The main shopping mall in Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv, was bombed by a terrorist in 2002 during the most recent Palestinian uprising. It’s been more than seven years, but glass barriers still ring the mall’s perimeter, forcing shoppers to pass through a security check — a reminder of the uncertainty that nags Israelis even though the uprising has long since died out.
But on the day last week that that negotiations (technically “proximity talks”) were supposed to be restarted between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians, there was more apathy than optimism in the Kfar Saba mall about the prospects for peace. For many, the absence of daily violence is enough.
“Let [the negotiators] wrack their brains,” said Moshe, 43, from Tel Aviv. “The situation is fine as it is now. No arrangement will be enough to satisfy the Palestinians. You give them your notebook and they’ll want your entire bag.”
For decades Israel has declared itself as a “peace-loving nation.” The state of war with Israel’s neighbors was always seen as a temporary condition that would eventually be resolved with a peace deal. That aspiration helped Israelis adopt an optimistic view of their future — according to the chorus of popular song, “I was born for the peace, if only that would just come.”
But as the prospects for a successful peace treaty seem to Israelis increasingly unlikely, many are readjusting their expectations. The current truce with the Palestinians and the Syrians, the mutual deterrence with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is not considered ideal. But many see it as the best of a handful of poor alternatives.
According to widely held popular belief, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely to go the distance on a peace treaty because he already rejected a peace offer from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In Gaza, where Abbas’ forces were routed three years ago by Hamas, it seems that Israel and the Islamic militants have arrived at a modus vivendi whereby Gaza’s rulers are allowed to survive, even amid a tight boycott.
Better to play for time by extending the relative lull in violence than risking a seriously destabilizing peace agreement, goes the thinking. Compared to the weekly terrorist bombings at the height of the second intifada, life in Israel is somewhat duller — which in the Middle East is a good thing.
In the last year, Israel has been relaxing movement restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, freeing up economic activity to a degree, and buying time with prosperity. Despite widespread talk of a third Palestinian uprising, a recent survey in the West Bank found an overwhelming number of Palestinians opposed to a new intifada.
So is this really as good as it gets?
“It may be the least bad option. I’m skeptical about everything, including the status quo,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
“The question is always whether the alternatives are better. The status quo is very problematic — because it leaves the occupation in place in the West Bank. This has a corrupting effect on Israeli society that isolates Israel internationally, and it maintains Palestinian incentives for violence. The question is whether there is a realistic alternative — and I emphasize realistic — that’s likely to be better. That case has not yet been made.”
An agreement with a weak Palestinian Authority without control over the Gaza Strip could be a recipe for an erosion of security. It could, Steinberg said, prompt Hamas to take military steps. What’s more, with such an agreement, the international community wouldn’t necessarily stop pressuring Israel regarding its relation the Arabs, Steinberg continued, suggesting that the world’s focus could shift to Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority.
However, many see Israel’s international diplomatic standing as vulnerable if there’s no robust peace process. With all due respect to the renewed indirect talks this month, all involved realize it’s a modest step.
In lieu of a breakthrough, Israel could absorb more international condemnations over the Goldstone report — which found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during last year’s Gaza conflict — and a growing move to recognize a Palestinian state. While these certainly aren’t make-or-break issues, “it’s not healthy,” said Alon Liel, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Israel’s resilient economy is one of the main bulwarks of the status quo. With the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange at record highs, real estate prices surging and growth forecast at 4 percent, there is relatively little socioeconomic malaise to amplify the diplomatic uncertainty.
The prosperity is a lull to a certain extent for Israel’s young left-wing elites, who have seen the political “peace camp” implode as they matured. They, in turn, have withdrawn from daily events into their own private lives.
Last and certainly not least, there’s the looming problem of Iran’s nuclear ambition, currently perceived in Israel as an existential threat. Highlighting Israel’s desire to be prepared for a missile attack, the government recently began distributing gas mask kits at local post offices. There was low turnout to claim the kits, an indicator that Israelis are far from being in emergency mode (and that the public information campaign was insufficient).
“I keep telling myself, to go out and get them,” said Ruthie Bashir, a 25-year-old mother of two who lives in Kfar Saba and tries to stay off buses ever since the last Palestinian uprising. “Right now, everything seems like it’s fine. It seems like there’s peace, but people are on edge. We know the quiet won’t last for long.”
Complicating all of the diplomatic issues is the friction between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. In a new poll by Tel Aviv University, Israelis agree the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated. Many see the American president as pro-Arab rather than sympathetic to Israel.
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