In a stormy sea of regional uncertainty, Israelis are turning inward. Last month, in Tel Aviv University’s peace index survey, more than 80 per cent of those polled ranked socio-economic policies highest among their priorities, while the Palestinian peace process lagged far behind. The new mood isn’t lost on politicians: The Palestinian issue is strikingly absent from headlines and public discourse and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is content to let that ship drift.
The changed agenda is the result of several external and internal factors. The difficulty of taking on the settlers (some 300,000 in the West Bank) means the Israeli public and politicians are spurred to take action on negotiations with the Palestinians only when terrorism makes the price of doing nothing too high. But right now, there’s no immediate security threat from Palestinians (Hamas has eschewed suicide bombings and the Palestinian Authority is committed to non-violent resistance) and the broader region is convulsed in turmoil. Giving up hard assets such as territory seems irresponsible and shortsighted.
Hosni Mubarak’s fall and the attendant rise of Egypt’s Islamist parties; President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal attacks against Syrian civilians; Jordanian King Abdullah’s political distress; and the continued flow of Iranian arms to extremist groups in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – all give a boost to those Israelis, including the Prime Minister, who believe there’s no one to count on and Palestinian peace won’t last.
The Palestinian Authority isn’t helping matters. Its president, Mahmoud Abbas, wants to revive the futile drive for recognition at the UN. And in last month’s brief round of talks with Israeli representatives in Amman, his officials did little more than go through the motions for the sake of their Jordanian host. Progress in the fitful Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks might, in fact, create a more representative Palestinian interlocutor, but Hamas remains anathema to Israel and Western governments. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Iran earlier this month, and his statements there in favour of armed struggle, only exacerbated Israelis’ negative attitudes. The Israeli government has already announced its refusal to talk to a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas.
Some in the moderate Palestinian leadership aren’t perturbed by Israel’s passivity and quixotically think the Arab Spring puts time on their side. They’ve always felt relegated to the sidelines by Arab rulers who exploited them as a political weapon to distract their publics and stifle internal unrest. Now, in the wake of the mass upheavals still rocking the Middle East, these Palestinians believe governments will be more responsive to their constituencies, for whom the Israeli occupation continues to be a heady rallying cry. Realistically, though, Arab public support will deliver very little.
In a polarized election year, the United States, is steering clear of loaded Palestinian matters, which are already a wedge issue for Republican presidential hopefuls. Taking its cue from Washington, Europe has also stepped back. Last week, caustic Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman noted that his government is off the hook as long as the U.S. and France are caught up in elections.
Closer to home, last summer’s social protest surfaced latent anger within Israel’s educated middle class, which feels it is shouldering an unfair share of the national burden through military service and high taxes. Israeli politicians ignore the bubbling dissatisfaction at their peril.
The protesters’ decision to disregard the link between the burden they carry and the vast public resources invested in West Bank settlements has emboldened the powerful settler lobby, which is determined to prevent a repeat of the 2005 Gaza disengagement and evacuation of settlements.
Already, the political landscape is visibly reflecting the domestic agenda. Journalist Yair Lapid, the newest vaunted political figure, is assiduously avoiding any reference to the Palestinian issue in the opening gambit of a campaign meant to launch a new “middle class party.” In the main opposition party, Kadima, incumbent Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, the chief contenders in an imminent leadership vote, are fighting it out over personality rather than policies. Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich was elected last fall on a domestic ticket and hasn’t changed course because there’s more to lose than to gain by doing so.
Finally, there’s the giant cloud of danger emanating from Iran’s nuclear program, which creates the greatest uncertainty of all. Since Mr. Netanyahu sees the Iranian threat as existential (not all his military and security officials agree), it trumps any other considerations or interests. It’s still anyone’s guess whether sanctions or a military strike will prevail, but whichever it is will be a momentous game-changer. So right now, while Mr. Netanyahu is wrong to assume that staying adrift on the Palestinian issue might work to Israel’s advantage, he’s certainly right that the critical matter of Iran renders all else marginal.