Who Needs Peace, Love, and Understanding, Anyway?

By Ephron, Dan | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Who Needs Peace, Love, and Understanding, Anyway?


Ephron, Dan, Newsweek


Byline: Dan Ephron

Why many Israelis now believe that pursuing peace with the Palestinians is passe.

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 cafes 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.

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