an example. “What if you were trying to deal with the tragedy of fatal car accidents and you had a plan to reduce them by 30 percent,” he offers. “Would you go forward, or would you wait until you came up with a plan to eliminate them completely?”

The question should be ‘what do we do now?

But for all of his effort to approach the Israeli-Palestinian problem even-handedly in presenting the strengths and flaws of the opposing positions, he has been criticized sharply from both the right and the left in Israel. Those on the nationalist and religious right have called Goodman a left-wing ideologue in disguise, he noted. And from the left, most notably, Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and defense minister, wrote a 5,600-word review of the book in Haaretz, concluding that Goodman fell for the right’s argument that leaving the West Bank would expose Israel to military defeat. Not so, said Barak, claiming that withdrawal could be handled by technology, weapons and strategic operations.

Goodman responded with a rebuttal in Haaretz that asserted Barak is wrong in dismissing the right’s concerns, and that instead of offering proof, the general relied on people believing him because of his reputation as a brilliant military strategist.

Goodman compared that to chasidim who follow their rebbes based on allegiance rather than proofs.

Author Micah Goodman with the late Shimon Peres.

Humility Required

In proposing a “partial-peace plan,” Goodman calls for more humility than ideology through a restructuring of the conflict “from the bottom up,” like agreeing on new borders — not to result in peace but “in order to better manage a state of war, as and when it resumes.”

(It should be noted that a number of Mideast experts, including Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, have long called for incremental steps toward peace rather than “trying to hit a home run,” in Makovsky’s words. But given Israel’s right-leaning coalition, the solid backing it has from the Trump administration and the weak Palestinian leadership that refuses to engage in peace talks, the gap between Israel and the Palestinians is widening.)

One of Goodman’s suggestions is for a long-term but temporary cease-fire agreement with the Palestinians that would give them a sovereign state with territorial contiguity without them having to recognize Israel or renounce the right of return. This would free Israel and the Palestinians from “their respective traps.” Goodman writes: “The Israelis would be released from the occupation without endangering their security, and the Palestinians would receive a state without altering their fundamental identity.”

Whether you agree with Goodman’s proposals or not, reading his analysis and ideas is like a breath of fresh air, refuting the notion that there is nothing new to be said about the longstanding impasse. Along the way he not only reviews the history of the conflict — how it came to be and how it came to be stuck — but he explores the psyche of Israeli society and offers a new way of approaching an old conflict.

Actually, as Goodman acknowledges in the book’s introduction, his approach is not new at all but goes back to the Talmudic discussion of the debates between the scholars Hillel and Shammai, and their respective schools. Invariably, the law follows Hillel, we are told, primarily because his followers taught the views of both schools, not just their own, and they sometimes changed their views and deferred to Shammai’s position.

“This appealing Talmudic anecdote teaches that religious law is determined, paradoxically, by those who are not wedded to their own beliefs,” Goodman writes, and he wonders if this paradox can serve as a model for Israel today, requiring a healthy degree of “self-doubt” in dealing with existential concerns.

It’s a vital question, and one that remains to be seen as the grip of the status quo hardens.

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