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Intro. [Recording date: November 13, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is November 13th, 2023.
Before introducing today's guest, I want to share a few personal thoughts and give listeners a heads-up. Some of this introduction will draw on a recent thread I did on X, the place formerly known as Twitter. As I think you all know, I have been living in Jerusalem here in Israel since June of 2021, President of Shalem College. Since Israel was attacked on October 7th, I've managed to keep up the weekly release schedule for EconTalk. I'm not sure that will continue to be the case, but I want you to know that's my intention. I am busy but not overwhelmed, and I've been able to keep up with scheduling new episodes and doing the reading to prepare. But I find myself increasingly preoccupied both with the war, the neighborhood I live in, the Middle East, and the rise in antisemitism around the world.
Many topics I once found interesting I don't find so interesting in this moment. A book will arrive across my digital desk. I simply can't imagine finding the interest to read it, even though a month ago such a book would have been a natural topic for conversation--or five weeks ago anyway.
Inevitably, I expect to do some episodes on the war. It's a historical context. While realizing this may not be of interest to all of you, I'll do my best not to specialize exclusively in these topics.
Meanwhile, most of our students here at Shalem College have been called to duty. So, there are no classes. We're finding ways to be involved in supporting the country and the troops in this difficult time. I'll be writing about these efforts and related thoughts on the war at a Substack I've started recently called Listening to the Sirens. Please subscribe if you're interested. There's no charge, but if you want to be a paid subscriber, the money will go to support Shalem College.
If my focus needs to increasingly be on practical issues here at the college, and I find I'm unable to post new episodes weekly, we'll issue classic episodes from the past, from our archive. Some of those you may have missed, others will I hope be worthwhile to revisit. But so, far, so good, at least on keeping up with EconTalk.
One other note: this current war and the issue of antisemitism is highly contentious, emotional, and tribal in the best and worst senses of that word, 'tribal.' I am very aware that I come to these conversations with a strong point of view. I'll do my best to challenge my own thinking on these issues as best I can.
And, I do expect to engage a fairly wide range of opinions on these topics, even if it may feel otherwise from time to time. Many thanks for all the good wishes and for your patience and support.
And now for today's guest, author Yossi Klein Halevi. He's a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute here in Jerusalem, the author of many books on Jewish and Israeli topics. He's active in Jewish-Muslim relations. Our topic for today is his book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, which came out in 2018. Yossi, welcome to EconTalk.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Thanks, Russ. It's good to be with you.
Russ Roberts: Why did you write this book? What was the goal?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, I had two goals. The first was to reach out to my Palestinian neighbors and explain who the Jews are, why we're here, why we came back, and why we share this land with them, and why we believe that we're home. And, I wrote this because it occurred to me that over this hundred-year conflict, no one on our side had ever done anything like this before. The Palestinian media, Palestinian textbooks are full of lies about the Jewish people: 'There was no ancient Jewish presence in the land. There was no temple on the Temple Mount. The Holocaust is a Zionist invention.' And I thought that someone from our side should write, 'Dear neighbor, this is who I am. This is who we are.' And so, that was the first purpose.
The second purpose was to invite a response. And: Just as I am telling you who I am, I'd like to know who you are. This is my story. I'd like to know your story, both personally--and the book is personal--but not only. It uses my story as a kind of metaphor to tell a larger Jewish story.
And so, I was inviting my neighbor to respond and the book was translated into Arabic and offered for free downloading. And, I was active on Arabic social media and soliciting readers and respondents from all over the Middle East. And, there were thousands of downloads and hundreds and hundreds of emails.
And so, my purpose really was both to make the case for the Jewish story and try to create a new conversation where Palestinians and Israelis could disagree respectfully over irreconcilable narratives--because we will never agree about who is responsible for the 1948 War and the dislocation of 700,000 Palestinians. We'll never agree about which side is responsible for the failure of the peace process of the 1990s. We don't agree about anything. We don't agree about why this war in Gaza is happening.
And so, I wanted to really conduct an experiment, and that's all it was. What happens when an Israeli reaches out to Palestinians and says, 'This is my story and I'm open to hearing yours.'
Russ Roberts: And, what kind of response did you receive in general? You received a lot of--hundreds of emails. Was there a common theme? Was there a couple of themes that surfaced over and over again?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, it ranged from, 'The army of Muhammad is coming to get you,' to 'Thank you for reaching out, but you've written a book of lies,' to 'Thank you for reaching out--genuinely thank you--and here's my response and I'd love to meet.'
And so, it opened up a new phase in my life and my work where I began to meet Palestinians--especially young Palestinians--and to engage in a very open way.
