Unforgiven

The rift between a beleaguered prime minister and a grieving novelist mirrors the division confounding Israel. Can the two men overcome the differences that separate them? Can Israel overcome its paralysis to make the hard choice necessary for its survival as a Jewish democracy?

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In early August of 2006, four weeks after the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which has as its goal the physical elimination of Israel (and the ancillary ambition of murdering, whenever practicable, Jews elsewhere in the world), killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two more in a cross-border raid, Israel found itself in an exceedingly disagreeable position. The Hezbollah attack had prompted an immediate, and intermittently unrestrained, Israeli military response, which included thousands of bombing runs over Lebanon. The prime minister, the untried Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem who had taken office eight months earlier, promised to obliterate Hezbollah. In the past, Israel had destroyed far greater enemies—the Syrian air force, the Egyptian army, the Arab Legion—so it was assumed that Israel would make short work of Hezbollah, a force consisting of, at most, a few thousand fighters in possession of 12,000 short-range rockets. But within days of Israel’s initial attack, it seemed obvious that the Olmert mission was in peril. The Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, which had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Hezbollah members and innocent civilians, could not stop Hezbollah’s rockets from falling on northern Israel. These rocket attacks had killed dozens of Israelis—Arab Israelis included—and had made the Galilee largely uninhabitable. Thousands of Israelis became refugees in their own country, fleeing south in search of shelter.

On August 9, Olmert’s cabinet authorized a full-scale ground invasion. Israeli troops were already operating inside Lebanon, but in relatively modest numbers. The generals believed that an armored sweep across southern Lebanon could at least push Hezbollah’s rocket teams back to the Litani River, well away from the Israeli border.

At the outset of the conflict, in July, Israelis had stood united with Olmert against Hezbollah. Israel’s endless confrontation with the Palestinians is shaded with ambiguities; many Israelis wish to see a Palestinian state come into being in the West Bank and in Gaza, even as they doubt that such a state would bring an end to terrorism. With Hezbollah, there are fewer grays. Its sponsor, Iran, poses the most immediate threat to Israel’s physical existence; many of its leaders are plainly anti-Semitic. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a Holocaust denier who has called Israel a “filthy bacteria.” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has said in a speech, “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli.”

Because the Hezbollah attack was unprovoked, much of the world had initially expressed sympathy for Israel. This took Israelis by surprise; it had been more than 40 years since they generally received such consideration from the international community. Even Sunni Arab leaders, who fear Shiite radicalism more than they dislike the Jewish state, expressed irritation with Hezbollah.

By early August, though, opinion was shifting, and the decision to launch a ground invasion just when credible cease-fire proposals were proliferating was controversial around the world, and even at home. This was at least partly because Olmert, a lawyer and party functionary, and his defense minister, a former union leader named Amir Peretz, seemed to be in over their heads. Their actions convinced some Israelis—particularly those on the left—that the decision to order a ground invasion revealed a kind of unthinking aggressiveness.

On Thursday, August 10, the day after Olmert’s cabinet authorized the invasion, Israel’s three most prominent writers, Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, held a press conference to call for a cease-fire. This was not an entirely marginal exercise. Writers in Israel play a role in the moral and political life of their country that is unfamiliar to writers in the United States. The three men were not reflexively biased against Olmert, who, unlike his main political rival, the former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was something of a born-again leftist. Olmert had once been a prince of the right-wing Likud Party. But, like his mentor and predecessor, Ariel Sharon, Olmert had come to believe that a withdrawal from Palestinian territory was in the urgent best interest of Israel.

Olmert’s main consideration was not moral but demographic: within the next several years, the number of Arabs under Israeli control—there are now more than 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel (there are 5.4 million Jews), and an additional 3.4 million or more Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza—will be greater than the number of Jews. The Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimates that by 2020, Jews will make up just 47 percent of the people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Political parties of the left and the center see the “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish majority as an existential menace nearly on a par with that posed by Iran and its nuclear program. The demographic trend has raised fears that Israel will become a state like pre-Mandela South Africa, in which the minority ruled the majority. But if the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza were given the vote, then Israel, a country whose fundamental purpose has been to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews, and to allow those Jews to have the novel experience of being part of a majority, would disappear, to be replaced by an Arab-dominated “binational” state. Yet Israel has not found a way to escape the West Bank.

Unlike Olmert, the three writers had been longtime advocates of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, in part for reasons of morality, and in part because they want to protect their country’s Jewish majority. In the days of near-hallucinatory ecstasy that followed Israel’s lopsided victory in the Six-Day War of 1967—in which Israel took possession of Gaza and the West Bank—Oz was one of the first Israelis to warn about the moral and strategic consequences of military occupation, and in the late 1970s he was a founder of the left-wing group Peace Now, which advocates Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Yehoshua, who has been called the “Israeli Faulkner” by Harold Bloom, has repeatedly urged the United States to pull its ambassador as a “symbolic” way to protest the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Grossman’s fiction, much of it haunted by the Holocaust, concerns the durability of grief; his most accomplished novel to date, See Under: Love (1986), is a complicated weaving of fantasy and reality that recalls the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Grossman has been preoccupied with the ubiquity of death in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians for many years. Nearly a decade ago, he told an interviewer that Israeli couples “have three children so if one of them dies, there will be two left.” Grossman made his name internationally with a book of nonfiction prophecy, The Yellow Wind, which he wrote (originally for an Israeli newsmagazine) in early 1987. The Yellow Wind was an exposé of the occupation and its demoralizing effects on Palestinians, and on the Israelis who enforced it. The book presaged the first intifada, or uprising, which began in December of that year.

Though all three authors were advocates of compromise and believed that Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank was a catastrophe, none was a pacifist, all were patriots, and all supported the initial retaliation against Hezbollah. “It would have been immoral not to respond,” Yehoshua told me later, but after the Lebanese government promised to rein in Hezbollah, “we had to say ‘Enough.’” Grossman did much of the speaking at the press conference that day. His main contention was that Israel had overreached in the pursuit of self-defense. “The argument that an Israeli presence on the Litani would prevent the firing of missiles on Israel is an illusion,” he said. “Even the argument that we mustn’t give Hezbollah a sense of security has been irrelevant for a long time. Hezbollah wishes to see us sink deeper into the Lebanese swamp.”

Grossman saw in Olmert’s invasion what he called an emblematic, and regrettable, Israeli response to terrorist threats, of a piece with Israel’s typical response to dangers posed by Hamas in Gaza. “Now we must look … not to the familiar, instinctive reaction of the Israeli way of fighting—that is, what doesn’t work with force will work with much more force,” he said. “Force, in this case, will fan the flames of hatred for Israel in the region and the entire world, and may even, heaven forbid, create the situation that will bring upon us the next war and push the Middle East to an all-out, regional war.”

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Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, published this year in paperback. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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