January 23, 2019

Micah Goodman’s fearless realism: A partial peace solution

How does a philosopher tackle an intractable problem like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

On my recent visit to Jerusalem, I got an answer from Israeli scholar Micah Goodman, a youthful and charismatic leader in his early 40s whose recent books include best-sellers on the Kuzari and Maimonides. Over lunch at the Mamilla Hotel, he showed me a Hebrew manuscript for his next book, tentatively titled “Catch 67,” which outlines what he calls a “fresh” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

What I picked up in my conversation with Goodman was, above all, a fearless realism.

For example, when we talk about Palestinian demands such as the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, Goodman sees something deeper than a demand — he sees a core identity. The reality is that for Palestinians, abandoning this right of return would mean abandoning their very national identity, which is out of the question.

Similarly, for Palestinians to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, they would have to abandon their core religious identity, which prohibits Jews from having a sovereign presence on any Muslim land. Again, out of the question.

Israel’s reality is equally daunting. There is the heart-wrenching prospect of evacuating tens of thousands of Jewish settlers against their wishes — risking a potential civil war — as well as the complex challenge of maintaining a security presence in any future Palestinian state.

For decades, peace processors have tried to finesse or downplay these “impossible” obstacles, repeating the mantra that “the contours of a peace agreement are already well known.” We can see how far this has gotten them.

But it is precisely by confronting the impossible that Goodman has found his way to something possible.

“Why do we have to look at peace as a utopian end point?” he asks. “Why can’t peace be more like an ingredient, something we can increase as reality permits?”

This is how he came up with his “partial withdrawal for a partial peace” approach.

In a nutshell, partial peace means the Palestinians don’t compromise on their identity while Israel doesn’t compromise on its security. Palestinians offer no concessions on the right of return and accepting Jewish sovereignty, while Israel maintains a discreet military presence, primarily along the Jordanian border.

Partial withdrawal means Israel withdraws to defensible borders, which would leave about 80 percent of the West Bank for a contiguous Palestinian state, with Israel keeping 10 percent for existing settlement blocs and 10 percent for its presence in the Jordan Valley.

Jewish settlers who remain outside of the new border would be offered generous financial compensation to return to Israel proper. For Jews who prefer to stay in a Palestinian state, special security provisions would be made in coordination with the Palestinians. For every Jew who stays in Palestine, Israel would accept a Palestinian refugee.

Regarding Jerusalem, in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that are on the other side of the fence and are 100 percent Arab, Palestinians would establish their capital.

All of these specifics would need to be negotiated, but what’s worth noting is that the plan doesn’t pretend to end the conflict. Disagreements are honored. Agreements are partial.

Palestinians don’t sign their rights away. They get their state without accepting Jewish sovereignty or compromising on their dream to return their refugees to Israel. 

Meanwhile, even without an end to the conflict, Israel would begin the painful process of withdrawal that would secure the country’s Jewish and democratic future, while keeping a security presence in the new Palestinian state and evacuating no Jew against his or her wishes.

None of this hard realism, of course, means the parties will buy into it. With this conflict, it’s never smart to raise one’s hopes too high. But at least, Goodman argues, this approach offers a chance to “reconcile the irreconcilable” and give both sides a way to say “yes.”

It’s true that no one ever won a Nobel Peace Prize by delivering a partial peace plan. No matter how impossibly messy this conflict is, diplomats and the media still want their big agreement with a grand signing ceremony.

At the same time, many skeptics believe the mutual mistrust between the parties is simply too intense to allow for any kind of deal in the foreseeable future. 

That’s why I’m pretty sure Goodman’s plan will get plenty of criticism from all sides when his book comes out. 

In response to skeptics, cynics and critics, Goodman, in true philosopher mode, uses the metaphor of a doctor who can’t cure a fatal disease, but who can make it chronic.

“Chronic is not great,” he says, “but it’s a lot better than fatal.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.