And, the premise of the book is that the only real conversation between Palestinians and Israelis is when both sides stand firmly in their story. And, my book did not apologize. The word 'I'm sorry' does not appear. Even though, obviously, the Israeli side, along with the Palestinian side, bears partial responsibility for this conflict. And, I didn't apologize because that wasn't my purpose. My purpose was to say this is who I am.
And the responses that I was most drawn to and that I then published in an epilogue in the paperback edition--which came out a year later, 2019--the responses that I chose all had one thing in common. They accepted the premise of my book, which is that this conflict is a tragedy between two indigenous peoples, both of which have the right in principle to sovereignty in this land. And, I'm emphasizing in principle because the practicalities are a different issue altogether. But, my starting point was that each side can make a compelling claim for why the totality of this little land belongs to them. When the Palestinians say 'From the river to the sea, Palestine belongs to them,' my response is, 'Okay, I understand that. The only problem with that is from the river to the sea, all of it is the land of Israel. It all belongs to me. You claim Haifa and Jaffa--which are part of the sovereign state of Israel--as Palestine. For me, Hebron in the West Bank is the most Jewish city in the world. Jews have lived on and off in Hebron for 4,000 years. In fact, for me it's not the West Bank at all. It's Judea and Samaria.'
And so, what do we do with that? If one side believes that all of this land is Palestine, the other side believes all of this land is Israel, we have one of two choices. We can either continue fighting for another hundred years and hope that one side or the other will disappear, or we could try to figure out how to partition the land.
And so, all of the respondents on the Palestinian side that I ended up publishing accepted that premise.
And, from that point, we should disagree about everything.
And, we did. I published letters that were borderline offensive--maybe cross the border, about questioning my honesty, questioning whole parts of the Jewish narrative. But, I felt that if we shared the same basic starting point that in principle--we're two indigenous peoples and we need to figure out a way of solving this--then I'm ready to argue with you about anything else. But, if you start out by saying, 'The Jews are a fake people. You're not a people at all, you're just a religion,'--and we hear that a lot throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds--then I don't have a shared language with you.
So, this book was really--when I say it was an experiment, it was an exercise, first of all, an intellectual exercise. Are there people on the other side willing to engage in that kind of conversation with an Israeli? And, there were. And I felt that the book would have value by modeling what a conversation over shared legitimacy as a starting point would look like.
Russ Roberts: So, the reason I love this book won't surprise listeners--longtime listeners to this program. First of all, I believe that the narratives we tell ourselves, about ourselves and about others, are crucial to our sense of identity and how we see the world and how we think about the world. And, your book is a recognition that at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are those narratives. It's not just about grabbing land: it's about how we think about that land and our place in it.
I want to go back to--you called it a hundred-year conflict. You can call it 140-year conflict; you can call it more than that. But, I want to go back--for listeners who are not well-versed in the history of this region, I want to go back to 1882, roughly. And, I want you to be a Palestinian who is open-minded about the history that you believe is true. But, in other words, they're going to accept many, many things that you agree are true about the Jewish people and this country, this land. But, they're going to see it differently.
So, put on, if you can, your Palestinian hat and describe the period before 1948, which was the founding of the Jewish state of Israel; and then we'll move forward to the present. It could to take a while, but you can start not literally in 1882, but you could start in the 1920s obviously, which is why you said it's the 1920s, why you said it was a hundred-year conflict. So, go back and give me an honest Palestinian narrative that you respect, even though it is hard for you to live alongside it with your narrative because they conflict.
Yossi Klein Halevi: It's a great question. Maybe as a preface to answering your question, what I learned from the book--one of the things I learned in engaging with the Palestinians--is that this conflict can really be boiled down to one question: Who started? And, that's really, I think, a useful way of beginning to approach the question of these opposing narratives.
From the Palestinian side, of course the Jews started. 'We Palestinians were living here peacefully, minding our own business and you began to show up with this crazy idea that you were here 2,000 years ago and saying that this was your land.' You imported the conflict. If you hadn't come, there would be no conflict. That's the ground.
And so, if you accept that point of view, then Israel really has no legitimacy, not only in terms of defending itself, but it's right to exist. If we don't belong here, then there's no such thing as Israeli self-defense. And, that's crucial for understanding a Palestinian rejectionist mindset: You showed up and began settling this land just like a European colonialist, one more wave of colonialism.
Now, ask Israeli Jews and we'll say--
Russ Roberts: Yossi.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yes?
Russ Roberts: I'm not going to let you give the Jewish narrative yet.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Ah, okay.
