(Paula Bronstein/Getty)

Here’s the catch, according to Micah Goodman: Israel cannot continue to occupy the West Bank, because doing so will precipitate a moral and democratic crisis. But Israel cannot withdraw from the West Bank, because doing so will leave a power vacuum on its borders that could lead to regional collapse.

In other words: to survive, Israel must withdraw. But to withdraw may be to perish. Faced with such a catch, most Israeli voters have retreated into ideological trenches—or simply given up talking about the conflict altogether.

That, at least, is the contention Goodman makes in Catch-67, a surprise bestseller in Israel that appeared in September in English from Yale University Press, in a lucid translation by Eylon Levy.

In Israel last year, the book topped the nonfiction lists for weeks. Much of the Israeli political establishment read it, including, reportedly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was upset enough to publish a lengthy takedown. In a matter of months, Goodman, best known for his writing on Jewish religious history, became a prominent voice in Israeli politics.

Goodman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the founder of Ein Prat, a study program for young Israelis. Over the course of two phone conversations earlier this year, he spoke with Religion & Politics about the two-state solution, political pragmatism, and whether it’s hypocritical for him to live in a settlement.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: Discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict are often oriented toward finding a total solution to the conflict. You talk about it as an intractable problem, which is more unusual.

Micah Goodman: I think we’re trapped in a false dichotomy, that we have two options: either the status quo, and wherever that will take us. Or we solve the conflict.

When our aspiration is to end the conflict, every plan seems like a bad plan, because you measure it compared to one question: Will it end the conflict? And since it doesn’t seem like it will, we neglect the plan. Let’s start measuring plans in a more modest way: Does it shrink the conflict? Does it make things better?

R&P: Is there really that much desire to shrink the conflict among Jewish Israelis?

MG: Oh, I think there is a lot of desire. One of the problems we have is that [many] Israelis became indifferent to the conflict. And they became indifferent to the conflict because for years they were waiting for a defined way to solve the conflict. And we can’t solve the conflict, so there’s nothing [they] can do. Other issues grabbed their attention. Serious issues, by the way! Like our relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, like housing prices, like cottage cheese prices.

Most of the people who became indifferent to the conflict are the more moderate, pragmatic Israelis. The idealists stayed in the conversation, and they’re arguing about the conflict. So the result of that is, when this center left the conversation, it distorted the conversation, because the only people participating in the conversation are the extremists on both sides.

What the book is trying to do is to bring a language that will enable pragmatic moderate people to return to this conversation. My assumption is that this is most Israelis and most American Jews.

R&P: You occupy an interesting position in the Israeli political conversation. By saying that the concerns of both the left and of the right are legitimate, you’re accused of being all over the spectrum. 

MG: After a while, I could sense if a writer criticizing my book is right-wing or left-wing. If they start saying, “Micah is a closet right-winger,” I know they’re left-wing. And if they’re saying I’m a closet left-winger, I know they’re right-wing.

The idealists that have read the book have a hard time overcoming my wish to have a conversation about ideas, and not about labels. The interesting thing is, most Israelis were liberated from labels and they were interested in just the ideas. Because most Israelis are pragmatic and moderate. But the critics that wrote were very obsessed with labels: “What are you really?”

As if it matters! [laughs] As if it matters. Like, if you could label someone, then you know exactly what you’re supposed to think about their thoughts and about what they wrote.

R&P: Does occupying the West Bank actually make Israel safer?

MG: I don’t think settlements in the West Bank make Israel safer. But military presence, and especially the Shabak—the intelligence—makes Israel safer.

[Ed note: Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak accuses Goodman of overstating the security rationale for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—what Goodman calls “the security argument.” Goodman references that here.]

I think that Barak’s attack on the security argument is not an updated critique of the security argument, because I think it’s a critique of the old security argument. And when I say old, I mean pre-2011 [and the Arab Spring].

R&P: What’s that pre-2011 mindset?

MG: In my experience talking to generals in the Israeli army, there are two generations: There are the people who built their military way of thinking in the old Middle East—the Middle East filled with relatively stable nation-states. And that thinking led to, “Well, there [could be] an independent Palestinian state.” They’re not naive, they don’t think it’ll be a liberal democracy, but they think it’ll be a state we can do business with and have security arrangements with.

