If you get your news about Israel from Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post – or worse, from the NYT or the LA times – it will probably be hard for you to appreciate how disconnected the Israeli public is right now with the rest of the world. While it seems that everyone else is in some sort of diplomatic frenzy – whether as a reaction to the stagnation of the Bush years, as a result of the economical crisis, or for whatever other reason – Israelis live in some kind of a bubble, where only remote echoes of the current moves are heard.
It is true that the most of the public never cares much for international news, and not only in Israel. But I am not talking about events in China or even Darfur. Israelis don’t think about the West Bank anymore, let alone the peace signals from Syria. With the possible exception of national security issues – such as everything that has to do with Iran – we couldn’t care less about the regions’ problems.
I don’t have any public opinion polls to back this up, just the feeling I get from all kinds of little signs: the diplomatic news don’t make the tabloids’ headlines anymore, and most of the time, they don’t even make the front page; the debate regarding the Obama administration’s new attitude is almost absent from the news here (for example, the Chas Freeman affair was hardly mentioned by the local media); the weekend papers don’t print stories from the West Bank or deal with the prospect of renewed negotiations; unlike the Oslo days or during both Intifadas, you don’t hear people talking about these issues; and nobody seems to care what exactly Benjamin Netanyahu has in mind. Incredible as it may sound, I didn’t hear the new PM discuss his vision regarding our relations with the Palestinians or answer questions – real ones – on this subject.
The debate on whether Israelis want peace or not – which got heated around the world following the last elections – seems almost irrelevant from here. Right now, Israelis just don’t spend much time thinking about this issue. While most of the world thinks that we are at a major crossroad, and that if we don’t act now, the two state solution might be lost, you don’t feel any sense of urgency in the Israeli public, nor in its political system.
THERE ARE SEVERAL REASONS FOR THIS COLLECTIVE REPRESSION. First, this is the result of the lost decade – from 99’ to 2009, when there were talks and conferences and initiatives, but no progress was made. In fact, things got worse. So more talking leaves people indifferent.
Second, the sad truth is that when the West Bank is quiet, Israelis don’t have any motivation for changes. We only act under pressure. At the beginning, we try to use force, but when this doesn’t work, we move to other options. That’s how the first Intifada brought the Oslo Accord, and the Second one resulted in the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. There is some political logic at work here as well: all concessions towards the Palestinians have their internal price, so no leader will start a fight with the right unless he has a good reason to do so (this by no means goes to say that one should support violence, but rather that we should consider moving the peace process forward when things are quiet as well).
Third, Israelis got used to the idea that whatever the world says, as long as we have the US’s support, it doesn’t really matter. Furthermore, many people see the criticism against Israel as some modern form of Antisemitism. Almost nobody believes that the world is really concerned with the occupation.
And finally, many people don’t think there is such a thing as “the occupation”. That’s the unfortunate result of the Oslo Accord and the establishing of the Palestinians Authority. People don’t seem to understand that Israel is still in control of almost every aspect of the Palestinians’ lives – which, as a result, have been reduced to little more than survival. In fact, most Israelis don’t know much about Palestinians’ lives. Unlike the years before Oslo, almost nobody visits the West Bank anymore, and Palestinians don’t enter Israel. For most Israelis, the Palestinian problem is an abstract concept, almost imaginary. The drive from some Tel Aviv suburbs to the nearest Palestinian city takes about 10 minutes, but these are two separate worlds.
THIS SITUATION NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE ME. You ask Likud supporters what should be done, and they shrug and say something like “what’s the problem?” or “I don’t know”. You mention the Palestinians, and the people aren’t even angry. They are bored. At the same time, the country is becoming more and more xenophobic, to the verge of paranoia.
Observing the American elections was a frustrating experience. The debate was far better than the one we had here. Our candidates didn’t even bother answering questions, not to mention having a debate between them. Barak gave two major interviews, in both he picked the interviewer and met no tough questions. Bibi didn’t speak at all.
Now we have a new PM, but little has changed. The papers are full of talks about bombing Iran and putting pressure on the Egyptians and boycotting Turkey and changing Russia’s policies, like Israel is some kind of super power the US can only dream of becoming, while we obviously can’t even solve our most immediate problem. Read the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick and see how far Israeli hubris has gone.
Tzvi Bar’el put it nicely in today’s Haaretz:
“Israel is not opposed to American dialogue with Iran,” sources described as “close to Netanyahu” were quoted in this paper on Friday. That kind of semantics makes you feel proud – it’s as if Israel dictates to Washington whether to talk with Iran. Two days earlier, another daily, Maariv, reported that the prime minister was very pleased with the preparations for a “military option” against Iran. He was briefed by the chief of staff and “was favorably surprised by the ongoing training for foiling Iran’s nuclear program.”
We can relax now. Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau is in control. On Wednesday it was ready to go to war against Iran and on Friday it agreed to dialogue with Tehran. Meanwhile, it appears the bureau’s dialogue with the media is running smoothly and on paper everything’s in order: The Israeli threat is ready against the threat of dialogue.
BUT CHANGE WILL HAPPEN. The entire world saw the signs in 1989, but nobody imagined the Berlin wall actually falling. Could somebody have imagined in 1990 Mandela freed and the Apartheid ending? History proves that when reality catches up with you, the process is fast and painful. The game is already changing. Israelis should wake up.