Russ Roberts: I will give you a chance presently[?]; but just as an intellectual exercise, try to stick with the Palestinian narrative. So, Jews start showing up in increasing numbers between 1882, roughly, to 19--they were already here. There were some, correct?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yes. So, the Palestinian response to that would be, yes, there was always a Jewish minority in this land. And, we Palestinians lived in peace with them and they were very happy under benign Muslim rule. And then, the Zionists began showing up in a very aggressive way and upended centuries of Muslim-Jewish harmony, and began buying up land. And then, eventually we came to the point where we couldn't coexist. It was us or them. And, when the UN [United Nations] Partition Plan was voted on, Palestinian--
Russ Roberts: Explain it.
Yossi Klein Halevi: The UN Partition Plan of 1947, which partitioned this land into a proposed Jewish state and an Arab state. It wasn't yet called the Palestinian state: they called it an Arab state.
Russ Roberts: And just to clarify, in that period of harmony you're talking about--you called it 'benign Arab rule'--it was the Ottoman Empire for about 400, 500 years. Turkey lost World War I. England gets control of this part of the world in 1918 going forward. And, now we're in 1947: the British are still here and the UN proposes a partition. Carry on.
Yossi Klein Halevi: And so, the partition was deeply unfair to the Palestinians Indians. First of all, it gave 55% of the land to the Jews, who were a minority: the Jews who were about 600,000. The Palestinians were double that number before 1948.
And, the assumption was that the Jewish State would be absorbing many immigrants from without. But, these are people who didn't belong here. We belonged here, we were here--we, Palestinians.
And, the other argument which you'll hear from Palestinians, is that why should anyone be expected to give up part of their house to strangers? If somebody was squatting in your house and said, 'Oh, let's compromise. You'll give me these two rooms and you can keep two rooms,' you would call the police. And so, the Palestinians did what any people in their place would do, which is they fought back and they tried to stop the emergence of a Jewish state in what is historically Palestine.
So, that's the Palestinian narrative, in condensed form, till 1948. And then, in the 1948 War, the Jews--
Russ Roberts: One footnote: The Jews accepted that partition. The Arabs did not.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well now, Russ, we're getting to the Jewish narrative.
Russ Roberts: Get me from the Partition to 1948, though[?]--to that gap.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, the day after the UN voted for two states, Palestinians throughout the country began attacking Jews. And, what developed in between--let's say, late November 1947 and the founding of the state of Israel on May 14th, 1948--was essentially a Civil War in this country, where you had Jews and Palestinians fighting house to house, village to village.
And, when Israel was established, you had five Arab countries invading the new Jewish state, literally the day after it was declared.
So, that war lasted for over a year. And, at the end of that war, the state of Israel expanded its borders beyond what the UN Partition Plan had offered. And, that became the State of Israel that we call within the pre-1967 borders.
The State of Israel expanded one more time in 1967 as a result of what we call the Six-Day War. And, am I still on the Palestinian narrative?
Russ Roberts: Yes. And, I want you now to go to--sorry, I'm going to bring you up to October 6th. I apologize. It's going to take a while. So, in 1948, Israel wins that war--1949--wins that war. What happened to the indigenous Arab people who lived in Palestine who--now that they've lost the war? Some of them stayed, some of them left. What do we know about that? It's a very controversial topic, obviously, but give me your take on it.
Yossi Klein Halevi: So, out of 1.2 million Palestinians who lived in the land before the 1948 war, about--well, let's say a million lived in the land and about 150,000 to 200,000 remained in their homes, and about 750,000 were, from the Palestinian perspective, were expelled. And lived--and to this day, their descendants live in refugee camps in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan, in Gaza, and in the West Bank.
So, the Palestinian tragedy was several-fault. First was the loss of heart of the land. Second was the expulsion of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. And, finally in 1967, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where an additional, today, 4 million Palestinians live.
Russ Roberts: So in 1967, before the Six-Day War, what is called today the West Bank--or Judea and Samaria is often the other name for it--but that land that is north of Jerusalem between what used to be a very thin piece of Israel to the Jordan River, that area of the so-called West Bank used to be part of Jordan. But, because Jordan fought Israel in 1967 and lost, Israel took that territory, administered it, occupied it, and settled it with Jewish settlements--quite a few, some would say. But they have not annexed it formally. It remains a bargaining chip in the hopes of a two-state solution. And Gaza, which had been part of Egypt, became a refugee camp run by Israel--from 1967 until 2005. Is that correct? Did I get that right?
Yossi Klein Halevi: That's how the Palestinians would characterize it. Yes. Gaza is not only a refugee camp.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no; understood. And, by refugee camp, it creates an image of tents or tin-roofed huts. Gaza City is a real city, somewhat. We'll talk about that.
Anyway, that gets us to 1967. It gets us--in 2005, what happened in Gaza and why did that happen?
