A.B. Yehoshua: The man who gave up on Zionism - opinion

Late in life, A.B. Yehoshua adopted a position that essentially spelled Israel's end.

 A. B. YEHOSHUA grants an interview at his home in Jerusalem, 2007. (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
A. B. YEHOSHUA grants an interview at his home in Jerusalem, 2007.
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

A. B. Yehoshua, the iconic Israeli novelist who died this week, was not just a great writer but a public intellectual of the highest order. He was also a man capable of changing his mind, which is a rarity in our mulish era when many would rather chew their arm off than admit a mistake.

So I find it remarkable that the eulogies have tended to ignore his volte-face from a few months ago. Having just turned 85, this lifelong supporter of the two-state solution decided it was no longer feasible to separate Israel from the West Bank.

“The tremendous number of settlements and the annexation of east Jerusalem have, in my opinion, shattered the possibility of a reasonable and fair division between the two peoples in the Land of Israel,” he wrote in December in Haaretz.

“The tremendous number of settlements and the annexation of east Jerusalem have, in my opinion, shattered the possibility of a reasonable and fair division between the two peoples in the Land of Israel.”

A.B. Yehoshua

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of such a conclusion, which lies at the very heart of the debate that is ripping Israeli society to shreds – a debate whose virulence is evident in the comment sections of every article I write on the subject for The Jerusalem Post or other publications.

And it is a genuinely fascinating discourse, because it touches on much of the human experience – the prosaic, the psychological and the philosophical. How can Israel’s security be guaranteed? What is the nature of an independent state? How important are borders? What is good for the Jews? How can people coexist? How do we make choices?

 Israeli writer A B Yehoshua during a writer's talk in Jerusalem on October 13, 2018.  (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90) Israeli writer A B Yehoshua during a writer's talk in Jerusalem on October 13, 2018. (credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the question of what we do when all options are bad, and one must choose the least bad? We are not wired for this but reality can force itself upon us. And when one does make such a choice, how to defend it against those who then point out – as agitated commenters inevitably will – that it is, well, bad?

I think this is the area that would most interest Yehoshua himself as a thinker. His books – from The Lover to Mr. Mani and Late Divorce to even the somewhat comedic Mission of the Human Resources Man – are about choices, and connections.

A thinker, ZIonism and the conflict

I REFER to the somewhat underreported triad of the current Zionist zeitgeist: most Jews in Israel would like to have democracy, the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan (for security or other reasons), and a Jewish state. Yet despite the preference for all three, only two can coexist and one must be let go of.

Indeed Palestinians face the very same choice – but Yehoshua, while being a humanist, addressed himself mainly to the Jews. Ever since Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, Yehoshua had been consistent. Like his fellow traveler in the Israeli Committee of Two Great Men of Letters, Amos Oz, he believed that the wise course would be to let go of the completeness of the land.

He made this choice not because he did not appreciate that the West Bank was a strategic highland useful to defending the coast. And not because he thought the Jews have no historic (or religious) claim to “Judea and Samaria.” He made the choice because the territory contains millions of Palestinians who cannot be forever denied equal rights as voting citizens in the entity that ultimately governs them (and that is Israel, not the Palestinian Authority autonomy “government”).

Ending the Palestinians’ second-class status would be the moral choice. And from that follows a practical outcome: between the river and the sea there is already a small Arab majority and equality means the end of the Jewish state.

This is the classic position of the current Israeli Zionist Left (part of it calling itself the “Center”). The position is somewhat ironic for being labeled leftist – because alongside its fundamental effort to preserve morality and decency, it is also a rear-guard action to rescue a national movement, Zionism.

And it is opposed by two primary forces. The first is the Israeli right, which (when it is being honest with itself) believes the Palestinians in fact can forever be suppressed. And the second is Palestinian rejectionists who know that this is false, consider time to be on their side and seek to destroy Zionism. Strange bedfellows indeed.

THERE IS a third force that opposes partition, and that is the anti-Zionist far Left. This group opposes nationalism in general – as the global left generally does – and seeks a binational state in all of historic Palestine in which the Palestinians have equal rights. They do not care, to say the least, that the result will be the end of the Jewish state.

This school of thought in Israel is miniscule – but it is the group that is closest to the view Yehoshua espoused toward the end of his life. I think he would deny it, but logic points in this direction.

“Jewish identity (whatever that means) has existed for thousands of years as a small minority among large and vast peoples, so there is no reason why it should not continue to exist in an Israeli state even though a very large Palestinian minority lives there, until it can be called binational,” he wrote, deploying some demographic wishful thinking.

No less optimistically, he assessed that “it will be possible to form a reasonable partnership with [the Palestinians] for the benefit of both parties.”

I do not think so. Such an Israel-Palestine would be at war with itself from day one. The right would fight giving the Palestinians equal rights, embroiling Israel in increasingly legitimate charges of being an apartheid regime – which indeed has begun. After a period of international isolation and domestic strife equality may happen anyway, at which point the wealthier of the Jews would find their way out.

Israel will be as Lebanon, with the Jews cast in the role of the Maronite Christians: once dominant, they are now a still-prosperous but numerically overwhelmed minority. Interestingly, the Maronites once also faced the choice of a smaller but more stable non-Arab state, and in preferring to receive (from France) the entirety of the country they dug their national grave.

Yehoshua’s acquiescence to the right – and implied alignment with the far left – was needless. Partition is still possible. Most of the half-million Jewish settlers in the West Bank are near the Green Line and division is still possible by moving the border slightly and returning the 100,000 who live deep inside back to Israel.

Alternatively, perhaps those who live deep inside and prefer to remain should be able to stay in Palestine; it will be risky for them to say the least, but on principle, if there are Arabs in Israel then the Palestinians should be able to accept minority Jews.

The Haaretz editorial commemorating Mr. Yehoshua is entitled “The Man Who Refused To Give Up.” It is not my custom to speak ill of the departed, but I’m afraid this headline is inaccurate. On the subject of Zionism, the great writer eloquently threw in the towel.

The writer is the former London-based Europe/Africa editor and Cairo-based Middle East editor of the Associated Press, and served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem. He is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11, writes widely on global events and is a devoted reader of literature. Twitter: @perry_dan