Israel's Literary Pacifist

As Obama delivers his message to the Muslim world in Cairo, The Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal talks in Jerusalem with author David Grossman—a powerful critic of his country’s conflict with the Palestinians—about settlements, Israel’s crafty leader, and how courageous the U.S. leader must be to achieve peace in the region.

On June 3, a day before President Obama arrived in Cairo, I met Israeli author David Grossman at a café in central Jerusalem. A small, soft-spoken man with a shock of sandy brown hair, Grossman shook with rage when he mentioned the settlers—“They have enslaved the future of Israel”—and insisted that Israel could not negotiate a solution to its conflict with the Palestinians without outside pressure from Obama. As for what form of leverage Obama should employ, Grossman said only that he hoped that any clash between Washington and Israel would “be settled between friends.”

“A clash with a strong and popular president is not possible for Israel. Israel can never, ever subjugate an American president.”

Few Israeli literary figures have critiqued the country’s conflict with the Palestinians as commandingly as Grossman. In 1987, he published a series of searing but uniquely introspective reports from the West Bank that chronicled the mounting rage of Palestinians suffering under a deepening occupation. His dispatches infuriated many Israelis, however, when they were compiled into a book and translated into English as The Yellow Wind. Grossman became an internationally bestselling author, and when the first intifada exploded immediately after the book’s publication, he appeared prophetic.

By the time Israel launched its second war on Lebanon, in 2006, Grossman was perhaps the most prominent of the Israeli peace camp’s intellectual vanguard. Although he initially supported the war, as Lebanese casualties mounted by the hundreds and Israelis hunkered down in bomb shelters, Grossman and fellow left-leaning literary lions A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz called a press conference to demand that Israel agree to a cease-fire.

Two days later, the fighting claimed the life of Grossman’s son, Uri, a 20-year-old staff sergeant. Grossman had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. He responded to personal tragedy with a speech delivered soon after—and reprinted in his essay collection Writing in the Dark—calling on Israel’s political establishment to stop relying on warfare in place of negotiation.

A full transcript of our interview follows.

What are the cultural factors that have contributed to the flood of bills currently working their way through the Knesset, sponsored by [the right-wing party] Yisrael Beiteinu, that would criminalize public observance of the Palestinian Nakba [“Day of Catastrophe,” marking the creation of the state of Israel] of 1948, that would demand loyalty oaths of Arab citizens of Israel under penalty of prison, and would illegalize public discussion of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state?

All these phenomena reflect a reduction of the self-confidence of the Israelis. They are seeking shelter in legislation when they can’t find the atmosphere of comfort they want. They feel that the building is collapsing so they are seeking buttressing in the law when what they really should have been working on is the building.

What was the role of Israel’s attack on Gaza [in late 2008] in feeding this atmosphere of resentment of Arabs?

Gaza revealed in such a dramatic way how Israel uses harsh violence to resolve its conflicts. Of course, Israel was attacked for four years and had the right to retaliate. The question, though, was the proportion of the response and that Israel immediately ruled any negotiation out of the question.

If an outside force doesn’t intervene, will more wars like the one waged on Gaza become inevitable?

I’m afraid unless very courageous terms will be imposed on us by Obama we are doomed to perpetuate this behavior. The only language we our partners know—the first option—is always violence. When we and them made peace, we did it in the most suspicious ways. We are born to war, we are programmed to war in our emotional dictionary, and we have mainly words of suspicion and traps.

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The country is trapped in one legitimate narrative: that of the government, which is of paranoia, and every event serves this narrative. Those events that don’t are simply overlooked, and this is the same in both [Israeli and Palestinian] societies. If anything, we need an outside force to empower the moral elements in both of our societies.

When you wrote The Yellow Wind, did you anticipate the role the settlers would play in stifling an end to the occupation?

Fifteen years ago, it was easy to understand the grip the settlers had on our government. Now, 200,000 people have been allowed to enslave the future of Israel for their own messianic hallucinations, to dictate the internal dialogue in Israel, making it violent and merciless. The settlers have trapped us in a historical mistake. To begin to correct this, we must have a removal of the most extreme, remote settlements. I know this process will be painful, violent, and there will be bloodshed, but this must be done. They are a limb that has to be amputated so the body can stay alive.

What role has Likud [Netanyahu’s party] played in encouraging the settlers and the overall crisis Israel faces, and how should Obama confront them?

This is the moment when Israel needs to see Likud come into contact with reality. For years they have played the role of this hallucinating child who wants everything and asks for more and more. Now they are confronted with a harsh counterpoint by Mr. Obama and they have to decide if they cooperate with what Obama says—a two-state solution—or continue to ask for everything.

Would a clash with Obama begin a crisis of delegitimization for Israel in the international community?

It would accelerate a process of delegitimatization that has already begun. A clash with a strong and popular president is not possible for Israel. Israel can never, ever subjugate an American president.

I see Netanyahu reluctantly accepting the demands of Obama to enter into a two-state solution. [Netanyahu] will pretend to be serious about it, but he will do everything he can to keep the negotiations from becoming concrete. He will drag his feet, blame the Palestinians, and rely on the most extreme elements among the Palestinians to lash out in order to stop negotiations. My hope is that there is a regime in America that recognizes immediately the manipulation of the Likud government and that they won’t be misled.

What sort of leverage should Obama apply to Israel to exact the concessions he wants? Should he withhold loan guarantees until Israel cooperates?

I hope it shall be settled between friends. The pressure Obama applies should be put in a sensitive way because of Israeli anxieties and our feeling that we’re living on the edge of an abyss. The reactions of Israelis are very unpredictable. It will take simple and delicate pressure for the United States to produce the results they are looking for. But whenever American presidents even hinted they were going to pressure Israel, they got what they wanted. Netanyahu is very ideological, but he is also realistic and he is intelligent, after all. He will recognize the reality he is in.

Beyond that, I want Obama to know there are many here who share his vision. I want him to look behind the shoulders of our leaders and look at people like me, who are fed up with this situation that has exhausted us, that has enslaved us to extremism and fundamentalism. I want Obama to know that we are willing to take the risk to come to a realistic compromise and reclaim the life we have been deprived of for so long.

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at [email protected].