Israel is an extraordinary place, full of people who — in the span of one lifetime — survived the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, established a sanctuary for millions of traumatized Jewish refugees, and prevailed in three existential wars.
Yet its image in the world is still hostage to one question: What will happen to the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control? Here’s a bit of what I heard on a recent journalist trip to the region organized by the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
The end of an era
The Knesset is a hive of activity. Elections are in the air. In the maze-like hallways, you can almost hear the sound of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition cracking. There’s a feeling that he’s vulnerable. His party, Likud, is the smallest ruling party in history.
We sit down in a conference room with a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party. She’s in a foul mood. Newspapers have just published a list of possible sanctions that the European Union could enact against members of her party, which supports settlements and opposes a Palestinian state.
“The Americans have thrown us under the bus,” she fumes. “The European Union would never do such a thing without getting a quiet OK from the United States.”
Then we meet Tamar Zandberg, of the left wing Meretz party. She’s far more upbeat.
“The only political camp who thinks that the right wing is going to rule forever . . . is the left,” says Zandberg, who supports gay rights, marijuana legalization, and political alliances with Arabs. “We have a problem of self confidence.”
She says liberals are just now beginning to reinvent themselves after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the second intifadah, and what she terms the “failure of peace.” Liberals focus now on the economic costs of the occupation. But even Zanberg doesn’t advocate the speedy return to US-brokered peace talks.
“It’s not, ‘OK, let’s try the negotiations again,’” she says. “It’s ‘We don’t want to be occupiers.’”
In yet another conference room, a Labor party member tells us that we’re witnessing the end of an era. Political parties in Israel may not agree on much, but they agree on this: “The old notion of bilateral talks between Israel and the Arabs, sponsored by an American administration, is no longer valid,” he says.
He means no disrespect to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, whom he describes as “very honest in his effort.” But the world has simply changed. Many in Israel are more concerned now about the rise of Islamic extremism in the region then they are about the Palestinian problem.
Israel’s center-left parties yearn for a partnership with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates to combat extremism in Syria and Iran. Maybe, just maybe, that could produce an opening for a deal with the Palestinian Authority. But the days of looking to Americans to bring peace are over, he says: “If it’s not regional and international, it’s just not going to happen.”
Strangely, we hear a very similar message a few days later, from a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah.
“The Arab world desperately wants to do business with Israel,” the Palestinian official says, over dinner.
But it can’t happen until the Palestinian issue is resolved, something that doesn’t look likely anytime soon. Palestinians, too, have lost faith in the ability of American diplomats to broker peace.
“We have been working since 1988 under the assumption that the United States can deliver Israel,” he says.
Now they’ve realized it just isn’t true. Americans aren’t willing to put significant pressure on Israel, and Israel isn’t eager to change the status quo, he says. That’s why Palestinians are turning to Europe, to the United Nations.
“We are going to internationalize this conflict,” he vows. “And if we fail, it’s going to be because of you, the Americans.”
This is the last card leaders have to play, before Palestinians give up completely on the idea of nonviolence and join the rising tide of Islamic extremists in the region, he says.
“We’re the last secular movement,” he says, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization. He takes a drag off his cigarette. “And we’re dying.”
Why the status quo works for Israel: The Pizza
“The peace process,” Daniel Seidemann tells us, “is like two guys arguing over how to divide a pizza. But only one guy gets to eat the pizza while the argument is going on. Does that guy want to finish the argument? No. He wants to eat as much as he can. By the time they finish arguing, there’s only one piece left.”
We’re on a mountain in Jerusalem, overlooking the West Bank, with Seidemann, founder of an organization called Terrestrial Jerusalem, an organization that tracks how Israel shapes the space where Israelis and Palestinians live with walls, settlements and national parks.
The bright white buildings of Ma’ale Adumim, a Jewish settlement city, shine in the distance, next to a stretch of desert.
Seidemann says both sides have been responsible for the failure to hammer out a peace deal, but that only one side has been able to use the absence of an agreement to take more territory.
Through the Oslo agreement, Israel already has much of what it wants: security cooperation from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and military control over the West Bank. The status quo isn’t ideal, but it’s tolerable. The threat of rockets from Gaza can be tamped down with military campaigns.
For a country of people who’ve faced extermination, it’s not surprising that security should be the number one goal. A Palestinian state is full of risks: What if Hamas comes to power in the West Bank? What if extremists take over Jordan? What if Palestinians don’t accept statehood as the end of all claims?
Any Israeli government that wants to broker peace will contend with those uncertainties. It will also have to contend with hundreds of thousands of settlers who have moved to the West Bank in order to make it harder for Israel to give up land.
Over dinner at our East Jerusalem hotel, Dani Dayan, former chairman of the settler group known as the Yesha Council, tells us that he left the comfortable life of a Tel Aviv software executive to move to a settlement, as a patriotic act.
“It’s either me or a Palestinian state,” he says. “My daughter used to come home at 4 in the morning, and I’d tell her ‘I should be mad at you, but I’m not because you’re increasing the Jewish presence on the road.’”
