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?
Olmert and Grossman
UNRESOLVED: Palestinian workers approach a checkpoint to Jerusalem in 2007

The latest iteration of the never-ending Middle East peace process, launched in Annapolis late last year by President Bush, is in many ways a farce. Olmert’s ruling coalition is unstable, and he is deeply unpopular. Bush shows no sustained interest in understanding the dispute. Condoleezza Rice is ignored across the Middle East. And Abbas’s authority doesn’t radiate far beyond Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. The tragedy of this farce is that this could be the last time a two-state solution is seen as a viable option. It is a cliché for Middle East leaders to warn that time is running out, but today it seems that the possibility of a two-state solution is swiftly fading. Palestinian rejectionists and unbending Jewish settlement leaders are in harmony on this point. “It does not matter what the Jews do. We will not let them have peace,” Ibrahim Mudeiris, the imam of the Ijlin Mosque in Gaza, told me not long ago. We spoke after Friday prayers. The street outside the mosque was crowded with angry young men who had been excited by Mudeiris’s sermon, in which he identified Jews as “the sons of apes and pigs.”

“They can be nice to us or they can kill us, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If we have a cease-fire with the Jews, it is only so that we can prepare ourselves for the final battle.”

For Palestinian radicals, the closing of the settlements would be a terrible blow. The smartest Palestinian strategists understand this. “The longer they stay out there, the more Israel will appear to the world to be essentially an apartheid state,” the former Palestinian Authority negotiator Michael Tarazi told me a few years ago. “The settlements mean that the egg is hopelessly scrambled. Basically, it is already one state.”

The hard-core settlers are as intransigent, and as patient, as their Palestinian counterparts. The mayor of Ariel, one of the West Bank’s largest Jewish towns, told me that time is on the side of the settlers. Ariel, which has a population of roughly 20,000, is southwest of Nablus, the largest Arab city in the West Bank. “We have to hold on for a few more years, at most,” Ron Nachman, the mayor, said. “Then the world will realize that the solution lies with Jordan.” Nachman, along with many other West Bank settler leaders, believes that the Palestinians of the West Bank should be made Jordanian citizens. The Palestinians don’t generally seek this. Nor do the Jordanians. But Nachman said that once the world realizes that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is eternal, it will come to view the “Jordanian option” as a plausible solution. “Trust me, no one is throwing us out of Ariel,” he said.

For many of the settlers, and certainly for their spiritual leaders, the state of Israel’s democracy is of minimal concern. A couple of years ago, I visited the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which has graduated many of the settlement movement’s leaders, to speak to its rabbis about the balance between democracy and Judaism.

In early March, the yeshiva was attacked by a Palestinian gunman who killed eight students, mainly teenagers, in a library. When I had visited Mercaz HaRav, Rabbi David Samson, a teacher at the yeshiva and one of the leading proponents of its philosophy, had foretold the attack: “We are of course a target of terror. The enemies of the Jewish people know the importance of this yeshiva. We send forth the pioneers to build the state.” In the course of a lengthy discussion, Samson explained the yeshiva’s position on democracy. “Democracy is not a value for us. Justice is a value, and fairness, but not democracy. In the Book of Exodus, it says that the Jews shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It does not talk about democracy.” The Arabs who live in biblical Israel, he said, can either choose “to get along with us, to live peacefully, or to leave.” He said the Arabs would have the status of “protected foreigners” in Israel; they would have local autonomy, but have no say in the governance of Israel.

What if the world rejects this? “The world has always rejected the Jews. But God always provides.” God will punish the Jews, he said, if they divide the Holy Land. “A Palestinian state would be an abomination.”

A Palestinian state, of course, might not come to pass. Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority government, is a veteran peace negotiator and one of the few Palestinian leaders who still view a two-state solution as conceivable. “There are only two or three years left,” he said. “If this doesn’t work, then everyone will be arguing for a one-state solution.”

The one-state solution—the dissolution of Israel and the merging of the Jewish and Arab populations—is neither practicable nor, from the Israeli perspective, desirable. (In the 1940s, many Jewish thinkers endorsed the idea of binationalism, but the idea was rejected by the Arabs.) In any case, the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state would, of course, demand the agreement of Israel’s Jews, who, for manifold reasons, would not want to live in a state dominated by Arabs. “I’ll make a prediction that Israel will not commit suicide,” Yehezkel Dror, the head of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a political scientist at Hebrew University, told me.

David Grossman, like most of Israel’s leftists, sees binationalism as simultaneously utopian and dismissive of Jewish feelings. “You know, binationalism doesn’t work in so many places in the world,” he said. “You see it in Belgium now. And they expect, with this really hateful combination of Jews and Arabs, that it will succeed here? It’s so wrong. Part of the cure for the historical distortions of both peoples is that they need a place of their own with defined borders. We have to heal separately. I’m a little suspicious of these people who would experiment on us with binationalism.”

Reality, he said, has made a Jewish state necessary. “Since the world has failed to defend Jewish existence, there is a need for a place for the Jews to implement their culture and their values and their language and their history, a place in which to recover.”

But what if Israel’s neighbors never give its Jews a chance to recover from history?

Since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, eight years ago, many of Grossman’s allies on the left have abandoned the idea that Arabs will reconcile themselves to a Jewish state in their midst. Benny Morris, a historian who has done much work to uncover evidence of Jewish sin, as well as Arab sin, in the birth of Israel, recently wrote: “The situation [Jewish] Israelis live in, and even more so, most likely face, is antediluvian, revolutionary and possibly apocalyptic.” When I spoke to Morris in Jerusalem, he described Israel as an “amazing success story” and, in virtually the same sentence, called it “the most dangerous place in the world for Jews as Jews, as a collective of 5 million people who are in danger of extinction in the short term from an Iranian nuclear bomb and in the long term by being overwhelmed by Arabs.”

