Israelis Think Peace With Palestinians Impossible

For more than 15 years now, two Tel Aviv University political scientists, working with pollsters, have been asking Israelis roughly the same the two questions every month: Do you support negotiations with the Palestinians? And do you believe talks will bring about peace between the two sides in the near term? Their project, which started as the Peace Index and was rechristened in 2008 as the War and Peace Index, aimed to track Israeli opinion about a process that began with the 1993 Oslo accord. Optimism has waxed and waned over the years, peaking just after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing fanatic, when more than 60 percent of respondents felt good about the peace process, and plunging during the suicide attacks of the second Palestinian intifada.

But rarely since the start of the project have the numbers been as low—consistently low—as in recent years. Only about 40 percent of Israelis now long for a rejuvenated peace process with the Palestinians. An even smaller number, about 20 percent, believe such talks would amount to anything. That doesn't mean Israelis are warmongers, although right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often complains his government is portrayed that way. Palestinian negotiators were outraged last week when the Israelis approved construction of another roughly 700 housing units in East Jerusalem despite a freeze on new building in West Bank settlements; they claim Netanyahu's professed desire to sit down and talk is disingenuous. Yet in the long years since the Oslo process began, each side has had its turn—several turns—as the spoiler. And in fact, more Israelis than ever (including Netanyahu, though with major provisions) now say they're willing to live alongside an independent Palestinian state.

What's changed is that more Israelis than ever also seem to feel little urgency about reaching that goal. This, as much as any reluctance on Netanyahu's part, may pose the greatest obstacle to the Obama administration's efforts to reach a peace agreement before 2012. A combination of factors in recent years—an improved security situation, a feeling that acceptance by Arabs no longer matters much, and a growing disaffection from politics generally—have for many Israelis called into question the basic calculus that has driven the peace process. Instead of pining for peace, they're now asking: who needs it?

Few Israelis would have posed that question just a few years ago, when buses and cafés were blowing up with alarming frequency. But the almost total absence of suicide attacks since 2006 has changed attitudes, in ways that were palpable to me when I visited recently for the first time in four years. In that unscientific way that a visitor takes in a national mood, I found Israelis to be more lighthearted and less angst-ridden than I had remembered—also less obsessive about what they call hamatzav, literally "the situation." The practice of turning up the radio when the hourly news bulletin comes on seems to have ebbed, a bewildering turn for anyone who has spent any amount of time in the country. Even Jerusalem, with its relentless feuding between Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, felt less tense. For an interview in the city with a top cabinet minister, I showed up 30 minutes early, recalling the rigorous security checks that precede such meetings. The guard who was supposed to frisk me couldn't get his handheld metal detector to work. Instead of fetching new batteries, he flashed a smile and said in accented English: "Just tell me we can trust you, and I'll let you in."

By the standard logic of Middle East peacemaking, this should be the perfect time to negotiate a deal. Israelis, after all, have long argued that real talks about land for peace cannot proceed until terrorism stops and some level of security is achieved. But, as so often happens in the Middle East, the standard logic no longer holds. If security was a prerequisite for peacemaking, now it's a goal unto itself. And it's been achieved, Israelis can plausibly argue, through their own hard-nosed measures.

Consider the numbers. Over a six-year period starting in September 2000, about 140 suicide bombers crossed into Israel from the West Bank, killing around 500 Israelis, a huge number for a population of 7 million (though only about one 10th the number of Palestinians killed during the same period). Since mid-2006, the year Israel completed large sections of the new fence around the West Bank (and a wall around parts of Jerusalem), not a single suicide bomber has infiltrated from the area and staged a successful attack. Built in part on Palestinian land, the barrier has generated criticism at home and abroad. But if you set aside the controversy, at least in the short run, the conclusion is clear: the barrier is working.

Gaza has similarly been subdued. In 2008, Palestinians launched around 3,000 rockets at southern Israel, an average of about 250 a month, according to an official tally. (The rockets have caused few casualties but have exacted a psychological and economic toll.) Then, a year ago, Israel waged a controversial war in Gaza. Critics of the campaign have focused, justifiably, on the high number of civilian casualties and the disproportionate use of force. But the results are indisputable: since the war, the number of rocket attacks from Gaza has dropped by 90 percent.

The stability, in turn, has helped Israel's economy. While the global recession plunged other countries into crisis in the past year, nearly all of Israel's indicators have held steady. Tourism, a good gauge of overall welfare, hit a 10-year high in 2008. Astonishingly, the IMF projected recently that Israel's GDP will grow faster in 2010 than that of most other developed countries.

In short, Israelis are enjoying a peace dividend without a peace agreement. Clearly, that can't last. Without a resolution to its conflict, Israel will always face the prospect of international isolation and challenges to its very legitimacy. But the tendency toward short-term thinking is reinforced by another somewhat skewed cost-benefit analysis that Israelis are inclined to embrace: while the absence of peace is exacting a very low price, Israeli attempts to forge a peace deal have exacted a very high one.