Yossi Klein Halevi: In 2005, Israel uprooted the illegal settlements that had built there and evacuated 8,000 settlers who didn't belong there to begin with. And, Israel left because of the determined uprising of the Palestinian people known as the Second Intifada.
Russ Roberts: What is the Intifada? And, there were two. And, how did that change Israel's political perspective on this crisis? You can now go start to wear your Jewish hat.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, if I'm going to wear my Jewish hat, I need to go way back to the 1920s because I said certain points from the Palestinian perspective that I deeply contest.
So, first of all, the notion that Jews lived as a happy minority under Muslim Rule was well and good from the perspective of those who were ruling. But, just as the Palestinians will tell you today that we don't want to live under Israel, Jews did not want to live under foreign rule, whether it was Christian or Muslim. We were in exile. We were helpless.
And, this notion of an idyllic, a benevolent Muslim rule over the Jews and the Christians is a very simplistic reading. It would also be simplistic to say that Jews and Christians suffered relentlessly under Muslim rule. That's not true, either. But certainly the picture is really complicated. There were periods--it depends on which country, it depends on which period. Jews and Christians sometimes lived well under Muslim rule and sometimes were humiliated and actively persecuted.
So, this notion that everything was fine until the Zionist showed up: everything was fine from the perspective of the rulers.
The notion, as well, that this land was largely empty of Jews was disproved by the first ever census that was taken in Jerusalem--I believe it was 1850--where there was already a Jewish majority in the city before the Zionist immigration began. Now Jews were admittedly a minority in the land, but there were so few people in this land to begin with--all told there were maybe half a million people, in the mid-19th century.
And so, for the Jews to have been a majority in Jerusalem, I think tells us something very profound about the deep Jewish attachment here. When Palestinians say, 'We showed up, we came,' they're leaving out one crucial word, and that is 'back.' 'We came back.' We had never severed our connection to this land. It was always central in Jewish consciousness. The genius of rabbinic Judaism was to centralize the land of Israel in Jewish religious practice and in Jewish identity, so that wherever a Jew was in the world, you prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. Wherever you were, you prayed for rain in the land of Israel, even if it wasn't--even if it was the rainy season.
I remember growing up in Brooklyn, when, on the holiday of Sukkot where Jews build booths to commemorate the wandering of the Israelites in the desert. And, it always poured on the holiday of Sukkot. And, it was only when I came to Israel that I realized why we built booths, because it is the end of the harvest season. And, farmers--you could see it in the land today--farmers will build these makeshift booths when they're out in the field harvesting.
And so, we internalized the rhythms of the land of Israel, and not only did it become a kind of vicarious identity for us, but the entire focus of the Jewish future was that one day we would come back.
Russ Roberts: Which is a little like being a Red Sox fan until up to 2004--
Yossi Klein Halevi: Until it happens, right? Until they went--
Russ Roberts: It's just important to recognize that the persistent belief and prayer on the part of Jews that we return to the land and that Jerusalem be rebuilt is bizarrely dysfunctional and surreal that Jews scattered around the world--
Yossi Klein Halevi: It's a surreal story. It is a surreal story. But it happened. But it happened--
Russ Roberts: But, it came true, was shocking. Anyway, carry on.
Yossi Klein Halevi: So, when Palestinians say that the Jews started this conflict because we suddenly showed up, the Jewish response is, 'We didn't suddenly show up. There were always Jews here. More Jews came to join them. We were actualizing the core of our identity.'
And, from the beginning, the Jewish majority--the majority of the Zionist movement--always said yes to partition. Whenever there was an offer on the table, we said yes. In 1935, the British proposed the Peel Commission, which would have given the Jews all of 20% of the land; 80% to the Palestinians. We said yes; the Palestinians rejected it out of hand.
There could be not even a symbolic Jewish sovereignty in this land. In 1947, the UN offered to partition this land into a state that, yes, would have given Israel, the Jews, 55% of the land. But, look at what the land was that the Jews were being offered. Most of it was desert. Almost all of the best land was being given to the Palestinians. Jerusalem would have been an international city. And yet, the Palestinian leadership consistently said no. I can't think of another national movement, not another movement whose leaders have said no more often to statehood than the Palestinians.
Russ Roberts: So, I would say one thing just again to be clear to listeners who may not have read much about this, just to be clear: There were people who lived here in 1880, in 1920, in 1947--we were[?] talking about this. They were living on land that the world called Palestine, but there was no country called Palestine. That was a geographic term. The people, though who lived here--so, that's the Jewish version, which I've said many times.
