Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace

Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace

By Karl Vick, with reporting by Aaron J. Klein, Jerusalem; TIME Magazine

13.09.2010

 

TIME Magazine: Why Israel Doesn't Care About PeaceHeli and Eli sell condos on Exodus Street, a name that invokes a certain historical hardship in a neighborhood that suggest none at all, the ingathering of the Jews having entered a whole new realm here. The talk in the little office is of interest rates and panoramic sea views from handsomely appointed properties on the Ashdod waterfront selling for half what people are asked to pay in Tel Aviv, 18 miles (28 km) to the north. And sell they do, hand over fist—never mind the rockets that fly out of Gaza, 14 miles (22.5 km) to the south. “Even when the Qasams fell, we continued to sell!” says Heli Itach, slapping a palm on the office desk. The skull on her designer shirt is made of sequins that spell out “Love Kills Slowly.” “What the people see on the TV there is not true here. I sold, this week, 12 apartments. You’re not client. I tell you the truth.”
 
The truth? As three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at The White House to being a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer. A watching world may still see their country as being defined by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved.
 
Now observing two and a half years without a single suicide bombing on their territory, with the economy robust and with souls a trifle weary of having to handle big elemental thoughts, the Israeli public prefers to explore such satisfactions as might be available from the private sphere, in a land first imagined as a utopia. “Listen to me,” says Eli Bengozi, born in Soviet Georgia and for 40 years an Israeli. “Peace? Forget about it. They’ll never have peace. Remember Clinton gave 99% to Arafat, and instead of them fighting for 1%, what? Intifadeh.”
 
Another whack for the desk. “The people,” Heli says, “don’t believe.” Eli searches for a word. “People in Israel are indifferent,” he decides. “They don’t care if there’s going to be war. They don’t care if there’s going to be peace. They don’t care. They live in the day.”
 
THE GOOD LIFE IS REAL
And what a day it is. When it reaches the eastern Mediterranean, the sun strikes molecules at an angle that erases the possibility that anything can matter except this sky, that sea, and the land between. In Ashdod, the sensation travels on golden dunes that march up from the beach through a shimmering new city center and out to a crisp, clean perimeter marked by yet another row of splendid new high-rises, white towers that hold the light for an instant, then release it into the realm of general good feeling. Breakfast here is cucumbers, yogurt, honey, bread and crumbly white cheese. You never felt better.
 
“The good life in Israel is real, while all the rest is somehow blurred,” says Ari Shavit, a good man, a serious man, who writes a regular column for Haaretz, the influential daily that has made hand-wringing a thing of frequent beauty since 1918. Still, a few years ago Shavit left his family home in Jerusalem, the capital, where more and more of life is so serious—all that stone—and settled in Tel Aviv, a beach city.
 
No place in Israel is more than 40 minutes from a stretch of sand, but only Tel Aviv is known as “the bubble.” Its sidewalk cafes are a way of life. On a Saturday, when Jerusalem turns into a mausoleum in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, a driver wandering Tel Aviv passes kite surfers and bikinis but rarely a disapproving look from a man under a fedora, the headgear of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who, along with politically active religious nationalists, increasingly fill the space vacated by secular Israelis both in the physical city of Jerusalem and in the matters decided there.
 
“There was a time when people felt guilty about the Tel Aviv bubble,” says Shavit. “Then it turned out the bubble was pretty strong. The bubble was resilient.” Indeed, there are times when you can think most of the nation is within it. Polls are clear on the point. In a 2007 survey, 95% of Israeli Jews described themselves as happy, and a third said they were “very happy.” The rich are happier than the poor, and the religious are happiest of all. But the broad thrust, so incongruous to people who know Israel only from headlines, suits a country whose quality of life is high and getting better.
 
But wait. Deep down (you can almost hear the outside world ask), don’t Israelis know that finding peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee their happiness and prosperity? Well, not exactly. Asked in a March poll to name the “most urgent problem” facing Israel, just 8% of Israeli Jews cited the conflict with Palestinians, putting it fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty. Israeli Arabs placed peace first, but among Jews here, the issue that President Obama calls “critical for the world” just doesn’t seem—critical.
 
