The Sunday Magazine

How Israel's politics and peace process became so stalled

Yet again, neither Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, nor Blue and White leader Benny Gantz have been able to fashion a coalition government after the third general election within a year. Yossi Klein Helavi, one of the country’s wisest and most even-handed political analysts, discusses Israel’s protracted political gridlock, and the uncertain future of the peace process and two-state solution, as Netanyahu's trial on corruption charges looms next week.
L to R: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz. (Nir Elias/Amir Cohen/Reuters) (Nir Elias/Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Author Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. (Ilir Bajraktari/The Tower)

Earlier this month Israel held its third general election within the past year with the same result yet again. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party nor Benny Gantz's Blue and White party were able to form a majority, creating a gridlock and paralysis in Israeli politics. Amidst this state of limbo, Netanyahu faces trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. All of this was preceded by United States President Donald Trump announcing a plan that he believes will bring peace to the region.

American-born author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, spoke with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about the current state of politics in Israel. Halevi's most recent book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is an effort to keep the channels of communication open in the Middle East. Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

Is it fair and accurate to say that Israel is in a state of political chaos at the moment?

Yes, but it's a low key form of chaos. There isn't a sense of panic, hysteria, or even necessarily depression. There is a sense of concern and of disorientation, but we are seeing some possible breakthrough, where the Blue and White party is negotiating a possible narrow government with the United Arab Party. That could potentially be a game changer. The very fact that you have a mainstream Zionist party speaking with a frankly anti-Zionist Arab party about the possibility of forming an Israeli government coalition — this is something that was really inconceivable even a few months ago.

A political system that cannot produce a government after three consecutive elections over the span of under a year, is a broken system.- Yossi Klein Halevi

Why has there been such electoral gridlock for the past year and a half?

The persona of Prime Minister Netanyahu has become increasingly polarizing. His supporters see him as indispensable for Israeli security. If you look at what's happened in the Middle East over the last decade, which is really the span of Netanyahu's rule, these have been the worst years in the history of the modern Middle East. One country after another along our borders has imploded. Syria has self-destructed. Iraq is self-destructing. Further afield, there's Libya and Yemen. The Middle East is in a free-fall. Yet under Netanyahu's rule, he has kept Israel relatively safe, prosperous, strong. So his supporters are passionate about his indispensability.

Those of us who are equally passionate and hoping to see him go argue that, yes, Netanyahu has been good for Israeli security and the economy; but he's been a disaster for Israeli democracy. He has challenged the rule of law. He has declared war, in effect, on the Israeli Supreme Court, the police and the entire legal establishment, which is accused of rising up against him in a conspiracy to bring him down. He's now facing three charges of corruption. And he insists that he's entirely innocent. He's also turning one group against another, left-wing against right-wing, Arab against Jew. He has been one of the most polarizing figures in the history of Israeli politics.

A former member of the Knesset, Yohanan Plesner wrote a piece in The Times of Israel that said these many elections that Israel is having are a sign that the democratic system in the country is broken. Do you agree with that?

A political system that cannot produce a government after three consecutive elections over the span of under a year, is a broken system. On the other hand, what astonishes me is that Israelis, time after time, dutifully go out to vote — huge turnouts that any Western country would envy. A 70, 80 per cent electoral turnout. Regardless of what your politics are, wherever you come from on the spectrum, you tend to feel this sense of personal responsibility for this place.

You wrote a piece in which you said that Prime Minister Netanyahu was fighting a campaign and fighting ghosts of the left. What did you mean by that?

I really meant two things. One, he is trying to resurrect this all-powerful Israeli left, which once did exist but has virtually disappeared. Second, he's fighting his own personal ghosts because Netanyahu comes from a family that was actually, in some sense, persecuted in the 1950s, when the Israeli left was all-powerful here. Netanyahu's family was on the right. His father, a well-known academic, couldn't get tenure at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And Netanyahu to this day blames the left for that. In fact, his family had to move to the States for his father to get a job. So there are these deep grudges in Israeli society that Netanyahu is carrying, but which I believe, are so completely irrelevant to Israel in the 21st century, that it really amounts to a war against ghosts.

Jared Kushner said that by reading 25 books about the Middle East he was qualified to solve the entire conflict. That's pretty good going isn't it?

Yeah, the joke here among all the Israeli writers was, "I wonder if my book was on the list?"

You said it's like a wedding without a bride. What did you mean by that? 