Most Israelis, in this analysis, associate the Oslo accords not just with the historic handshake on the White House lawn but with the first suicide attacks by Palestinians. Ask Israelis what they got in return for their offer at Camp David nearly a decade ago to hand over most of the West Bank and they'll point to the second intifada. In Israeli minds, Palestinians should have been grateful for the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza—instead they fired rockets at Israel.

Of course, that version ignores Israel's own provocations and abuses, including the continued expropriation of Palestinian land, the dramatic growth of Jewish settlements in the 1990s and the siege Israel has imposed on Gaza. But it's an account of history that Israelis across the political spectrum accept almost unquestioningly, and it translates into a deep reluctance to push forward too far, too fast. As Tamar Hermann, one of the two political scientists who run the War and Peace Index, told me recently, "In a way, Israelis are looking around and saying, 'We've achieved normalcy. We don't have bombings. The stock market's OK. Why should we launch another messy peace process that may rock the boat again?' "

Hermann concludes that Israelis have intellectually disengaged from peacemaking. Their emotional detachment may run even deeper. In the hopeful period after Oslo, Israelis coined a phrase: eating hummus in Damascus. The expression was shorthand for coexistence in the "new Middle East" that finally appeared to be materializing. But it also had a literal significance. For citizens of tiny and hemmed-in Israel, regional peace would mean they could drive their cars across international borders, shop in the souks of Arab capitals, and take road trips from Tel Aviv through Turkey and on to Europe. The national debate between left and right centered on whether that vision was attainable or delusional. But the potential benefits were obvious.

Today, hummus in Damascus has lost its appeal. This happened gradually, starting in the 1990s, when Israelis ventured into the Arab world like never before. The experience was often disappointing. The peace process failed to erase Arab animosity toward Israelis, who were often received with suspicion or even hostility. Those Israelis who had fantasized about combining Israeli know-how with Arab capital—enabling everyone to get rich—found the bureaucracy and inefficiency of Arab countries dispiriting. Meanwhile, Israel's booming high-tech sector has bound the country more tightly to the global economy, making trade with neighbors less important. As a result, even in the good years, Israel's commerce with the Arab world never amounted to more than 1 percent of its total international trade revenue. These days, says Ori Nir, the Israeli spokesman in Washington of Americans for Peace Now, Israelis would much rather eat pasta in Rome than hummus in Damascus.

Nir says that sense of disillusionment has helped to sink Israel's pro-peace parties, which suffered their worst defeat yet in elections last March. The drubbing has led some politicians on the left to shift their priorities. Nir told me that Nitzan Horowitz, a Parliament member from the left-wing Meretz party, had sought help from friends recently to set up meetings in Washington. When the friends inquired which American peace groups he'd like to meet, Horowitz said none: he was more interested in seeing environment and gay-rights advocates. Horowitz confirmed the account when I visited him at his office in Israel, where he had a photo on the wall of himself with the Dalai Lama, and a license plate inscribed with the words CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN—OBAMA IN '08. "People want a clear agenda," he told me, explaining why Meretz had dropped from 12 seats in the 120-member Parliament in 1992 to just three seats last year. "It doesn't have to always be focused on the Arab-Israeli issue."

Of course, Israelis have turned away from politics generally in recent years, largely in response to a swell of corruption in government circles. In 2009 alone, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was indicted for bribery, former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was jailed for embezzlement, and former president Moshe Katsav went on trial for rape. At least two former cabinet ministers have been convicted of graft in the past five years, and an indictment against the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is expected any day.

That malfeasance, though it has nothing to do with the peace process, has contributed to the Israeli disaffection for peacemaking. According to a recent study by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, one result of all the scandals is that Israelis feel their politicians can't be trusted to take their interests into account—not in small matters, and certainly not in something as significant as peace talks. "Making peace is difficult," says Tamar Hermann, who coauthored the IDI paper. "If you don't trust politicians, you don't want to jump into that water at all." Among other things, the study found that 90 percent of Israelis believe the country is tainted by corruption, and 73 percent would advise their friends and relatives to stay out of politics. Israelis are "drawing away, at times in disgust, from the political establishment," the study concluded.

On some level, the changes Israel is undergoing are part of the normal evolution of a Western democracy. It makes sense that Israelis over time would become less obsessed with politics, more cynical about their neighbors, less trusting of their leaders. But for Palestinians next door, nothing is normal. Hamas has rebounded from the Gaza war and is once again smuggling in weapons. In the West Bank, Israel's one reliable peace partner, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has vowed to resign. Farther off, a conflict with Iran looms. Many Israelis know it's just a matter of time before another bomb blows up in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But as one Israeli put it to me: the medication has become so effective at relieving the pain, there's little incentive to actually cure the disease.