Book Review: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour

Daniel Sugarman admires this Israeli thinker for his clarity


‘This book is an invitation to a conversation, in which both sides disagree on the most basic premises.”

This sentence, in the introduction to Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour, is not a throwaway comment but a genuine statement. Yossi Klein Halevi has made the Arabic version of the book available for free download. He hopes Palestinians will read it and reply, to which he will respond in turn.

It may be a novel idea but, after 70 years of conflict and a peace process seemingly interminably stalled, what does it hurt to try?

Halevi is undoubtedly a spiritual person, which readers of the book will see. For example, he describes how his Succah is filled with objects from many religions relating to the Divine, and regularly references the Torah, the Koran and connections between Judaism and Islam. But it would be a monumental mistake to confuse such spirituality for naivety. On the contrary, the book contains the most insightful description of this deep-rooted conflict — from the Israeli perspective — which I have ever read.

Halevi is under no illusions as to how he — in fact, all Israelis — are viewed by his neighbours. “When I see how my people and its story are portrayed in Palestinian media, I feel close to despair”, he writes.

“According to the prevailing narrative on your side,” he tells his imaginary addressee, I am a pathological liar without any story, a thief without rights to any part of this land, an alien who doesn’t belong here.”

Nor does he seek to sugar-coat the truth; he is well aware that “where Israeli moderates see Palestinian sovereignty as a necessary act of justice, many Palestinian moderates see Israeli sovereignty as an unavoidable injustice.”

The only way peace will ever be achieved, he believes, is for both sides to make painful choices. He, like many Israelis, rejects the concept of Judea and Samaria as being “Occupied Territories” — they are the Jewish heartlands. Yet he understands that, for the sake of peace, there will need to be a separate Palestinian state, covering much of that land. He doesn’t underestimate how painful it will be in Israel “to be the generation that restored Jewish life to the hills of Judea and Samaria, only to uproot ourselves — voluntarily — will be a historic trauma.” But Halevi argues that this has to be the major Israeli sacrifice. The Palestinian equivalent, he believes, must be accepting that the Palestinian right of return will apply only to the new state of Palestine, and not to Israel, where to permit such a right of return would be “national suicide”, inevitably leaving Jews a minority in their own state.

“Peace requires a mutual constriction”, he says. “My side contracts settlements, and your side contracts refugees’ return. These reciprocal concessions are the precondition for a two-state solution. My people will fulfil its right to return to the state of Israel, not the whole land of Israel. Your people will fulfil its right of return to the state of Palestine, not the whole land of Palestine.”

Halevi knows that, as things stand, such initiatives are impossible — “from years of conversations with Palestinians… even supporters of two states often see that as a temporary solution resulting from Palestinian powerlessness, to be replaced with one state —with the Jews as a minority, if existing at all — once Palestinian refugees return and Israel begins to unravel.”

And he unequivocally asserts the connection which he and most Israelis have to the land: “The UN didn’t ‘give’ the Jews a state, any more than the British ‘gave’ us our indigenous rights; our claim to the land comes from our very being.”

He concedes that “no doubt it would be easier for you to deal with the secular left-wing Israeli who repudiates an emotional claim to Judea and Samaria and refers to those lands as ‘occupied territories’.

“But, for better or worse, I’m the Israeli you need to make peace with —precisely because I am in love with all parts of the land and loath to abandon any of it. My sensibility is shared by a substantial part of the Israeli public.”

I believe he is right, and hope his “Palestinian neighbour” listens. In the meantime, I would urge people to read this book and to buy copies for others, including those, like the Leader of the Opposition in this country, who display little or no understanding of the Israeli viewpoint. A master linguist, Yossi Klein Halevi has voiced the hopes and fears of many Israelis, as well as many Zionists in the diaspora. And he has done so in a volume that you can fit into your pocket. Make sure you fit one in yours.


Daniel Sugarman is a JC reporter

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