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Warnings about the price of deadlock with the Palestinians are going unheeded – it may be time to head for the shelters (David Silverman/2010 Getty Images)
Warnings about the price of deadlock with the Palestinians are going unheeded – it may be time to head for the shelters (David Silverman/2010 Getty Images)

Globe Essay

Is this Israel's calm before the storm? Add to ...

It's been a year since the election that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power in Israel and, for most Israelis, it's been the best year in recent memory. There has been almost no violence or breaches of security, and the country's economy weathered the world recession remarkably well.

Israelis, for the most part, feel safe and secure, and the Prime Minister's rating in public opinion surveys reflects that satisfaction: Mr. Netanyahu is retaining his hold on his centre-right supporters and is gaining support among voters in the centre and on the left. The only drop he has suffered is among voters of the far right who reject his temporary freeze on construction in some Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

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Now, it seems, 2010 is supposed to be even calmer. The country's annual intelligence assessment released this week spoke of "low probability of war" and little likelihood of serious clashes.

But as veteran Israeli observers will tell you, when you hear such rosy forecasts, it's time to head for the shelters.

"Experience in the Middle East shows that calm can turn into tension, and tension can turn into war, in an instant," wrote Aluf Benn in yesterday's Haaretz newspaper.

A flare-up in sabre-rattling with Syria is the exception that proved the rule. Syrian officials warned that, if there were a war, Israeli cities would become targets, and that drew a bellicose response from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that, in that event, the Assad regime would be toppled.

Mr. Netanyahu moved swiftly to calm the waters and return matters to their previous quiet. Israelis were left scratching their heads about where all the rhetoric had come from.

It came, in fact, from an apparent misinterpretation by Damascus of remarks made earlier this week by Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister and the current Defence Minister. Mr. Barak had told an audience that, if peace with Syria is not achieved, Israel could face an unnecessary war that would leave issues between the countries exactly where they are now.

It was intended as a cautionary note to Israelis not to be complacent, but it so surprised the regime of Bashar al-Assad that they took it for a threat. Perhaps it's one of the consequences of not having a channel of communications between the two countries' leaders.

Mr. Barak's warning has fallen on deaf ears in Israel, where most people can't imagine a peace that would entail giving back to Syria the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"Why would we want do that?" people ask. "There's no chance of war with Syria, and the Golan has become part of Israel. It's a great place to visit during Passover."

Mr. Barak is not alone in warning of the danger of complacency.

Jordan's King Abdullah and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also have cautioned Israel about being too smug.

"Israel should give some thought to what it would be like to lose a friend like Turkey in the future," Mr. Erdogan said this week.

It was Ankara that provided the good offices through which Israeli and Syrian officials conducted negotiations aimed at a peace agreement more than a year ago.

But the once-valued ally - Turkey and Israel even carried out joint military exercises - has been snubbed by the Netanyahu administration for having criticized Israel's assault on Gaza early last year.

As for the Palestinians, with whom Mr. Netanyahu has yet to enter into peace talks, Mr. Barak also warned: "A deadlock will lead to another round of violence that will serve Hamas."

Up to now, there has been little public pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to change things.

Most Israelis never encounter Palestinians, though most Israelis live within a few kilometres of them. Few Palestinians can enter Israel, including east Jerusalem, and almost no prudent Israelis ever journey into the Palestinian territories. Israelis are more likely to visit Rangoon than Ramallah.

Most of the Israelis who do come into contact with Palestinians are settlers, and that contact usually is through their car windows, as they whisk past Palestinians on the sides of the roads that carry Israelis to their settlements in the West Bank.

It is true that life is better these days for many Palestinians, as the Netanyahu government has removed many internal checkpoints and the Palestinian economy has blossomed.

But the comforts that have arrived in the West Bank's major cities have yet to trickle down to the hundreds of Palestinian villages and smaller towns.

As well, the dream of statehood remains elusive, and the Palestinian Authority has a president whose term expired more than a year ago. The elected Palestinian Legislative Council has been suspended for almost three years.

President Mahmoud Abbas stands firm in his refusal to negotiate with Israelis until they cease construction in all settlements, including those in east Jerusalem. This position wins him a measure of respect, but the settlements continue to expand, and the rival Hamas organization grows stronger.

Rather than trying to find a solution in peace talks, the Palestinian Authority harasses Hamas officials and keeps some 600 Hamas members in jail. The result of such heavy-handedness is to distance many of the people from their rulers and to generate more support for Hamas.

Few Israelis, however, feel the need to press Mr. Netanyahu into ending this situation by agreeing to Mr. Abbas's demand for a real halt to settlement construction.

To most Israelis, security is measured in whether they feel safe taking the bus or sitting in a popular café, both of which had been targets of suicide bombers in the past. By such measures, Israelis feel very safe. The last suicide bombing was five years ago and, for every warning from a King Abdullah or a Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there's a Silvio Berlusconi or a Mike Huckabee to reassure Israelis they're doing everything right.

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has taken his case to the enemy's camp, speaking this week at the annual Herzliya Conference, at which Israeli leaders regularly attend. He told his audience that, if Palestinians didn't achieve statehood through negotiations, they would opt for a unilateral declaration of independence. His biggest task, he said, is constructing the infrastructure for such a day.

Mr. Fayyad is dead serious, and the prospect of a unilateral declaration and a campaign to win world support for the Palestinian state should jar Israelis out of their complacence. But the fact that he spoke in such a gathering of elite Israelis suggests he is more friend than enemy, so why worry?

President Barack Obama's recent admission of failure to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks started, meanwhile, has left the Netanyahu government gloating and the Israeli peace camp marginalized.

History, however, suggests this smugness could be the calm before the storm. In 1973, recalls Gideon Rafael, a former director general of foreign affairs, Israelis were brimming with confidence from their victory in the 1967 war and didn't see the coming of the Yom Kippur War that would almost defeat them.

Similarly, in the wake of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the successful routing of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon in 1982, Israel was blind to the advent of the Palestinian intifada in 1987 and the potency that campaign would have.

And in the late 1990s, Israel was basking in the glow of the Oslo peace process and was blind to the second, more violent intifada on the horizon.

Israelis aren't likely to heed Ehud Barak's warnings right now; they have been conditioned to reject criticism. And who can blame them? For 62 years, their little country has been mostly isolated and often at war. They don't want to hear bad news just when things seem quiet.

But it's got so that even great supporters of Israel can't criticize it with impunity.

This week, a right-wing movement, Im Tirtzu, has launched a campaign against the New Israel Fund, a 30-year-old organization that supports various human-rights groups in Israel. It blasts the NIF for assisting Richard Goldstone, the South African judge whose report on the Gaza campaign raised questions about possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for supporting the idea of an independent inquiry into the Gaza assault.

On Thursday, NIF president Naomi Chazan was told by The Jerusalem Post that it was dropping her weekly column.

One more critical voice is quieted, and the rest of the country goes back to planning its Passover vacation.

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