Well the "bride" is the Palestinian people. And this plan really ignored the bride. It's interesting you're bringing up the Trump plan at all because that plan was really dead on arrival. But I do think the plan has some value in the sense that it exposed certain deeply held myths among both Israelis and Palestinians. On the Israeli side, the settlement movement was vehemently opposed to the plan and much of the international discourse about the plan missed that. That's an essential insight into what that plan represented, because the settlers, rightly, saw that plan as a death blow to them. It would have left settlements embedded in a Palestinian state. It would have complicated, to the point of dysfunctionality, a Palestinian state.

But it also would have made the settlements besieged islands, unable to grow. So the settlement movement saw this plan as a betrayal of their interests and they were right to see it that way. What I found so instructive about the plan is that here you have the Trump administration, the most pro-Israeli right White House in American history. Even this White House presents a plan that calls for a two-state solution, never mind for a moment if it's a dysfunctional Palestinian state. But still calling for a Palestinian state with some kind of symbolic capital in East Jerusalem, even if it's just a sliver, and presenting the settlements really as a kind of obstacle. And so for the Israeli right, this plan was a very bitter pill.

The only solution is that each side accepts the fact that we're going to have to perform a kind of amputation on ourselves.- Yossi Klein Halevi

I guess the mantra is, your land is my land. Both sides are saying that.

Your land is my land, that's right. You had mentioned this book that I recently published. This book is really an attempt to reach out to Palestinians and explain how, I as an Israeli, experienced this conflict. And I invited Palestinians to write to me and tell me how they experienced the conflict. What I've tried to do is really model a conversation where each side frankly lays out its maximalist position. What I've said to my neighbours in this book is, I believe deeply that all of this land is mine. But I understand that you also believe that all of this land is yours. And so the only way that we're going to ever reach an agreement is if both sides contract and do violence to what we really know is ours.

I know that the West Bank city of Hebron is mine because Jews have lived there literally for 4,000 years since Abraham and Sarah. Palestinians know that Jaffa and Haifa are theirs. So what do we do with that? The only solution is that each side accepts the fact that we're going to have to perform a kind of amputation on ourselves. That's the conversation that I've invited my neighbours to participate in. And I've gotten hundreds of responses, some very powerful responses.

I'm afraid of the deep despair that I see among young Israelis and young Palestinians. That worries me.- Yossi Klein Halevi

Maybe it's just a failure of the Western media, but we never seem to hear of a peace initiative coming from the Palestinians. There doesn't seem to be a Palestinian entity that is drawing up its own peace plan.

That's exactly right. Over the last hundred years of conflict there has never been a Palestinian peace plan. There is only a pattern of rejection. Now I understand, as the party that lost and has no power — the psychological impediment, the deep wound — why Palestinians don't feel a sense of responsibility for reaching out to the occupier. I get that. But I don't absolve the Palestinian leadership of that responsibility. The Palestinian national movement after 100 years has to finally come up with a peace plan. Because right now when I tell my government, you're expanding settlements, you're moving us in a one-state direction rather than a two-state direction. Then the response I get is, "OK, well where's your partner? Where's the Palestinian peace plan?" And I need Palestinian partners in order for me to challenge my government.

As you were writing the book, did you learn something that would apply or would be useful in a politically divisive era that many Israelis and many of the rest of us are living in? 

First of all, if you create a space where you invite people to tell you their narrative and you are empowering people with respect, you will get people to listen to you in turn. What I tried to do in this book is write in two ways, with two sensibilities. One is with deep empathy for Palestinian suffering. When I look from my porch, I look out on Palestinian villages, I see the separation wall that is keeping Palestinians from Jerusalem. The wall that was built during the terror wave of the early 2000s to keep out suicide bombings. But it keeps out Palestinians generally. So I wrote this book on the one hand from that place of deep empathy and on the other hand from a place of frank embrace and pride in my own people's story. And I invited Palestinians to tell me their story. That's the beginning of a conversation between political rivals in any circumstance.

The last time I spoke with novelist David Grossman, he said nothing will happen until the current leadership on both sides disappears and lets new and younger people take over.

I'm afraid of the deep despair that I see among young Israelis and young Palestinians. That worries me. That's another reason why I feel an urgency to start getting Palestinians and Israelis talking again at whatever level. If we can't get our leaders to speak to each other then let's figure out other channels of communication. We live in an age of social media where borders are permeable. Let's use whatever tools we have.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.


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