There are three major questions facing Israelis at this watershed moment in the Middle East, according to author Yossi Klein Halevi.
“First, is a nuclear Iran an existential threat, not just to Israel, but to the entire region? I believe most Israelis would answer ‘yes.’ Next, can [President Barack] Obama be expected to use force against Iran after the way he handled matters in Syria? Most Israelis would say ‘no.’ And can Israel risk an all-out confrontation with Iran without U.S support?”
That answer “depends on the timetable,” Halevi said in a recent interview. “If Israel thinks it’s losing its window of opportunity on dealing with Iran, it might feel it necessary to act, even if it doesn’t have the support of its longtime ally.”
The bottom line, the veteran journalist emphasized, is that “Israel is in a very dangerous place right now.”
Halevi, who is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is considered one of the foremost commentators on current-day Israel, said he’s a centrist these days — like the majority of Israelis. But it’s been a long journey for both him and his compatriots, part of which is sketched out in his newest book, the recently published and already critically acclaimed Like Dreamers.
Halevi is in the Philadelphia area this week at various venues to discuss the work.
Even though Like Dreamers is a journalistic work using an omniscient narrator, Halevi is the first to admit that it’s also a very personal book: It describes in detail the lives of seven paratroopers who fought in both the 1967 Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but it also indirectly sketches the story of how the author — and by extention, many of his fellow Israelis — managed to carve out a centrist position in Israeli politics.
The work begins in 1967 and includes on its cover one of the most iconic photos to emerge from the Six-Day War — David Rubinger’s photo of several paratroopers as they approach the Western Wall, which had been in the hands of the Jordanians until then. But it is really more about 1973 and the near-defeat Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War, which occurred 40 years ago this fall.
“In Israeli consciousness, 1973 is more dominant,” Halevi said of the two conflicts. “We commemorate ’73 every year in a way that we never do for ’67. The trauma is deep. And 1973 is the moment when modern Israeli society began” — when society diverged and the right and the left hardened their positions.
It is not a coincidence that in 1973, both the settler movement and the peace movement come about, noted the author.
One of the central characters in Like Dreamers spearheaded the Gush Emunim settlers movement while another helped found Peace Now. So the question to be answered post-1973, Halevi said, “was why did this tragedy occur? And how can we make sure it won’t be repeated? Does it mean we make peace with our enemies or do we create more settlements to fortify our borders?”
The two sets of characters in Like Dreamers — the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers — had both decided after the near defeat in ’73 that “Israel could not just be a safe haven but had to be something messianic,” Halevi explained. “So I also wanted to trace the fate of what happened to these big Utopian dreams.”
Halevi insisted that, in the end, it was the centrists who won this battle of messianic proportions. To be a centrist now, he said, “means being a little bit right and a little bit left. The centrists came to understand that the left was correct about the corrupting effects of the occupation and that the right was correct about the wrongheadedness of making an elusive peace with our enemies. Centrists are hawks who wish they were doves.”
As evidence of this centrist triumph, Halevi pointed to Israel’s most recent election. “It was the most domestically driven in our history,” he said. “We were debating economic inequality and the role of the ultra-Orthodox in our society. It’s not that Israelis no longer care about the big issues. This introspection, this turning inward is a realization that we can’t do much about changing the Middle East. It’s not up to us to change things. If there’s a partner, we’ll make a deal; if not, we won’t.”
Asked what might come out of the current negotiations with the Palestinians, Halevi responded by posing a question.
“How can we redivide Jerusalem right now? Jerusalem isn’t something ideological or historical. It’s practical. It exists in the real world. If you redivide Jerusalem, you risk bringing Hamas into Jerusalem — you risk bringing in chaos.”
“This is just not the moment for a grand comprehensive move,” he said. And in the midst of all this, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s language “sounds pathetic. He sounds like he’s in the ’90s. We get that peace is better than war. We get that.
“And as for the Obama administration, it has an astounding lack of credibility among Israelis, to say nothing of many other people in the region — Sunni Arabs and Turks, for example. No one believes Obama is serious about red lines. When you think about how he handled Syria, how could anyone believe he would act in the face of a nuclear Iran?”
The debate in Israel right now, the author said, is between those who think that we’re at a World War I moment, with the region like a powder keg that might explode at any moment, and those who think it’s a World War II moment, with Iran as the modern-day Nazis and posing a worldwide threat.
“I think it’s World War II,” Halevi said. “It’s an existential war we’re facing against the enemies of democracy and human evolution — the evolution of civilization,” he said of a nuclear-armed Iran. “This is a war with people who” — much like the Nazis — “represent the next wave of totalitarian aggression against civilization.”
MEET THE AUTHOR
Thursday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m., at the University of Pennsylvania Steinhardt Hall for a program hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Israel Advocacy department
Sunday, Nov. 24, at noon, Main Point Books, 1041 W. Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr
For other local appearances, consult the Exponent’s community calendar on page 31 or visit: jewishexponent.com/community/calendar .