“There is no sense of urgency” about the peace process, says Tamar Hermann, a political scientist who has measured the Israeli public’s appetite for a negotiated settlement every month since 1994, the year after the Oslo accords seemed to bring peace so close, Israelis thought they could touch it. They couldn’t. It flew feather away in 200, when Yasser Arafat turned down a striking package of Israeli concessions at Camp David. What came next was the second intifadeh, a watershed of terror for an Israeli majority who, watching and suffering waves of suicide bombings, saw no reason to keep hope alive.
 
“They watch less and less news,” Hermann says of her compatriots. “They read political sections of the newspaper less. They say, ‘It spoils my day, so I don’t want to see it.’” The market responds. Newspapers print fewer pages of politics—as little as half as much now as just a few years ago in the popular daily Maariv, says editor Yoav Tzur—and more pages of business news. “The rise in real estate prices is more interesting to the public than future talks…that no one knows will lead to something,” says Hadas Ragolsky, executive producer of the 5:00 report on Channel 2, Israel’s leading news station.
 
It’s not just real estate that serves a measure of economic success. Israel avoided the debt traps that dragged the U.S. and Europe into recession. Its renown as a start-up nation—second only to the U.S. in companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange—is deserved. A restless culture of innovation coupled with the number of brainiacs among the 1 million immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has made Israel a locus for high-tech research and development, its whiz kids leapfrogging the difficult geography to thrive in virtual community with Silicon Valley.
 
All this has combined to make the Palestinian question distant from the minds of many Israelis. And the distance is not only figurative. The concrete wall Israel erected on its eastern side during the second intifadeh sealed out not only suicide bombers but almost all Palestinians. An Israeli Jew can easily pass an entire lifetime without meeting one. “The wall,” marvels a former Israeli negotiation, “put the Palestinians on the moon.”
 
LOOKING FOR A PARTNER
It’s quite there, over on the moon. In the West Bank, the territory administered by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, technocratic Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is taking a serious stab at governance, staring by professionalizing security forces. Even before the shooting deaths of four Jewish settlers by Hamas operatives on Aug. 31, the worst such incident since March 2008, Fayyad’s security forces had arrested more than 300 Hamas supporters in dread of an attack like that. The Gaza Strip—the dark side of the moon, sealed off and ruled by Hamas—has been largely quiescent since the thunderous military operation Israel ended in January 2009.
 
Israel’s walls work so well that its foremost security challenge is now what’s thrown over them. Hizballah has an estimated 40,000 missiles pointed at Israel from its Lebanon redoubts, and Hamas collects a wide assortment of arms that enter Gaza through tunnels. In the peace talks, the “final status issues” are supposedly the borders of a Palestinian state, the question of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinians who fled their homes six decades ago. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his first priority will be to make sure that if Israel pulls its 10,000 troops out of the West Bank, its high ground will not become the latest launchpad for yet more rockets. He wants Israeli inspectors stationed on the Jordanian border to ensure nothing is smuggled in.
 
All that, of course, is a way for Netanyahu to talk about what he really wants to talk about, which is Iran. Tehran supplies the missiles to both Hizballah and Hamas and is closing in on the capacity to put nuclear warheads on its own long-range missiles. It is that danger that consumes Netanyahu, not the one posed by his immediate neighbors. “The Palestinian is no longer seen as a strategic threat anymore,” says Hermann. “A nuisance, yes.”
 
So the Palestinians need to make themselves listened to again. A few days before leaving for Washington, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat looked into a camera. “Shalom to you in Israel,” he said. “I know we have disappointed you.” In a bold, not to say desperate, bid to rouse ordinary Israelis, seven senior Palestinian officials addressed themselves to Israel directly in online videos. Each clip concludes with the words “I am your partner. Are you mine?” The videos spoke straight to the core doubt of the huge Israeli majority who in poll after poll say a two-state solution is best but are dubious that it will ever happen because the Palestinians won’t play ball. “During the elections, a lot of people told me there is no partner on the other side,” says Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima Party and a former Foreign Minister. She clicks on the video spots with evident relish. “This is good,” she says.
 
