He makes an unlikely prophet, winding his way through the tables at an outdoor café in Jerusalem, scruffy baseball cap cupping his head, flashing a 100-watt smile and laughing too nervously and long. But this is the visionary who may have just found a way to ease the Israeli-Palestinian puzzle.
Dr. Micah Goodman is an iconoclast. His 2017 book Catch-67 sought to identify pragmatic ways to “shrink the conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than aim to resolve it. The left accused him of being too right-wing. The right derided him as a leftist. Catch-67 catapulted Goodman to the bestseller list and instant celebrity.
The forty-seven-year-old, who owes his fluent English to his American parents (his mother converted from Roman Catholicism), is a longtime confidant of Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. You can see the synergy: two children of American immigrants, two middle-aged, politics-obsessed family men, both of them observant enough to wear yarmulkes.
In the past, Bennett has protested that he and Goodman do not agree on everything. Recently, however, the rookie leader has been openly ventriloquizing Goodman’s theories as he competes with his centrist coalition partner Yair Lapid. And Goodman’s ideas are beginning to take shape where it really matters: on the ground.
Since the fall of Benjamin Netanyahu, “shrinking the conflict” has become the theme of the moment. In the week I spent in Israel interviewing politicians and other influential figures, the catchphrase sounded everywhere, not least in various corners of the Knesset. It may not be an entirely new idea, but luck and timing are everything in politics. Goodman’s ideas chime with Israel’s political sea change.
This is a moment of head-spinning evolution in Israeli politics. The new rainbow coalition, which is made up of the most improbable bedfellows, from Jewish nationalists to secular socialists to Islamists, has wrongfooted an international community whose Israel policies had become defined by distaste for Netanyahu. Now, Jerusalem is showing Washington a clean pair of heels with start-up alacrity. As Biden’s sclerotic White House doggedly reheats the Obama doctrine, regardless of whether it worked even under Obama, Israel’s mosaic government is forging a different path. Mudslinging and chest-beating are out; consensus and compromise are in. Shrinking the conflict is a principle on which all of Israel’s parties, Arabs included, can agree. If you can’t get rid of Palestinian enmity, at least reduce the friction.
Israelis are, like Americans, divided by ideology and culture, but Israeli politics — for now, at least — shows an alternative to domestic brawling. As Goodman puts it, the new government makes allies of the Israeli equivalents of Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz. The shift is bewildering. After fifteen years of Netanyahu’s tribalism on steroids, Israelis no longer think in tribal terms. The Arab ministers, the leftist ministers, the religious nationalists: all tell me they would put aside ideological differences to take the concrete steps that would improve people’s lives, Jewish or Arab. The common incentive is clear: if we fail, Bibi the bogeyman is back.
“We know the challenges we face,” Issawi Frej, Israel’s second-ever Muslim minister, said when we met in his office. “I believe in the two-state solution, and Bennett believes in annexing the West Bank. But when we think of the alternative, we make sure we keep it together.”
Frej paid ironic tribute to Netanyahu. It is Bibi’s reinvention as a rottweiler-like leader of the opposition that reminds the coalition of its shared threat — and it was Bibi’s last-ditch electioneering in the summer that opened the door for Arab ministers like him. “Thank you, Bibi,” he chuckled.
In another municipal building elsewhere in Tel Aviv, Labour’s new leader was visibly relieved. Merav Michaeli’s party is enjoying a seat at the cabinet table after two decades in the wilderness. “People can breathe again,” she said. “It was so intense. Now we can work on issues for the people, rather than personal interests all the time.” She added: “The cabinet atmosphere is very good. There’s a good vibe of cooperation, of doing things together. There’s less hate in the air. We aren’t going from crisis to crisis. There’s no more adrenaline rush, no more addiction to the drama. The end of Bibi is the return of sanity.”
Shrinking the conflict indeed.
As the cold air of a Jerusalem night descends on the outdoor café, Micah Goodman elaborates on his ideas, alternating intense sobriety and wild laughter. His untouched glass of mint tea stews black.
