Yossi Klein Halevi has long been one of my favorite Israeli writers. Our shared New York boyhoods – his in Brooklyn and mine in Queens – contributed to a feeling of compatibility. Halevi became the journalist that I had once yearned to be; instead, I became a historian. He made aliya; I had little interest in Israel until I was chosen by the American Jewish Committee to join a group of “disaffected Jewish academics” for their first visit to the Jewish state. Its impact was transformative.
One year later I was the Fulbright Professor teaching American history to students at Tel Aviv University – and, not incidentally – learning from them about the history of Israel. From Rafi Amir, the Kol Yisrael news broadcaster who had arrived at the Western Wall during the Six-Day War with the first group of Israeli soldiers, excitedly describing their stunning triumph to a thrilled nation. And especially from Professor Haggai Hurvitz, a Haganah fighter during the Independence War and then a kibbutznik before joining academic ranks, who attended every class and afterward, over lunch together, taught me Israeli history.
Halevi, a self-described “Jewish extremist” who had been a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, eventually turned leftward. Yearning for a dialogue with nearby Palestinians in Jerusalem, his engaging Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor revealed how his “romance for the settlement movement ended.” Instead, he pondered possibilities for “our shared future in the region.”
Consistent with his new political preference, he recently published (in The Times of Israel) his letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi with his “plea” for them to “block annexation” of the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Identifying with “their faithful supporters,” Halevi applauded their “efforts to protect our democratic institutions from the right’s assault on their legitimacy,” nothing less than a “self-inflicted disaster.”
Now locating himself as “a centrist” (after previous stints on the right and left), Halevi recognizes that “all of the land between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea belongs by right to the Jewish people.” He acknowledges the historical reality that the Land of Israel was defined internationally, in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, as the land east and west of the Jordan River. But under Article 25, the Mandatory Authority was “entitled . . . to postpone or withhold” provisions of its choosing. That permitted Great Britain, the Mandatory Authority, to remove the land east of the Jordan River. Originally intended as part of the Jewish national home, it was gifted to Amir Abdullah and became the Emirate of Transjordan.
Despite this partition nearly a century ago, a different “reality,” as understood by Halevi, “leaves us no choice but to partition the land” – again. Otherwise, he anticipates, there will be a “bi-national state” that will render it impossible “to balance Israel’s essential identities as a Jewish and democratic state.” In translation, to satisfy Halevi, Israel must relinquish Judea and Samaria, its Biblical homeland.
Halevi fears that Israel’s “moral credibility” will be compromised if it does otherwise. And “the war for Israel’s legitimacy” would be endangered, if not lost. Annexation, he writes, would permanently create “two categories of people in the territories, one with the rights of citizenship, the other disenfranchised.” Not necessarily. Two peoples would continue to live in their respective communities: Palestinians could enjoy the benefits of Jordanian sovereignty in the kingdom where they already enjoy demographic equality, if not a majority; Israelis would remain Israelis.
But with annexation, Halevi fears, Israelis would become “rejectionists,” seen by the world as “racists.” As “an ambition born in sin,” annexation reflects the needs of “an indicted prime minister worried about his legacy.” Hardly. “Annexation” is better understood as the reconnection of the Jewish State of Israel with Biblical Judea and Samaria. It may be Yossi Klein Halevi’s nightmare, but it would signify fulfillment of the Zionist dream.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.