Grossman, despite his existential fears, has not given up on the idea of compromise. In The Yellow Wind, he tells of the time he found himself trapped at Bethlehem University, as a Palestinian demonstration raged around him.

I write the following in my green notebook: Now, the truth. Are you afraid? Yes. And if something happens to you here, if they hurt you, do you think it will cause you to revise your opinions? To begin to surrender to hate? And if they were to hurt your child?

I set down the answer for the record and as personal testimony, and it is all written there, in the green notebook.

His private answer is now public; since Uri’s death, he has not cast aside his opposition to occupation and settlement, or his belief in reconciliation.

But this does not necessarily suggest that he would make a sophisticated negotiator, or a sound strategist. Grossman believes that Israel must negotiate with Hamas, an organization that pays obeisance to Iran, that bases its charter in part on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and that has shown itself to be more interested in destroying Israel than in building a state of its own.

Of course, any such talks would necessarily grant legitimacy to Hamas and undermine the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank who remain Israel’s best, and perhaps only, hope for a more tranquil future.

The West Bank leadership cannot be buttressed merely with rhetoric, or with ineffectual negotiations meant to erect only the scaffolding of an agreement. The Camp David negotiations in 2000 collapsed mainly because the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, was unable to strike a final deal with Israel. But during the seven years of the Oslo peace process, which was meant to negotiate a Palestinian state into existence, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank nearly doubled. It is difficult to blame Palestinians for their cynicism about Israeli intentions regarding the West Bank. Only by closing outposts and dismantling settlements can Israeli leaders help the Palestinian moderates, and themselves. When I asked Olmert why he argues for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory but allows the expansion of existing settlements and the continued existence of illegal outposts, he barked, “I dismantled Amona!” Amona is the outpost that came down in February 2006. “That was the most traumatic event, even more than the disengagement from Gaza. It was very violent.”

Not one outpost has been dismantled since Amona was closed, and none seems slated for impending disappearance. This is the core of Grossman’s criticism of Olmert. The prime minister, in his view, is a skilled rhetorician but a political coward, one who speaks the language of reconciliation but whose actions in Lebanon, and in Gaza, suggest something else.

There is a split on the left; some of Grossman’s allies believe that he is, in fact, too hard on the prime minister. “Olmert is paralyzed because the people are paralyzed,” A. B. Yehoshua said. “The whole country is paralyzed.”

And tired. Benny Morris noted recently that, just as the West is tired of the hundred-year war in the Middle East, so too are Israelis. Morris’s analysis contained an echo of a statement made by Olmert three years ago, when he was still vice premier under Sharon. “We are tired of fighting,” he told the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal pro-Israel group, in New York. “We are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies.”

Olmert’s shift to the left did not occur in a vacuum. His wife, Aliza, has been a sympathizer of Peace Now, and his children have been left-wing activists. One daughter, Dana, is a prominent gay-rights advocate in Tel Aviv, and has associated herself with groups opposed to her father’s policies. During the 2006 Israeli incursions into Gaza, she took part in a demonstration that denounced the army chief of staff as a “child-killer.” One of Olmert’s sons has refused to serve his army-reserve duty in the occupied territories, and another son managed to avoid the draft altogether. Olmert’s family is not entirely unusual; the secular left, which once provided a disproportionate number of officers and commandos to the army, no longer does so; sons of the settlements now account for more than 25 percent of the Israeli officer corps. Which makes the left-wing Grossman family’s contribution to the national defense more striking.

I asked Olmert whether he would still like to reconcile with Grossman. “Look, I have responsibilities to attend to,” he said. “I met with every one of the bereaved families who was ready to meet with me. He was demonstrating against me rather than sitting with me. Which is perfectly legitimate, but I sit with many of the families. I think most of them came here and sat with me, something you don’t find in any other country in the world. If you would know how many hours I spent with the families of the fallen soldiers!”

Olmert blustered on for a while, comparing himself to Rudy Giuliani, stressing his commitment to peace and security, mocking his former Likud colleagues, and praising himself for the care he provides the families of the dead. He neglected to mention something I learned only later. For almost two years, he has repeatedly sent emissaries to Grossman, hoping for a reconciliation. These emissaries included his daughter Dana and a former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, both sent to persuade Grossman to see him. Dana Olmert’s visit backfired; Grossman asked her to place herself in his shoes: Would she reconcile with her father, if she were Grossman? No, she said, according to people familiar with the conversation.

Burg’s message was unequivocal. Olmert is trying to save Israel by compromising with the Palestinians, and he is in dire need of help. The prime minister has permanently alienated the country’s right wing. The Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva announced shortly after the fatal attack that Olmert would not be welcome to pay a condolence call. “We cannot receive a prime minister who advocates against the spirit of the Torah and accept that Israel withdraws from a part of the Land of Israel,” a yeshiva official, Rabbi Haim Steiner, said.

Burg told me: “I believe that any person who wants to influence society cannot allow himself to be in a situation where you won’t talk to the prime minister.” But Grossman has so far rejected Burg’s pleas.

Burg’s visit was motivated not only by politics, he said. He is concerned about Olmert’s emotional well-being.

“The prime minister suffers the casualties of war,” Burg said. “He doesn’t sleep at night. He knows what Uri Grossman represents.”

Presented by

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.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In