c.2013 New York Times News Service
For years, conventional wisdom has held that as long as Israel faces the external challenge of Arab — especially Palestinian — hostility it will never come to terms with its internal divisions. The left has sometimes used it as an argument: We must make peace with the Palestinians so that we can set our house in order — write a constitution, figure out the public role of religion. Others have viewed the threat as almost a silver lining keeping the place together: Differences among Israeli Jews (religious or secular, Ashkenazic or Sephardic) are so profound, the argument goes, that if the society ever manages to turn its attention inward, it might tear itself apart.
Back in Tel Aviv for a recent visit a year after ending my tour as Jerusalem bureau chief, I was struck by how antiquated that wisdom felt. At a fascinating and raucous wedding I attended and from numerous conversations with a range of Israelis, I came away with a very different impression. Few even talk about the Palestinians or the Arab world on their borders, despite the tumult and the renewed peace efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been visiting the region in recent days. Instead of focusing on what has long been seen as their central challenge — how to share this land with another nation — Israelis are largely ignoring it, insisting that the problem is both insoluble for now and less significant than the world thinks. We cannot fix it, many say, but we can manage it. The wedding took place near Ben-Gurion airport, where a set of event halls has gone up in the past seven years, including elaborate structures with a distinct Oriental décor of glistening chandeliers, mirrored place mats and sky-high ceilings with shifting digital displays. The groom’s grandparents emigrated from Yemen; the bride’s came from Eastern Europe, an example of continuing and increasing intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
The music was almost entirely Middle Eastern in beat, some of it in Arabic, some of it religious. The hundreds on the dance floor, many staying until dawn singing along with arms gesticulating, came from across a range of political, geographic and religious spectra — from miniskirted to ultra-Orthodox modesty. Frumpy settlers in oversize skullcaps mingled with Tel Aviv metrosexuals in severe eyewear. Some women hugged you; others declined to shake your hand. Everyone was celebrating. No one, especially the Orthodox rabbi who presided over the ceremony, mentioned that the young couple had been living together for more than three years. Some talked politics with me. No one mentioned the Palestinians.
Israel today offers a set of paradoxes: Jewish Israelis seem in some ways happier and more united than in the past, as if choosing not to solve their most difficult challenge has opened up a space for shalom bayit — peace at home. Yes, all those internal tensions still exist, but the shared belief that there is no solution to their biggest problem has forged an odd kind of solidarity.
Indeed, Israel has never been richer, safer, more culturally productive or more dynamic. Terrorism is on the wane. Yet the occupation grinds on next door with little attention to its consequences. Moreover, as the power balance has shifted from the European elite, Israel has never felt more Middle Eastern in its popular culture, music and public displays of religion. Yet it is increasingly cut off from its region, which despises it perhaps more than ever. Finally, while the secular bourgeoisie, represented by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, has forged an unexpected alliance with West Bank settlers, represented by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi Party, aimed at reducing the political power of the ultra-Orthodox, alarm over the failure to address the Palestinian problem has grown in a surprising place — among some of the former princes of the Zionist right wing.
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At a Jerusalem cafe, Dan Meridor, the former Likud minister and son of right-wing Zionist aristocracy, could not stop talking about the Palestinians.
“It is a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” he said. “We are living on illusions. We must do everything we can on the ground to increase the separation between us and the Palestinians so that the idea of one state will go away. But we are doing nothing.”
Meridor, nursing an American coffee at the cafe near the house his parents bought many decades ago in the upscale Rehavia neighborhood, sounded like two other public figures from famous right-wing families — Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and chief peace negotiator. Both have made a series of emotional speeches begging Israelis to take the Palestinian issue seriously. They are getting little traction.
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The Israeli left is still there, of course, but in increasingly insignificant knots. Two Israeli friends in Jaffa, from which tens of thousands of Palestinians left, voluntarily or not, in 1948, have beautifully renovated a house, even preserving a pre-state lemon tree in the courtyard. They are friendly with the Arabs who live nearby. Their children refused military service in protest over the West Bank occupation. And on the outside of their house they have put up a plaque noting that until 1948 the structure was the home of the Khader family, a tiny homage to a destroyed world.
But the family is rare. Lapid, the rising star of Israeli politics, is a former television host who agrees that something must be done about the Palestinians. But in an interview he offers no specifics other than hoping Kerry will pressure them to return to the negotiating table under conditions they have long rejected. Lapid, who spoke in the outdoor section of his neighborhood cafe in north Tel Aviv on a fragrant spring afternoon, was relaxed and buff in his long-sleeved black T-shirt and black jeans. Well-off Tel Avivians at nearby tables argued into their iPhones. Lapid said Israel should not change its settlement policy to lure the Palestinians to negotiations, nor should any part of Jerusalem become the capital of the Palestinian state he says he longs for. He has not reached out to any Palestinian politicians nor spoken publicly on the issue. As finance minister, he is focused on closing the government’s deficit.
Lapid may be a political novice but he knows the public mood. A former senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, over a Jerusalem lunch of toasted bagels and salad, that most Israelis considered the peace process irrelevant because they believed that the Palestinians had no interest in a deal, especially in the current Middle Eastern context of rising Islamism. “Debating the peace process to most Israelis is the equivalent of debating the color of the shirt you will wear when landing on Mars,” he said.
An afternoon in Ramallah revealed no stronger sense of urgency among Palestinians. But, unlike Israeli Jews, they are increasingly depressed and despondent over their quandary and dysfunctional leadership. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who showed real competence in his job but is resigning, says Palestinian leaders must acknowledge their failure to deliver on their promises and call new elections. That is not happening. He tells friends that if he believed Kerry’s efforts had any chance of yielding results, he would not be quitting.
All of which suggests that, as has long been argued, there can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal so long as outsiders want it more than the parties themselves. Some have likened Israel to the deck of the Titanic. That may not be right, but you can’t help wondering about that next iceberg.