To give the Palestinians their due: Around the 1920s and before, there was a burgeoning of nationalist sentiment and identity as was happening around the world in many, many places. And, the national aspirations of the people who lived here who were not Jewish--who were Arabs--wanted to have a national home. The place they were living, they wanted sovereignty over it. They didn't want to live under Jewish rule, understandably. They wanted their own sovereignty.
So, although there was no Palestine as a country, and even though the Palestinians did not have a national identity of their own akin to the Jews, they did have a national aspiration. And, the British encouraged it in hopes of getting their cooperation during World War I.
And, the Jews also encouraged their own national identity and aspirations vis-a-vis the British in the aftermath, during and after World War I. And, the Jews ultimately got a country. The Arabs were offered one; it wasn't the size or shape they wanted, so they said no.
Russ Roberts: But let's--you can correct that if you need to, but I want to move forward and get to the Intifada because it's a word that's getting chanted in the streets and I think it's important to know what it is.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Intifada is Arabic for uprising. And there have been two Intifadas. One was in the late 1980s, which began in Gaza in 1987 and then spread to the West Bank. And, just for your listeners to have a picture of the map, the West Bank is on one side of Israel and Gaza is on the other. The West Bank is actually to the east of Israel, and it's called the West Bank because it's to the west of Jordan. And Gaza is to the west of the state of Israel.
And, the First Intifada was largely what the Palestinians call the Intifada of Stones. It was young people--large groups of young people--throwing stones at soldiers, occasionally Molotov cocktails and occasionally acts of terrorism. And, the First Intifada led to the election in Israel of Yitzhak Rabin who ran on a slogan saying, 'Let's take Tel Aviv out of Gaza and Gaza out of Tel Aviv.'
And, his idea was: We need to separate these two peoples because they can't be together in one state. And, the settlement movement was trying to, essentially, create a binational state. And, Rabin's idea was, 'No, that's not going to work. Especially after the First Intifada we realized we can't live together. And let there be, essentially, a Gaza state.' He left the West Bank unclear. He was elected in 1992, a year later. He initiated the peace agreement--or the peace process, rather; there was no peace agreement--with Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization. And, the Oslo Process was a seven-year attempt to resolve the conflict.
And, in the year 2000--Rabin had already been assassinated five years earlier by a Jewish extremist who opposed his policies--in the year 2000, then-President Clinton convened a meeting of the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, to try to resolve the conflict. Ehud Barak put an offer on the table: 91% of the territories, Jerusalem will be shared, Israel will evacuate dozens of settlements, and the Palestinians will have to make one major concession, which is--
Russ Roberts: One second. When you say 91% of the territories, 91% of?--
Yossi Klein Halevi: The West Bank and all of Gaza.
Russ Roberts: Carry on.
Yossi Klein Halevi: And, the major concession that Palestinians would have to offer in return was that the descendants of the refugees of 1948--who by the way, Israel deeply contests the circumstances of how they became refugees. Many of them were expelled; many more fled the battle. This is a very important point in understanding the difference between the two narratives. In addition to which Israel doesn't feel guilty for the Palestinian refugee tragedy, for two reasons. First of all, because we accepted partition and the Palestinian leadership in the Arab world tried to destroy us. And, when one side accepts peace and the other goes for broke, what then happens in war is fair game. The second reason--
Russ Roberts: Except for us. But, other than that, yes, you're right. Historically, nations that lose territory in war, it's who started it, you say[inaudible 00:40:01] too bad. That's right. We have a special standard here at Israel that we are held to that it seems to me unfair--
Yossi Klein Halevi: Exactly. Exactly--
Russ Roberts: But in a way, it doesn't matter. Carry on.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, the second reason why Israelis don't feel guilty for the Palestinian refugee crisis is because the Arab world effectively expelled a million Jews a few years later--through the 1950s--ancient Jewish communities, in many cases that had existed for 2,000 years, 2,500 years. The Jewish community in Iraq existed for 2,500 years, as did the Jewish community in Iran. In Yemen, it was at least a 2,000-year-old community. And so, within two decades after the creation of Israel, the entire Arab world and Muslim world was emptied of Jews. Out of a million Jews living in the Muslim world in 1948, today there are 40,000. Out of the 200,000 or 150,000, there were 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in the state of Israel and became citizens. Today, their number is close to 2 million. Yes? Did I get that?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's 2 million. There are 2 million Arab-Israelis who live within the borders of Israel--not in the West Bank, not at Gaza--who have full rights to vote, get healthcare the way other Israelis do, go to college. And, many of them thrive. Not all of them. And they're not always treated well, that there are many issues here. The kind of police protection they get, I think is grossly inadequate. Their educational system is grossly inadequate. But, they have a whole different set of rights than the refugees--the so-called refugees; I don't like calling them the 'refugees,' but the people who live in the West Bank, some of whom were refugees--who live in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yes. So, this is essentially the Israeli narrative.
