Israel Israeli occupation Israeli settlements Palestinian Authority Palestinians

The gated country

I’ve just returned from Israel. The sense of gloom about the chances of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so widespread and predictable that even mentioning it –or noticing it– seems naive. It is hardly new. But lately something different and probably dangerous has also seeped into the air, a kind of lethargic refusal to care very much.

Dahlia Scheindlin, one of Israel’s most perceptive pollsters, told me that apathy about the conflict was growing apace, based on a number of surveys. Her article in the latest Jerusalem Report (shamefully unavailable on-line) is entitled “Two States? Yawn.”

She notes the apathetic reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent threat to resign. Abbas’ message was: “Act fast if you want a two-state solution or you may find yourself without a partner.” If that message is accurate, it means that a bi-national state, and the end of a democracy with a Jewish majority, is becoming “increasingly realistic,” Scheindlin writes. “Faced with this…scenario, Israelis should have been alarmed by Abbas’ message. They should be clamoring for progress in the peace process. And yet they’re not.”

She probed this phenomenon in a survey conducted with New Wave Research. To set the context, the pollsters told 500 Israelis that Abbas had threatened to resign because Israel was not advancing the peace process, and that people from his government might resign with him. They were also told that Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz has said the Israeli government is delaying the process and will lose the opportunity for two states. Then they were asked if they agreed with the following: “The Israeli government is moving too slowly on the process, further weakening moderate Palestinian leaders and therefore should move faster toward a two state solution.”

50 percent of the respondents disagreed and only 37 percent agreed.

In other words, half of them felt no need to rush and only one out of three felt any urgency about salvaging the possibility of an enduring peace settlement. One of the main reasons for this “torpor,” Scheindlin opines, is the perception that Israelis have no partner, and there’s no point in speeding up the process because the “Palestinians won’t or can’t go for it, and wouldn’t be able to enforce it even if they did.”

That makes sense, but I think there is more to this lack of urgency than Israelis’ perceptions of the bleak diplomatic landscape. Right now, it is possible and tempting to live a pleasant life in much of the Jewish state, and to not think or care very much about the plight of Palestinians and even Israel’s longterm future.

An acquaintance told me about his recent breakfast with an Israeli academic from a foreign policy think tank. At a hotel in Jerusalem, they discussed why Netanyahu’s cautious, diplomatic half-measures seem to reflect a new, center-right consensus among Israeli Jews. The academic pointed to a lavish spread, the plates overflowing with fixings for an Israeli breakfast, and said “You see all of this? Why the f___ should I care?”

The physical setting, especially the elaborate system of security barriers, checkpoints and segregated access roads, makes it increasingly easy not to dwell on a messy, seemingly intractable conflict. “The entire state of Israel is a gated community,” said Ron Nachman, the Mayor of Ariel, in an NPR segment. He was trying to justify the electric, barbed-wire fence that surrounds his own community deep inside the West Bank

“We build around them, we build over them, we build under them,” my stepbrother Jonatan told me a few years ago, describing the highway system that now exists in Jerusalem and its outskirts, as we drove through the Gush tunnels on the Jerusalem-Hebron road. Much has been written about the impact of this separation on Israeli security and on the everyday lives of Palestinians. I am also interested in the psychological impact of living in a large, fortified and generally pleasant ghetto. It is hard to believe it has no impact on people’s willingness to concern themselves with those beyond the walls.

People are closing themselves off even further within Israel proper, where the spirit of “they live there, we live here,” applies to more than Israeli-Palestinian relations. Gated communities are springing up. “Homeowner associations, `private’ neighborhoods and `exclusive’ residential complexes are mushrooming all over Israel, furthering its national, ethnic, religious and class fragmentation,” according to one study.

Go to any metropolitan area in the U.S. and you will find the same residential isolationism. But, pointing to the high walls of one of the more well-known neighborhood fortresses, Andromeda Hill in Jaffa, my friend J said, “they don’t want to keep out only the street people, the crime. That’s what you do [in America].” Here, she said, “they want to keep out reality.” According to Haaretz: “The main argument of Andromeda’s planners to justify the stringent security and closed gates is that Jaffa is crime-ridden. Yet, another city-village was erected in Hamashtela, a neighborhood of Tel Aviv peopled by the well-to-do, which has never been called a hotbed of crime. Nobody’s allowed into that one unless they’ve been invited.”

But reality has a way of intruding, whether or not it is invited. There is no way to stave it off. Unless something dramatic happens soon on the diplomatic front, unless something shakes up the status quo, the democratic Jewish state will slide inexorably towards its own destruction. It is going to end, with either a whimper or a bang. And no amount of gates, guards and checkpoints will be able to protect Israelis from that.

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