Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of the bestselling book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
Israeli Jews across the political spectrum agree about this: We have no choice. The latest round of fighting between Israel and Gaza is only the latest phase of a war against the existence of a Jewish majority state. Every few years we must contain the violence and reaffirm our deterrence. Sometimes the threat comes from Hamas in Gaza, sometimes from Hezbollah in Lebanon, sometimes from Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria. In every case the intent of our enemies is the same: to destabilize our borders, demoralize our citizens and ultimately cause the Jewish state to unravel.
Israelis are outraged by facile moral comparisons between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which seeks to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, and Hamas, which seeks to maximize Israeli civilian casualties. But by linking Hamas’s aggression to an Israeli court decision to evict six families from their homes in East Jerusalem and confrontations on the Temple Mount between Palestinians and Israeli police, Israel’s critics are going one step further, effectively justifying the assault on the Israeli home front. Israelis know that Hamas needs no moral justification for its aggression, only pretexts.
When we are denounced as war criminals for defending our homes against a terror assault, or caricatured as an apartheid state rather than the struggling democracy we know ourselves to be, we dismiss the accusations with contempt, regarding our detractors as either ignorant or malign.
Those instinctive attitudes have united Israelis, shaped our ethos and helped us cope through one conflict after another. And yet this time feels different. This time, many of us are anxious not only about missiles falling on our neighbourhoods but about the morning after. What kind of country is Israel becoming?
A week ago, Israel was on the verge of forming its first joint Jewish-Arab government, breaking the political deadlock that has caused four inconclusive elections in two years. Though there have been Arab ministers, Arab parties never participated in a government coalition. Arab politicians didn’t want to risk supporting a government at war with our Arab neighbours; Jewish politicians didn’t want to legitimize Arab politicians who sometimes supported terror attacks against Jews. Thanks to the political deadlock, though, both sides were actively exploring a way to co-operate and treat each other as fellow citizens.
But now, suddenly, we are experiencing the worst Arab-Jewish violence in our history. Not in the West Bank but in Haifa, Acre, Lod – the heart of Israel.
Israelis know how to live with missile attacks on our cities. We are well-practiced in navigating between emergency and routine, existential threat and the good life. We know how to endure war, siege, boycotts and terror atrocities. But we don’t know how to cope with Jewish mobs and Arab mobs roaming our streets, attacking synagogues and mosques and lynching their fellow citizens.
How do we fight a war against terrorists when we internalize the terror and turn against each other? Is this how Israel unravels?
For Israel to survive in the Middle East requires two commitments: maintaining the security high ground and the moral high ground. Weaken either and our long-term future is compromised.
Maintaining Israel’s moral high ground requires ensuring equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens and keeping open the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Most Israeli Jews agree that, for the foreseeable future, creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank poses intolerable security risks, threatening to create another Gaza on our most sensitive border, next door to Tel Aviv and within Jerusalem.
But until the conflict is resolved, Israel is obliged to contain the ambitions of the settlement movement.
The proposed evacuation of six Arab families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, where they have lived for decades, is, admittedly, a complicated legal issue. The houses belonged to Jews before the 1948 war and were confiscated by Jordan. An Israeli court offered the Palestinian families an arrangement: minimal rent for residence in perpetuity. Some agreed, but most did not, insisting they were the rightful owners. Those refusing to pay rent are now facing eviction.
In the end, though, the issue isn’t complicated at all. Restitution claims on both sides will need to be resolved in a peace agreement. Until then, Israel must freeze not only Palestinian but also Jewish claims resulting from its founding.
The court case was initiated by a settler organization whose goal is to strengthen the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, even if that means undermining our moral credibility. Israel must not allow the far right to impose its agenda on the state.
While fighting Hamas is unavoidable, reclaiming Jewish property is not. Doing so only ensures that when we are forced to fight another round against terrorism, we risk losing the sympathy even of our friends.