Gadi Baltiansky, of the pro-peace Geneva Initiative that made the videos, argues that the moderate Palestinians in them will not be around much longer. Teddy Minashi, looking at wannasurf.com in his Ashdod law office (“Crowded by screamy locals,” reads a comment about the Ashdod beach. “War keeps away foreigners”), doesn’t hear that. “We’re not really that into the peace process,” he says. “We are really, really into the water sports.” Minashi and his friends organized to block a fishing port that would have undone the best break on the beach. “people here now concentrate on improving their lives, in the sense that they don’t think too far ahead,” he says. “Me, myself, I don’t believe in this era we’ll achieve peace with our neighbors. So now we concentrate on what we can do, how we can improve our lives.” Ashdod, Minashi says, “is a very good example of that.”
 
INVOLVED, LIKE IT OR NOT
And so it is. Dating form the 17th Century B.C., the city is among the world’s oldest. Its biblical history alone features the Ark of the Covenant, one plague of boils, another of mice, and an Ethiopian eunuch. But all that was deep beneath the dunes when a handful of Moroccan Jews were dropped here by Israel’s government in the mid-1950s. Modern Ashdod would be a “development town,” Israel’s version of housing projects in an American city, down-market and all the grittier for its massive port.
 
“Some people, it’s not the war,” says Heli in the condo sales office, ready to defend his hometown. “They hear, Ashdod?” But they show up and find a city that is part resort, part microcosm for an immigrant nation turned inward. “It basically reflects the big picture in Israel,” says Mayor Yechiel Lasry, who has remade the city with the help of Soviet immigrants, some 60,000 of whom settled in Ashdod. Educated and conservative, the Russians flexed their political muscles and accelerated the rightward political drift that had begun with the second intifadeh.
 
The Russians also made the good life better, and not just because of their technological skills. Their taste for high culture means Ashdod has a ballet, a music school, a museum and the Andalusian Orchestra, which specializes in compositions from Moorish Spain, where Muslims and Jews made beautiful music together. Perched above the beachfront promenade that runs 6 miles (10 km), a new performing-arts center evokes a baleen whale.
 
“It’s a concept,” says Lea Divan, scanning the immaculate seafront from a table at the Puzzle Café, her view framed by palm fronts. “It’s a state of mind.” It’s not a Middle Eastern state of mind, though; the freeways and beaches, universities and start-ups bring to mind California, not Cairo. “That’s kind of what they’re going for,” says a waitress, taking away the breakfast Divan shared with Carmela Balosher-Orovan, her friend of six decades—a relationship that spans the lifetime of Israel. Divan was born on a kibbutz and was still nursing when it was attacked in the fighting Israelis call the War of Independence and that Palestinians know as the Catastrophe. “She suckled fear with the milk of her mother,” says Balosher-Orovan, hose experience in Haifa was in its way no less unsettling. Jews and Palestinians got along well in the mixed city until 1947. Then Arabs attacked the local refinery. “It was a shock,” she says. “These were my friends!”
 
Sixty-three years and eight wars later, Divan and Balosher-Orovan have seen enough to know that for all the surf breaks, the palms and the coffee, the conflict is never truly done, never far away; that it shadows the good life like the solider—in civilian clothes but with an M-16 slung across the back—who trails schoolchildren chattering down the sidewalk on a field tirp. When Divan moved to Ashdod eight months ago, her first question to prospective landlords was always, Does this apartment have a bomb shelter?
 
“I’m on vacation,” says Balosher-Orovan with a determined look. “Part of my vacation is not to listen to the news every half-hour.” But she knows—as many Israelis affect not to know—that the news matters. New talks? Experience offers small hope, the women say. But if the sides are talking, they’re not fighting. And thinking of her old neighbors, Balosher-Orovan still believes that people will naturally get along if their leaders allow it. So they are paying close attention and insists that anyone who claims otherwise is telling a tale. “You have a son in the army, and your sister’s son is in the army. You’re involved!” Divan says. Ignore the peace talks? “It’s impossible. You can’t do it. You’d have to live in a bubble.”