The new generals, whose thinking was evolved through 2011, after 2011, are like, “Yeah, we might have great security agreements with another nation-state, but we’re not really sure that right now is the right time for a nation-state.”

Barak’s critique is a powerful critique if we were in 2010. And Barak, you know Barak, I highly appreciate it, but he’s old-school!

R&P: So the nightmare is that an independent Palestinian state would collapse and look like Syria?

MG: That’s a massive nightmare.

R&P: One of the challenges of a pragmatic approach is that it can stay in this realm of ideas, and perhaps forget the suffering of individual people. How do you, as someone trying to be pragmatic, reckon with that deep moral dimension of the conflict?

MG: I actually think it’s the other way around!

R&P: Okay, why?

MG: I think actually overcoming the idealism, the dream of ending the conflict right here and right now, unleashes new energies, new initiatives that could shrink the conflict, shrink the occupation, shrink the control over Palestinians, minimize humiliations—there are things we can do.

If I overcome the dream of ending the conflict, then I can start doing what really matters ethically. The way I understand morality is the noble attempt to decrease suffering. So I think on the contrary, a pragmatist approach is the moral approach here.

R&P: What would those pragmatic steps look like? The book focuses on the West Bank, but I’m curious how this might look in Gaza, too.

MG: Well, Gaza seems like it’s the easier problem.

R&P: How so?

MG: There are lots of ideas about Gaza. Gaza’s a question of how can we lift the blockade on Gaza without Gaza becoming armed again. That’s the question. And that’s not such a big catch. There are ways to lift the blockade in Gaza, make massive investments in Gaza, without Gaza being armed again.

People on the right, they have the whole thing of not looking like you gave in to terrorism, not to look weak. People on the left are saying, “Well, if we make a separate deal with Gaza and Hamas, two things happen—we’re choosing Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, and we separate the West Bank from Gaza. And separating Gaza from the West Bank, we are weakening, crippling our ability to make a deal.”

And as a result, people in Gaza are suffering. If we’re willing to give up the dream for the ultimate deal, we could actually do real things on the ground in Gaza!

R&P: What would some of those steps look like in the West Bank—things that the Israeli government could do tomorrow?

MG: Here is a different way to think about the catch of Catch-67. Many Israelis, and not only Israelis, think intuitively that there is a zero-sum game between control and security, meaning the more we control the Palestinians, the more security Israelis have. The less we control the Palestinians, the less security Israelis have.

That is false. There are many actions that we can do tomorrow morning that will lead to controlling Palestinians a lot less without risking Israelis a lot more. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I’ll give you an example: If you are, say, a Palestinian living in Ramallah, which is Area A, meaning it’s an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and you’re now drinking coffee in a coffee place in Ramallah, you’re not experiencing that much occupation. You’re actually not! You are a Palestinian that is in a town that’s governed by a Palestinian government that was elected by Palestinians.

R&P: Okay, but…

MG: Actually, that last line is not really true, but that’s not our problem.

R&P: And to say that you’re not experiencing the occupation there seems like a stretch. Israeli forces could enter at any time, your freedom of movement outside that space is very limited…

MG: So where is the occupation? If you want to quantify occupation, where is it? Well, here it is: when you leave Ramallah to visit your cousin living in Nablus.

R&P: You’re talking about checkpoints, roadblocks.

MG: Yes, yes. The fact that the Palestinian autonomy is an island within territory that Israelis control.

So, thinking pragmatically, asking where is the critical mass of the experience of occupation, a good place to look for it is the space that’s between spaces controlled by the Palestinian Authority. What we need is a massive deal, a security arrangement that will enable the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to leave that land, and to evacuate settlements, in order to create territorial continuity for Palestinians.

R&P: Is there a realistic world where any of that happens in the next five, ten years?

MG: I think it’s the only realistic thing. Expansion of settlements is unrealistic. Reaching a two-state solution in the next five years, I think, is unrealistic.