To Dayan, the two-state solution is no solution at all: “The moment Israel withdraws, Hamas will take power by the ballot or by the bullet.”
But neither does Dayan support a one-state solution: “You see what happens in multi-tribal societies,” he says. He throws out the word “multi-tribal” as if it were a used Kleenex.
“Like America?” I asked. He doesn’t reply.
Dayan argues that Palestinians should be granted greater access to jobs in Israel and greater freedom of movement, but not Israeli citizenship and not an independent nation.
“We are a generation away from understanding what is the final state,” he says.
Why the status quo works for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: The Sandwich
Ramallah IS full of sleek, modern buildings, including a three-story KFC. But the place has a Potemkin feel. Where are the people? The hawkers of spices and pomegranates? The fancy hotel where we eat lunch is empty. We get a private room, with a private table, lit by a private chandelier. Waiters pour water in our glasses endlessly. We’re the only diners in the place.
The building that houses Yasser Arafat’s tomb is empty, except for a few guards. The Palestinian Parliament is empty: Although lawmakers still get paid about $3,000 a month, they haven’t formally convened since 2007, the year Hamas and Fatah fell into bitter infighting.
Just as the Israelis are divided — between left wing and right wing, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, secular and ultra-orthodox — so too are Palestinians divided. There are “1948 Arabs,” who have Israeli citizenship, and East Jerusalemites, who have residency permits. Palestinians in the West Bank, and Palestinians in Gaza. But perhaps the biggest divide is between Hamas, which controls Gaza and believes in using violence to uproot Israel, and Fatah, which control parts of the West Bank and which until recently believed in peace talks.
Animosity runs deep. Hamas recently bombed the homes of 10 Fatah members in Gaza. Abbas’s distrust of Hamas is said to be on par with his distrust of Netanyahu.
An agreement to form a consensus government this summer only took place, one foreign diplomat told us, because Abbas offered a deal he was sure Hamas would reject: a consensus government of technocrats that contained no Hamas officials. (We were told the list was informally vetted by the United States.)
Hamas said yes — out of financial desperation. Since Egypt closed the tunnels to Gaza, the militant group has been unable to pay tens of thousands of municipal employees. Hamas’s political wing thought the agreement would get money flowing again. But when Hamas employees asked for their salaries, Abbas told them: “Talk to the people who hired you.”
The military wing of Hamas got so angry about the agreement that it fired off rockets at Israel, sparking a devastating war.
Money is Abbas’s main advantage over Hamas. What he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in ties with western donors. In fact, he’s been able to continue paying tens of thousands of Fatah officials in Gaza since 2007 on one condition: that they never report to work under Hamas. “Fatah is a machine party,” one analyst told us. Its support comes from its ability to provide jobs.
The status quo is far from ideal for Abbas. His power is slipping, and his presidential term expired long ago. But he still has the power of the purse and control over security in Palestinian areas. While he’s threatened to stop security cooperation with Israel, few think he’ll actually do it — because that’s what keeps him firmly in power.
Now that Gaza needs billions in reconstruction aid, many have urged Abbas to try to reassert control over the enclave.
“I met Abbas six weeks ago and told him, ‘This is the time. Ask them to have your picture in every room in the ministry. Fly the Palestinian flag,’” says Omar Shaban, chairman of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Gaza, who traveled to Ramallah to have lunch with us.
But Abbas refused. Until Hamas agrees to surrender, he doesn’t want to get involved. (One Israeli official told us Abbas doesn’t want to take on Gaza’s problems, and once referred to that area as a “dirty diaper.”)
And so life in Gaza goes on, amid economic collapse. Highly-skilled laborers used to make $1,000 a month. Now they make $200, Shaban says. Now it’s much cheaper for radical groups to recruit fighters. Only about 2,000 people are eligible for permits to leave Gaza to do business with the outside world — out of 1.8 million.
Shaban, who has a masters degree from a university in Scotland, considered trying to move abroad. But he stayed in Gaza to give young people positive forms of social engagement. This summer, Shaban wondered if he’d made the right choice to keep his family in Gaza. “My son is 16 years old, and he’s witnessed three wars,” he says. “It’s too much.”
Now he’s stuck in the middle of two untenable worlds.
“We are in a sandwich,” he tells us. “Hamas says, ‘You are not Islamists. You are suspicious.’ Israel says, ‘You are in Gaza. You are suspicious.’”
But still, he tries to focus on the benefits that will come when Israel and Palestinians finally do make peace: diplomatic and trade relations with the Arab world. Billions generated from Arab tourism to Jerusalem holy sites, and Gaza’s beaches.
But how do we get there without peace talks? Without Palestinian political reconciliation?
Some Hamas leaders want to start another war, Shaban says, while others want to figure out how to live in peace.
In what might be symbol of this indecision, Hamas recently fired off six rockets into the sea.
“It is a message,” he says. “To let you know that they still exist.”