TORONTO — Israeli leaders are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to solving Israel’s existential crisis, said Yossi Klein Halevi, an analyst, author and journalist who was in Toronto last week to speak at Holy Blossom Temple.
Halevi, who delivered a lecture titled “What Must Israel Do To Survive and Thrive” as part of the Gerald Schwartz/Heather Reisman Fall Lecture Series at Holy Blossom, said the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations is an example of a “classic Israeli dilemma,” for which Israel has “no good options.”
“If there is no Palestinian state, in the long term, Israel will face multiple existential threats demographically, to the Jewish nature of the state, forced to make a choice between Israel as a Jewish or democratic state, and we will find ourselves increasingly isolated around the world.”
Given that the Palestinian leadership rejects a Jewish state, and given the mood of the international community concerning Israel’s right to defend itself, creating a Palestinian state is also an existential threat, he added.
“It would risk turning Tel Aviv into Sderot… and if we were to send the army back into Jenin and Ein Kerem to protect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the coastal plain… we would find ourselves branded as war criminals,” said Halevi, a senior fellow in the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based academic research institute.
“Create a Palestinian state and your life is in danger. Don’t create a Palestinian state and your life is in danger. A classic Israeli dilemma.”
Halevi spoke about another dilemma Israeli leadership wrestled with for years before making a decision last month that he feels “was a disaster for Israel.”
He recalled the day IDF soldier Gilad Schalit was returned to Israel in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists.
He and his wife, who live in an area of Jerusalem that overlooks a Palestinian neighbourhood, watched hundreds of Palestinians gather in the streets to celebrate the return of two of its residents. An enormous Hamas flag flew above their heads.
“That moment confirmed for me why I had been so skeptical all along of the campaign to free Gilad virtually at any price,” Halevi said.
“We know from past experience that in any prisoner exchange, a given number of these terrorists will return to commit murder. That means that in this prisoner exchange ‘X’ number of anonymous Israelis have been condemned to death.”
On the other hand, he said he was “surprised and then overwhelmed by the joy and solidarity and pride of Israelis, especially young Israelis.”
Halevi, who made aliyah to Israel from New York in 1982, said, “This was the single most joyful moment I’d experienced in Israel.”
While he still believes Israel will pay a steep price for the exchange, he now agrees with the supporters of the deal that Israel had no choice.
“There was an additional factor I hadn’t considered, and that was the factor of morale – the factor of pride and solidarity that a nation under permanent siege must periodically experience.”
Addressing threats by Hamas to kidnap more soldiers, Halevi said if it happens again, he hopes Israel’s military will “immediately enter Gaza with overwhelming force and start grabbing Hamas leaders and say, ‘Now we’re ready for an exchange.’”
Halevi, who said, “not since May 1967 has Israel been so terrifying to live in,” emphasized that Israel faces hostility from every direction: Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south, and even Egypt to the southwest.
There are about 160,000 missiles – both primitive and sophisticated – aimed at Israel, Halevi said.
In past conflicts, Israelis were able to move further south out of missile range, but today, there is nowhere to run.
“Every place in Israel can be hit at will by Hamas, Hezbollah and the countries further to our north.”
But despite Israel’s existential threats, it is crucial that Israelis not see themselves as victims.
“I deeply resent the Holocaust comparisons that some of my leaders have made over the years regarding the Iranian nuclear threat. This is not the 1930s, and even though we still have genocidal enemies… we are more than able to protect ourselves.”
Delivering messages to both the left- and right-wing members of the audience, Halevi said it’s important that people resist the temptation to over-simplify the conflict.
The right shouldn’t enforce the ideology that if we continue to build settlements, we’ll ensure our security, and the left shouldn’t insist that “if we only ended the occupation, we’ll receive peace.”