Israel/West Bank trip, day 5

(Tel Aviv) After talking last night with the editor of the very liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz (Aluf Benn), I’m thinking that the most interesting question is which of these two views most accurately represents the Israeli government:

  1. We (the state of Israel) offered to remove almost all the Jewish settlements as part of a reasonable peace deal that Yasser Arafat rejected. We would do the same again. We have continued to build settlements, but we are willing to remove them for peace. We have been building them because the domestic politics of stopping them is too difficult in the absence of a peace offer, and also because we have a right to a Plan B. Plan A is peace through a treaty, but Plan B is putting settlements on the high ground so that we can strengthen our defense against rockets.
  2. Previous Israeli Prime Ministers offered to remove most of the settlements, but (thank God) the Palestinians didn’t take that deal. Right now, we are deliberately trying to build as many as we can so that we can change the facts on the ground in Israel’s favor. If we ever agree to exchange land for peace, we will cede much less land than we would have offered in 2000. At most, for every two new settlements, we’ll renounce one, and that will be a better deal.

I’m not saying that 1 is OK, but 2 is decidedly worse. Now, states do not actually have opinions, plans, or goals; people do. It is most likely that the individual decision-makers in Israel–who range from voters to the Prime Minister–hold a mix of these two opinions, along with others. In that sense, there is no real truth about the Israeli position–unless the government decides to sign a deal.

I’ve written political commentary all week. Heading home on Sunday (and before taking a week off from blogging), I’ll sign off with a few random observations about the West Bank and Israel as I have experienced them.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces conscript all Jewish 18-year-olds except the ultra-Orthodox. So there are units of very young adults in uniform all over the place, especially in Jerusalem. The Israeli army is famously informal, not exactly spit-and-polish. You see teenage female soldiers with pony tails and earrings, and skinny guys who look about 16 lounging around on duty. I have never seen such un-threatening military units in my life. On the other hand, several people have told me that the border police and regular police are aggressive and disliked.
  • Israelis are genuinely afraid about a whole range of what they call “existential threats” (from an Iranian bomb to social disintegration), but Tel Aviv is a real estate boom town, and lots of Jews who hold US passports and advanced degrees are choosing to live here instead of LA or Boston. In that sense, the market’s prognosis is optimistic and secure.
  • I don’t want to sound like Tom Friedman, but clearly there is another profound division in this region, beside the Arab/Jewish divide: the 21st century versus anti-modernists. Rawabi, the planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, has more in common with Tel Aviv, which is Miami-Beach-on-the-Mediterranean, than either city has with Muslim or Orthodox Jewish religious communities around Jerusalem. We’ve met Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs who are, to my eyes and ears, indistinguishable. I’m sure that if you forced them to discuss who’s been responsible for the conflict between Israel and the Arab world since 1900, they would disagree. But what they share is a relative lack of interest in such matters, along with a common fascination with high tech. That doesn’t mean that Shimon Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East” (Saudi tourists on the Tel Aviv beaches) is realistic, but both communities have their modernists.
  • Notwithstanding the millions of times you have been told that Israel is small, crossing back and forth across the security wall and the Palestinian zone of control drives home how tiny the distances are and how complex is the political landscape. Major Palestinian and Israeli populations are not just nearby on the map; they are in plain sight and hailing distance of each other.
  • Little children here, whether Arab or Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, religious or secular, are notably cute, and I really hope they can all live safely together some day.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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