And, our borders kept expanding in response to the Arab world's attempt to destroy us. We ended up with more land in 1949 after the 1948 war because we won a war that the Arab world forced on us. In 1967, we ended up expanding our borders once again because the three Arab countries conspired to destroy the Jewish state.
And so, from an Israeli perspective, the Palestinian tragedy is a result of a self-inflicted wound. And, there are limits to how much you can expect Israelis to feel guilty for, when the Palestinian tragedy is an unfolding series of events in response to Israel defending itself.
Russ Roberts: Just a couple of quick things are important to note. Often in these negotiations--I interrupted you; you were about to get to the start of the Second Intifada. I think it's important. But there are things Israel has to apologize for--not necessarily the territorial expansion--but I think you and others, including me, depending on the situation in our discussion, are not happy with the way that Israeli army or the government has treated either Arab-Israelis or Palestinians in the territories on the West Bank or Gaza.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, I think that statement needs to be unpacked.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Yossi Klein Halevi: First of all, let's make a clear distinction between Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinian citizens of Israel. And, that may sound like an oxymoron to some of your listeners, but we have 2 million Palestinians who are citizens of the state. And they, as you mentioned earlier, they have formal equal rights. It doesn't always play out that way in practice. And that's something that I think is a major, major challenge for the Jewish majority in the long term.
In the West Bank, the situation is more complicated: where we are in a state of war with the Palestinian National Movement. And so, much of what the Israeli army needs to do--I won't say all of it, but much of it--has to do with legitimate security needs. And, the point where I disagree with Israeli policy over the years was in building settlements all over the map.
And, I think that that's a mistake. And it's a mistake not because we don't have, in principle, the right to that land. I believe that in principle we do have the right to all of the land. But just as in one's own personal life, you can't always claim everything that is yours by right--sometimes you have to compromise--I believe that we do, in principle, we do need to compromise with this other people that's the counter-claimant.
Now, I keep saying 'in principle,' because in practice it's inconceivable, certainly after October 7th, to imagine the Israeli public taking the frankly insane risk of creating a second Gaza in the West Bank, literally five minutes away from Tel Aviv. And so, the fact that Gaza turned out to be such a disaster--after Israel withdrew from Gaza and uprooted settlements--for Israelis to imagine doing that again anytime soon in the West Bank and risk a second Gaza emerging there is simply inconceivable.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to Gaza. And, I want to say again, for those who aren't on top of this, the settlements that you're referring to are towns, villages, cities that started small, many of them, but expanded within the territory of the West Bank alongside Palestinian villages, Palestinian Territories and inhabitants. And, they don't get along so well--to be simplistic about it. But, if I were a Palestinian giving this--in this conversation--I would make the following argument. I'll give you a chance to refute it because we're hearing it constantly now in the aftermath of October 7th.
And it goes like this: Yes, Israel withdrew from Gaza, but they blockaded it. They besieged it. They did not allow food and other items, necessities, to come in. They humiliate Gaza by turning off electricity from time to time. Gazan's lives are miserable. They're poor, they struggle to get access to Israeli labor markets. And therefore Israel is to blame for the quality of life in Gaza since 2005 when Israel withdrew. Yes, they withdrew the occupation. Yes, they uprooted the settlements of a few thousand Israelis who were living there. But they have been the major factor immiserating the people of Gaza. And, how can you blame Hamas for trying to strike a blow in response to that oppression?
Yossi Klein Halevi: I think that there's a confusion of cause and effect here. When Israel withdrew in 2005, there wasn't a blockade. The blockade began when rocket fire on the Palestinian side followed us over the international border, just as the opponents of the withdrawal from Gaza in Israel had warned would happen. And rather than say, 'You know something? We finally are in full control of a part of Palestine. Let's see what we can do here.' And there was a lot of international goodwill, of an enormous amount of foreign aid that went to Gaza. And, what did the Palestinian National Movement do with that aid? Either they stole it--the leaders stole the money--or they built this unprecedented extension of tunnels underground in preparation for war.
And so, rather than take advantage of the first real opening that the Palestinians had, they ended up fulfilling every Israeli fear about what would happen when we withdrew.
And so, then, yes, we imposed a blockade, but the blockade was never about food and essential items in Gaza. It was trying to stop Iran from smuggling in weapons.
Russ Roberts: Apparently we didn't do a very good job of stopping them, because they have quite a few--
Yossi Klein Halevi: No, we didn't--
Russ Roberts: And used many of them over the last five weeks.