If the moderate Israelis, the confused Israelis, return to the conversation, and they convert indifference about the conflict to being moderate about the conflict, I think these kinds of ideas could—you could find a very large consensus within Israel, and I think also among Palestinians, for these kinds of ideas.

From the Palestinians, we’re not asking anything in return—you don’t have to recognize Israel, you don’t have to give up right of return, all of these problems are blocking their ability to reach an agreement with us.

When I represent these ideas to my Palestinian friends, they think, okay, what’s the catch? How are you going to screw us over? Obviously, there’s a lot of trust that needs to be built. And I think these steps are part of building trust.

R&P: I imagine this would be seen as a way to make the settlement project more tolerable.

MG: And one of the steps has to be freezing settlements. Or else these steps don’t have any credibility.

R&P: I just don’t see where the political will for this would come from inside Israel. Is it really there?

MG: We’re trapped in the wrong conversation—“Are you for or against the great plan?”— and not “What do we think about the small steps?” You see, the thing is, every small step is a small step, but the accumulation of small steps is a big step. It won’t lead to an end of the conflict, but it will lead to minimizing the conflict.

R&P: You live near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, right?

MG: Yeah.

R&P: Do you find that your status as a moderate is challenged by living in the settlements?

MG: If there’ll ever be a solution, I’ll be happy to leave. And two, where I live is a part of areas where there is a broad consensus that they will be part of Israel [in an eventual peace deal].

R&P: Still, how did you make the decision to live there? How do you think about that decision in the context of this larger political conversation?

MG: Well, first of all, not everything is coherent in my life. It’s where I live, it’s not who I am, and if there’ll ever be a real two-state solution that will include the evacuation of settlements, I’ll comply, and I’ll leave, and everything. And so will, I think, most of my neighbors.

But, where we live is not an obstacle in the peace arrangement because it’s part of the area which, according to the Clinton parameters [for land swaps, laid out in 2000], will be a part of Israel in the future peace agreements.

R&P: You’re talking about when a peace deal happens. But thinking in the more pragmatic, immediate timeframe of Catch-67, do settlements like this complicate things on the ground?

MG: Settlements are making it harder. They’re making it tougher. They’re making it harder to move things on the ground, and they’re making it harder because they are creating suspicion on the other side.

I think in some sense, the peace movement and the settler movement are allies in preaching the status quo. Because if any movement on the ground depends on peace, well, if peace is not coming, no movement is going to happen.

I think that in Israel, as I argue in Catch-67, that we have to overcome these great redeeming ideologies, and start asking another question. Not “how do we cure the Middle East,” not “how do we solve our problems,” but “how do we deal with our problems, how do we shrink our problems?”

R&P: I get that. It seems like evacuating settlements—even if that’s not a political reality in Israel right now—would be the single most straightforward way to shrink the occupation.

MG: Listen, at that rate, 200,000 settlers, you have to create a massive Israeli majority for that. And you’re not going to have a massive Israeli majority for that.

So even if it’s the right way to go, taking down the occupation. But let’s ask what we can do. I think freezing settlements, and expanding the Palestinian economy.

R&P: This brings us back, once again, to the question of political will. What I’m always struck by is the desperation on the Palestinian side, and the lack of desperation among most Israeli Jews. The asymmetry is gigantic.

MG: Yes. I think that the way to get Israelis back in—to create the political will—is actually through a moderate [approach]. Israelis are not going to agree on a massive withdrawal from the West Bank tomorrow. That’s not going to happen. And if any movement on the ground depends on that, there’s not going to be any movement on the ground.

R&P: Before we wrap up, could you speak a little bit about your work at Ein Prat?

MG: [The program] is for Israelis who are after the army, secular and religious together, studying Plato, Shakespeare, great works of the world, and also the Bible, the Talmud, the great works of Jewish tradition. I think what we’re building in Ein Prat is a middle-of-the-road Jewish identity.

Ein Prat is about trying to [find] the middle of the road when it comes to the secular-religious divide in Israel. Catch-67 is trying to find the middle of the road of a right-left division of Israel. In that sense, Catch-67 is a part of my life’s project, trying to articulate the unspoken intuition of the people who are in the middle and very confused.