“There is an unspoken Israeli consensus,” he says. “Israelis agree on most things. Most people see themselves as right wing, but they want more division between church and state, and more West Bank concessions. So in terms of identity, they are center-right, but on policy, they are center-left.”
When an election is fought on identity, Goodman explains, the left or the Arabs become the enemy, and Bibi wins. But if the election is about policy, Bibi loses. “Bibi got this,” he says. “Identity politics was invented by the left, but it kept Bibi in power for fifteen years.”
This means the common denominator of a diverse government “has to be policy and problem-solving, not identity,” he concludes. “And as most Israelis agree on policy, it could work.”
The most recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza — from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005 — illustrates Israel’s dilemma. A thousand rockets rained daily on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, making it clear that repeating a similar withdrawal from the West Bank would be suicidal. Washington can live with a Taliban state 7,000 miles away, but in Jerusalem, we’d be talking a few miles down the road to both the east and west. At the same time, last summer’s rioting in Israel’s Arab towns showed the domestic dangers in a status quo which threatens to tear Israeli society apart.
The answer, says Goodman, is to dismantle as much of the Israeli presence in majority-Palestinian areas of the West Bank as possible without harming Israeli security. This is no grand, American-style peace plan. It doesn’t solve the problems of Jerusalem or Gaza. It won’t win a Nobel Prize. But it might just shrink the conflict. Then there might be space to work out the next step.
What does it mean in practice, I ask? Goodman ticks off the main points on his fingers. You build new roads between the islands of Palestinian territory, removing Israeli checkpoints. You relax the restrictions on building permits in Palestinian areas. You enable Palestinians to trade overseas without being handcuffed to the Israeli taxation system. And you remove Israeli control from the Allenby Bridge, which connects the West Bank to Jordan and thus to the airport and outside world (currently, Palestinians can only cross the bridge at Israel’s discretion, fostering inconvenience and resentment).
“I’m not talking about liberating Palestine, I’m talking about building it,” Goodman concludes. “Like how the Jewish pioneers built Israel in the Thirties. It could satisfy all perspectives. For the right, it would avoid creating a state that might be taken over by Hamas, and it would not compromise security. For the left, it’s a step towards a two-state solution. What’s not to like?”
He laughs. I have my doubts. Lifting security restrictions on the Allenby Bridge would risk allowing weapons and terrorists to flow into the West Bank, and from there into Israel, I say. Dismantling Israeli checkpoints would make it much harder to close off Palestinian towns and villages when conducting anti-terror operations. And removing Israeli control over Palestinian tax receipts would mean giving up a powerful lever without receiving anything in return.
Goodman looks defensive. “Many Israeli generals support the plan,” he responds. “They wouldn’t if it threatened security.”
But leftists have their doubts, too. In a scathing anti-Goodman broadside in the liberal daily Haaretz, former Labour prime minister Ehud Barak argued that the right’s security concerns were a chimera (Israel won its greatest military victory, in 1967, without a presence on the West Bank, he pointed out). Meanwhile, the left’s concerns about Palestinian population growth rendering Israel either non-Jewish or non-democratic were, Barak insisted, rooted in fact. The only answer was withdrawal.
And what of the doubts of the Palestinians? In central Ramallah, under the watchful eye of a bodyguard, I run Goodman’s ideas past Dr. Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee.
“This is an idea invented by Bennett’s friends,” Majdalani says. “It’s an old idea: improving the lives of Palestinians under occupation, without offering a political settlement. The Israeli religious right wants to maintain the stalemate without changing the status of the land. It means they don’t have to give anything up to us. They don’t recognize Palestinian people or rights at all.” He went on to compare Israel to a certain fascist state in the 1930s. I stopped taking notes.
Goodman maintains that the full-spectrum criticism he gets legitimizes his ideas. Whatever the truth of this, “shrinking the conflict” is less about the detail than resetting the national compass. If this culture of pragmatism truly develops, the particulars could easily follow. With a fair prevailing wind, it could be a new beginning for both Israelis and Palestinians.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.