Can prosperity really bring peace to the Middle East? Unpacking Trump’s plan
icah Goodman is the author of the best-selling Catch 67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War. In it, the philosopher traces the development of the ideologies of the left and right and defines the central problem in Israeli politics. Israel is caught in a proverbial catch-22: It can neither safely withdraw from Judea and Samaria, nor can it annex the territory without irrevocably changing the state’s character. It is that tension, that inescapable problem, that has left so many Israelis confused about the present and fearful for the future.
Born in Jerusalem to American parents and a current resident of Kfar Edumim, Dr. Goodman asks readers to drop their baseline assumptions and fully consider the arguments of the opposition. He challenges readers to understand Palestinian aspirations as well. From the perspective of the Palestinians, Goodman writes, the conflict revolves around three central pillars: One, Islam’s perceived humiliation by the West. Two, the trauma of the stunning loss in the 1948 War of Independence. Three, the pain of 50 years of military rule since the 1967 Six Day War.
With the White House’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan now public, I asked Goodman to consider the Trump administration’s approach to peace and whether the proposal has any chance for success.
What are your general impressions of the White House peace plan?
It’s hard to assess the plan because we don’t have the political part, but here’s the two things we know. We see the economic part, which makes a lot of sense, and then there’s the Trump rhetoric about peace and the “deal of the century” — fairly big rhetoric. But all of these steps on the ground don’t add up to the rhetoric of President Trump.
Why is that?
Because if the point is to end the conflict, to achieve peace, all these important steps on the ground are an attempt to seduce the Palestinians to give up their historic demands, like right of return. Historically speaking, it’s very possible to seduce people economically, to get them to turn their backs on their values and their identities and their dreams. But you can do that to individuals, not collectives. Collectives don’t do that, nations don’t do that. I think the basic assumption of the Trump administration is that collectives work and think like individuals. And I think this whole premise is wrong. Collectives are different entities, have different psychologies, than individuals. So if — and this is a big if — this whole economic thing is a very big carrot, [and the Trump team is] hoping that they swallow it, and in return they will give up some of their national dreams and make peace with Israel, I think that assumes that collectives think like individuals.
But if we take these steps and package them differently? For instance, I saw there’s a very important proposal to revamp the water system in the Palestinian territory and the energy industry. What if all of this is not a carrot toward the big thing but is the big thing? This is all it is. They don’t have to give up their dreams to accept all these things. What if we are talking about something much more modest, for instance a 40-year ceasefire? If this is not a tradeoff for them to give up pieces of their identities to get a better life, then that’s more modest. If this is just a cease-fire, then all the steps start making more sense.
And yet, in your book, you are critical of the economic approach to peace.
I am against the idea that through the economy alone you can bring peace. Economic peace won’t turn Israel and the Palestinians into France and England. But can economics make life a little bit better? Yes. I’m just against big expectations. The problem with big expectations is that when they don’t fulfill themselves, you get violence. The whole language of “peace” and “end of conflict,” “the new Middle East,” this big rhetoric is not helpful. It’s destructive, because it creates expectations. When they are not met, things have a tendency to collapse, and then there’s violence.
Let’s have a relationship between words and deeds. Let’s say the term I want to use is not “end the conflict” but “shrink the conflict.” Not “deal of the century” but “deal of the decade.” Let’s think about more modest lingo. Larger deeds, smaller words. Let’s talk about a ten-year deal where the Palestinians don’t have to give up what they see as their legitimate rights and Israel doesn’t have to give up security. Shrinking the conflict step by step. Modest politics, not deal-of-the-century rhetoric.
But would the Palestinians accept that approach even if we “shrank” the conflict?
I think then you have a chance. If they say “they are not trying to bribe us,” this is not a seduction to give up our rights.
You write about the left and the right, and their ideologies, and how we got to the present moment. Regarding Netanyahu, what is his play here?
It’s very complicated. In Israel, there are people paid very large salaries to try to understand Bibi.
Because he’s a complicated figure or because he’s operating in a complicated environment?
He has powerful opinions, he has powerful circumstances to navigate through, there’s a lot of political pressure. He’s very sophisticated. It’s my guess that Bibi on his best day would think that if we can make the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank much, much better, if we could add to their liberties, increase their prosperity, without threatening the lives of Israelis, then we should do our best. I think Netanyahu would be completely in. The problem is the hard right in Israel would be against this. Netanyahu today is very sensitive about what people on the hard right think because he needs a strong bond with them to deal with other issues he’s dealing with now.
You mean the indictments?
Yes. Today, because of his legal situation, Bibi is today dependent on the hard right more than he’d like to be. As a result, he’s less flexible politically then he’d like to be. So how does Bibi maneuver, be flexible, with Trump and his need to survive politically with the Israeli hard right? How he does that is very hard to predict.
One of the theories going around is that the deal is meant to be rejected. That is, the Americans and Israelis know it’s going to be rejected, and their real end game is annexing the settlements.
I don’t think that’s what Bibi wants, I think that’s what the hard right in Israel wants. Perhaps you can say this is the way Bibi can keep his base on board with the Trump plan. Because then they can say, we support you exploring the Trump plan because we assume that the end outcome would be in our favor. That theory serves Netanyahu because then he can navigate among all the players. Will it work out? I don’t know. It’s impossible to predict the future. Only HaKadosh Baruch Hu knows the future. We have no idea what’s going to happen.
One of the reasons I think we should talk about modest politics is because politics is an attempt to create the future, and the future is beyond our control. That’s why I think we should be modest about it. That’s why I’m for the politics of small steps, the politics of pragmatism, not ideological politics, not the politics that try to reconstruct history. Big politics is doomed to fail because it assumes that human beings have more power than they actually do. The future is a mystery.
I have to ask you, since we’re speaking about annexation: What do you think the consequences for Israel would be if the government did annex Area C?
I think, again, it’s impossible to know. But for sure annexation of Area C would turn Areas A and B into autonomous islands that are disconnected from each other, effectively swallowing all these Palestinians into Israeli territory. This would mean we’re getting one giant step closer to a binational state.
Here’s the thing: Israel faces two possible catastrophes. There is the catastrophe that the left can bring upon us, which would be missiles on Tel Aviv, turning Tel Aviv into Sderot. Then there is the catastrophe that the right can bring upon us, which is turning Israel into a binational state — turning Israel into Lebanon or Bosnia. Now I don’t want to turn Tel Aviv into Sderot and I don’t want to turn Israel into Bosnia. Let’s avoid both catastrophes, the catastrophe of a withdrawal and the catastrophe of annexation. And I would say annexing the West Bank is as dangerous as a withdrawal from the West Bank — and a withdrawal from the West Bank is dangerous.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 766)