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Philosopher Micah Goodman Is An Unofficial Counsel To Israel's Prime Minister


Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has a philosopher to call on. He's a public intellectual and bestselling author. His ideas are helping to shape how Israel approaches its conflict with the Palestinians. Bennett will be promoting those ideas to President Biden when they meet at the White House on Thursday.

And NPR's Daniel Estrin met the man who has the prime minister's ear.

MICAH GOODMAN: My name is Micah Goodman. I'm a writer.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Micah Goodman meets me on the campus of Hebrew University, where he once studied and taught Jewish philosophy. He's wearing a baseball cap. He was born in Israel to American immigrants. We do a sound check. And he leans into the microphone.

GOODMAN: We are not as divided as our politics suggests. We are one people. We are one nation.

ESTRIN: Barack Obama's famous campaign speech in 2008.

GOODMAN: Yes, we can (laughter). You didn't expect that (laughter).

ESTRIN: Divided politics is on his mind because Israel's new government bridges a political and cultural divide. Two months ago, left and right barely managed to create an unlikely coalition to oust longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

GOODMAN: It's not a secret this government was created as a part of - it's a political accident. It's a crazy government.

ESTRIN: Naftali Bennett's right-wing party only got 6% of the vote. But he ended up prime minister, sharing power with the center-left foreign minister.

GOODMAN: Here in a world that's polarized, Israel is performing an experiment in politics where the equivalent of Elizabeth Warren and the equivalent of Ted Cruz are working together.

ESTRIN: Goodman now serves as unofficial counsel to Prime Minister Bennett. They've known each other for years, both religious Jews in their late 40s, Bennett also a child of American immigrants. They meet to exchange ideas about the philosophy of this government.

GOODMAN: It's trying to model for the world that it's possible for opposites to work together. And how? - if we replace idealism with pragmatism. And the example we're working on here is not fulfilling our dreams to end the conflict, but, yes, working forward towards shrinking the conflict.

ESTRIN: Shrinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - it's now Israel's official policy.


NAFTALI BENNETT: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Bennett spoke about shrinking the conflict in his inaugural speech in Parliament. The phrase comes from Goodman's book "Catch-67," which talks about Israel's dilemma after capturing the West Bank in 1967. It expands Israel's girth in a hostile region at the cost of ruling over another people - the Palestinians.

GOODMAN: Most Israelis feel that if we stay in the West Bank, we have no future and if we leave the West Bank, we have no future. Most Israelis are trapped in this catch. It's not a Catch-22. I call this Catch-67.

ESTRIN: He says it's unrealistic to solve this conflict now. But you can reduce it.

GOODMAN: What Israel can do is start shrinking it in steps that shrink occupation without shrinking security, which means shrink the amount that Israel controls Palestinians without increasing the amount the Palestinians could threaten Israelis.

ESTRIN: We drive to the edge of Jerusalem and look out over the West Bank, where he lives in a settlement. Goodman says that turns critics off to his ideas. He says, it's where I live, not who I am.

GOODMAN: This is a viewpoint where you see on one side the whole northern part of the West Bank.

ESTRIN: He thinks Israel should build a highway connecting Palestinian areas of the northern and southern parts of the West Bank to make movement easier than it is now.

GOODMAN: What we see here is one example of a dramatic step that could not only improve lives but increase Palestinian sovereignty without decreasing Israeli security. So these are the kind of steps we should start doing tomorrow morning.

ESTRIN: The Biden administration thinks peace talks are unrealistic for now and is urging Israel to start by helping the Palestinian economy. Bennett's government has approved more jobs and more homes for Palestinians. But shrinking the conflict is not a popular concept among Palestinians.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: All they want is to gain time and meanwhile continue the process of annexation...

ESTRIN: Palestinian political activist Mustafa Barghouti.

BARGHOUTI: ...And then transform the Palestinian entity into clusters of Bantustans connected with each other with tunnels and roads. You cannot beautify an ugly face, even if you use a lot of makeup.

ESTRIN: He says, Palestinians want liberty, not just easier lives. But after contentious years with Netanyahu and President Trump, the Palestinian Authority has shown it's willing to start with baby steps - Palestinian activist and analyst Ibrahim Salameh.

IBRAHIM SALAMEH: After long, long years of occupation, there are a lot of Palestinian daily life demands. And I believe the Palestinians already have their own lists of demands of building confidence.

ESTRIN: How far can Israel bend? Israeli officials say not much while the government is still new. They think anything controversial could destabilize the coalition and pave Netanyahu's return.

Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington argues the default of this coalition government is against significant improvements for Palestinians.

LARA FRIEDMAN: It's nice to think that in the name of stopping the worst, we can find some middle ground. But the middle ground between the far right and the moderate progressive left is actually a pretty far-right middle ground.

ESTRIN: But Goodman thinks there's still a lot the new Israeli leadership can agree on.

GOODMAN: Israel is not as divided as its politics suggests because there's an invisible consensus in Israel. And I'm trying to articulate that consensus.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Every step takes us forward - the plan to shrink the conflict.

ESTRIN: Goodman's supporters have launched a new nonprofit. Israeli officials are citing his book in talks with the U.S. But it's clear Prime Minister Bennett and President Biden do not see eye to eye on something fundamental. Biden wants the Palestinians to have their own state. Bennett does not.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.