Yossi Klein Halevi: We didn't. We didn't. And, there were many, many Israeli failures in the last years. And, there was the Netanyahu Doctrine, which basically said that Hamas is not a serious threat to Israel. And, the Netanyahu--successive Netanyahu governments--allowed several billion dollars of Qatari money to be delivered to Gaza in suitcases. And, this is stunning. This is a stunning failure of the Netanyahu security doctrine, which literally blew up in our faces on October 7th.
Russ Roberts: So, your book, and I recommend it highly, it's a beautifully written book, and I've forced you to defend the Palestinian narrative, and I didn't give you probably equal time for the Jewish narrative. The book does it at great length and great eloquence. It's quite inspiring. And, I share that narrative more or less with you. It speaks to me the way it speaks to you. And, interested readers, I encourage you to go read the book.
But, the book ends with this powerful--to me--very powerful plea for a two-state solution: that each narrative, since they are effectively zero-sum in their entirety, will require a sacrifice. Each side will have to give up something.
Each side will have to willingly forego the fulfillment of the full version of that narrative; and with the result that there will be disappointment, but peace is powerful and we have much to learn from the religion of Islam, potentially; potentially Islam has much to learn from Judaism. And, we could envision a world--you could at least when that book was written in 2018--that would at least strive for such an outcome.
It's pretty clear from your remarks a few minutes ago that that possibility is certainly dead in the body politic of Israel as of right now.
Yossi Klein Halevi: As of right now. I think that's important to emphasize, because in Israel things are always so fluid that you could never really freeze the frame and say, 'This is Israeli reality.'
Russ Roberts: True. So let's--I want to turn to the future, then, even though that one is perhaps farther in the future, if unavailable. I'm curious--take off your Palestinian hat, put on your Jewish-Israeli public-intellectual hat--and let's talk about this country, which has--we're sitting here five weeks after the attack and I find myself on an incredible emotional rollercoaster. There are moments where I am awed and inspired and just overwhelmed by the cooperation of this country with each other--the civil society response to this. And, we'll do a whole, I hope, episode down the road on the emergent order that has happened here and where government really failed in both response to the crisis, both culturally and militarily, and how the people stepped up. Economists like to talk about crowding out--how government activity often will cause private activity to contract. But, this was crowding in. The government didn't do certain things that most people expected it to do, and Israelis said, 'Oh, then[?] I'll do them.'
And, they did them as individuals. They did them as collectives. They did them as organizations. So, extraordinary storybooks will be written about just that piece of it.
At the same time, I realize that whether I'm thinking about it or not, I'm wearing what I think of as a lead cape that's weighing me down constantly knowing that there's 240 people I hope alive--we don't know--sitting in those tunnels or elsewhere in Gaza. No U.N. inspection, no Red Cross--International Red Cross. No communication, no health concerns for those people. And so, I'm not doing so well, even though I feel sometimes like my life is somewhat normal. Plus I have my colleagues, as you do. I have family members and colleagues with family members serving in harm's way--at risk, great risk. And, of course, I am very concerned about the future. I don't know how this is going to turn out. We don't know.
But I want to abstract from as much of that as we can. And, I want your thoughts on what this sequence of both tragedy of October 7th and the resolve and response of October 8th--the next day--that the Israeli people have, or how they have responded, to think about how Israel is going to be different going forward. Certainly, certain political solutions are off the table, certainly in the short run that we've been talking about. But, culturally, religiously, and politically just within our borders, how do you think the last five weeks have changed this country?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Israelis feel the fragileness of this country a lot more acutely. Israel has long been very powerful--projected power--even as it was aware of a certain vulnerability. And, the vulnerability was a result of the fact that we are not only confronting the Palestinians, who in relation to us are powerless, but we are the lone, non-Arab, non-Muslim state for thousands of kilometers around us. And, for most of our history, the entire region or almost the entire region, has been hostile to our existence. So, we were always aware of a certain amount of precariousness. But we also felt that we were strong enough to deal with any threat. The fact that Hamas--which was the weakest of our enemies--delivered the most devastating blow in Israel's history, is a psychological shock that I don't think our generation is going to fully overcome.
This is now going to mark the Israeli character in a way that we haven't experienced probably since the first years of the state. And, what that will do to Israeli culture, faith, my sense is that there's going to be an intensification of spiritual search--which has been happening in Israel really since the Second Intifada, which was the five-year period, we didn't talk about the Second Intifada, the period of suicide bombings, which were, until October 7th, was the worst period in Israel's history. October 7th overshadowed everything. 1,000 Israelis were killed in five years of suicide bombings in the early 2000s, and 1,200 Israelis were murdered in one day on October 7th.
And so, the sense of fragileness--just as in our own lives, when we have a close encounter with mortality, whether it's someone we love or whether it's ourselves, there is a natural tendency to begin asking big questions to cut through the distractions of daily life and begin to grapple with: well, is there a soul? Am I eternal? Is this really all there is? Well, what do religions have to say? And, is there anything credible there? Those are natural questions that we ask when we encounter death.
We as a society encountered our mortality on October 7th. October 7th was a miniature kind of pre-enactment of what the destruction of Israel would look like. Mass slaughter, helpless, the army is nowhere to be seen; and that's how Israelis viscerally experienced October 7th.
And so, what do we as a society do with that close encounter with the nation's mortality? I think we're going to see an intensification of religious search; and that that will take place in Judaism, but not only within Judaism. I think we'll see more Buddhism in this country. We'll see more of the Eastern faiths taking root. People looking for ways to cope, more meditation, more breathing. As a society, we so desperately need ways to help us cope, to get through a day or to get through the night.
I don't know about you, Russ, but I dread the night, because it's a struggle to try to get a few hours of sleep. You know, you lie there and you start thinking: My God, where am I living? What's happened here? Did October 7th really happen? And, are we now fighting this desperate war in Gaza? Might we be fighting another war in Lebanon any moment? And, is the world really blaming us? Are we really the aggressors again here?
And, you start to unpack this cumulative assault that we're experiencing, and you can just feel like you're going out of your mind. So, we will need ways to cope, as individuals and as a society.
So, I do think we're going to be seeing a lot more introspection.
I think you also can't separate October 7th and the aftermath from the year that preceded it.
We had, to my mind, the most depressing year that--I've lived in Israel now for 40-plus years. This past year was the worst year for me as an Israeli, precisely because I felt that my government was betraying the Israeli ethos. That my government was assaulting Israel as a democracy and was tearing this country apart. I was out in the streets demonstrating every week with [inaudible 01:02:33]--
Russ Roberts: You're talking about the very controversial judicial reform.
Yossi Klein Halevi: The judicial reform, and the democracy movement that pushed, that tried to save the independent Supreme Court.
And, we were really looking at the abyss over this last year, where Israelis no longer felt that they could trust each other to share the most minimal vision of Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a democratic state.
And, what changed--what changed literally overnight--from October 6th to October 8th was we went from the lowest point of disunity in this country's history to a peak point of unity. What an extraordinary and strange place this is! And, if you would have asked me two months ago, would we be able to make that kind of comeback from where we were over this last year? I'm not sure I would have said yes. So, I feel so uplifted by the response, by what you were describing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I had a conversation--maybe he'll become a guest on EconTalk in the future--but I had a conversation maybe a month before October 7th with a very thoughtful person who said to me that this would be a perfect time for Israel's enemies to attack. Why?
Well, there's near civil war on the street, to the point where pilots are refusing to train in this elite air force that is a key part of Israel's defense. Pilots are not at the top of their game. There are riots in the street on the holiest day of the year--on Yom Kippur, secular religious Jews fought with each other. Fortunately not any way that resulted in deaths, but there were fights that broke out on Yom Kippur.
The society was being rent in two by political and ultimately religious concerns that got tied in with that judicial reform for reasons that we won't go into now.
And, on top of that--funny to talk about it now--but on top of that, on October 6th or the month before, Israel's most important ally, the United States, did not appear to have its back. The President, Joe Biden, did not appear to have any relationship at all other than a negative one with the Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu. His party had become increasingly disenamored--unenamored--of the Israeli relationship. And the Republicans were certainly--there was a strong isolationist theme in Republican politics.
So, Israel, on October 6th--said this observer--is incredibly vulnerable; and it would be obviously a very good time to attack.
And, that observation was fundamentally correct. I think Iran, in a desire to reduce the chance of a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, certainly gave the green light to Hamas for these attacks--funded them, prepared them. We don't know what level of detail, but it doesn't matter.
And, boy, did they get it wrong.
Yossi Klein Halevi: They really did.
Russ Roberts: Israeli society, which was incredibly divided to the point of really--I was expecting real violence on the streets, not just people scrapping with each other--but as you say, overnight became the most unified, as much as ever. The United States suddenly became a stalwart as much as ever in the history of the two relationships. Joe Biden brings two aircraft carriers and a nuclear submarine into the Mediterranean to slow down any thoughts that Iran might have of getting in. And so, it has been an extraordinary transition--that--we'll see what that leads to. We don't know.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Our enemies always underestimate us. That's their--that's their fundamental mistake. And I do believe we're going to come out of this in a much more intact way, as strange as that sounds, than we were before October 7th. That's what gives me hope.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Yossi Klein Halevi: My pleasure. Thank you.