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The Politics of Stasis: Israelis Increasingly Resigned to Life without Peace

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

There was a time when Israel was anxious to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians. Now, however, the majority of the country's population seems to have given up hope. While young Arabs are rebelling against autocratic regimes in the region, apathy is spreading in Israel.

Photo Gallery: Where Is Israel Headed? Photos
REUTERS

Flyers reading "Masbirim Israel," or "Explain Israel," have been laid out at the Tel Aviv airport for several months now. They are not meant for tourists, but for Israelis. Their government wants them to campaign abroad for greater sympathy with their country. The small brochure advises: Use a map to explain Israel's vulnerability! Show pictures from home! Tell your personal story! Surprise your listeners with facts, such as this one: The USB stick, Windows XP and cherry tomatoes were all invented in Israel, and the country is number one in new patents and in establishing new businesses.

This is called Hasbara in Hebrew. Travelers are to become citizen ambassadors for their country, explaining it, campaigning on its behalf and, if necessary, justifying its actions.

Explanation is urgently needed. Israel and the rest of the world have drifted apart in recent years. Israel feels isolated, criticized and misunderstood -- and would seem to believe this isn't a problem of substance but of the way it's portrayed.

The rest of the world, however, sees a country that apparently doesn't mind violating international law, one that continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank, imposes a blockade on an entire region and intercepts a fleet of human rights activists on the high seas. It is also seen as a country whose interior minister agitates against "intruders" from Africa, and in which the foreign minister is a man whom 60 percent of Israelis hold responsible for the "rise in extreme nationalist and almost fascist tendencies."

Israel is in a public relations crisis, as the country faces a growing lack of understanding, mostly in Europe, but also in parts of the United States, its closest ally. Who understands why the revolutions in its Arab neighborhood have prompted Israel to fall into a state of political autism? Why does it virulently reject all criticism? And why did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argue last week with US President Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, over a concept that has been beyond dispute for years: withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the exchange of territory?

Historic?

The speech that Netanyahu gave on Capitol Hill on Tuesday had been advertised beforehand as an historic speech. The premier supposedly intended to approach the Palestinians and convince them not to go forward with their plain to unilaterally declare independence in September.

But what Netanyahu offered only contributed to further alienation. He spoke of a "generous offer" and "painful concessions," and yet there was no where, how or when to his promises. It was a speech meant to bind together his difficult coalition at home and preserve his power, its tone so deliberately intransigent that after the speech the Palestinians promptly rejected the idea of negotiations.

It isn't just Netanyahu. A large segment of his country is apparently in a parallel existence. When Obama spoke to the American Jewish lobbying organization AIPAC on the Sunday before last, men and women were demonstrating on the Tel Aviv boardwalk with nooses around their necks, chanting: "Don't hang us, Obama." On the day after Netanyahu's speech, four cabinet ministers, the speaker of the Knesset and a former chief rabbi came together to celebrate the completion of 60 new residential units in East Jerusalem, in the Jewish settlement of Maale Hazeitim in the Arab Ras al-Amud neighborhood, which will only heat up the conflict even further.

Opinion polls conducted the next day further highlighted the contradiction: Although 57 percent of Israelis said they believed that their prime minister should have been responsive to Obama's peace proposal, 51 percent said they were satisfied with his performance in Washington.

Haywire, yet Admirable

Why does a majority of Israelis support a policy that apparently contradicts their wishes, a policy that has no intention of ending this conflict and that harms Israelis more than anyone else? The alternative to a two-state solution would be a bi-national state, in which the Palestinians will become the majority in the not-too-distant future. What is going on in this country, which, despite being about the size of the US state of New Jersey, dominates the attention of the entire world in such a unique way? A country that currently seems to have gone haywire, and yet remains both admirable and exceptional?

This is a question for Tom Segev, 66, Israel's best-known historian; it is vital to look into the past to understand modern-day Israel. Segev receives his guests in his apartment in West Jerusalem, which has a view of two walls, an old one and a new one. The old wall surrounds the old city, a pilgrimage site for three world religions, while the new wall confines the Palestinians inside the West Bank.

The great interpreter of Israeli history seems to have tired of his role -- as if he too could no longer understand his country, or understands it all too well. "For the first time in my life, I think the way the majority of Israelis do," he says at the beginning of the conversation. "I no longer see the possibility of peace." Ten years ago, Segev described modern Israeli society in his book "Elvis in Jerusalem." But today he says: "Forget it. I was wrong. I had assumed that things could only get better."

So what is the reason that Israel and the rest of the world have become so estranged in recent years? "We are so irrational, because this is a crazy country. Everything we do goes against our own interest, which is to live in a Jewish and democratic state, in peace with our neighbors." And the reason this is the case, he says, is quite simple: "We have more to lose in this conflict than the Palestinians."

Nuclear Power and a Nation of Startups

To this day, Israel is a country in a state of emergency. Half of its borders are still undetermined, every house has a safe room and every citizen has a gas mask in the closet. It's a country in which men and women alike are drafted into military service, where on average there is a memorial for every 17 dead soldiers and where a soldier was kidnapped by Hamas five years ago and has been kept in a cell somewhere in Gaza ever since.

Israel is also a country that, on the one hand, has developed a liberal democracy, but, on the other hand, has kept its neighbors under occupation and military rule for 44 years. It is both a nuclear power and a nation of startups, one that has produced more Nobel laureates than the entire Arab world, but also one in which theologians define citizenship and there is no civil marriage, no constitution and no right of asylum.

Three events have profoundly influenced the country, says Segev, sitting on his couch with a framed copy of the Israeli declaration of independence on the wall above his head: the occupation of the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War, immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and the failure of the Camp David peace process in 2000.

The occupation has already lasted for two-thirds of the history of the State of Israel, and in all those years it has also changed the occupier, its institutions and its way of thinking. Prisoners are mistreated, while the government backs illegal settlements and ignores the Israeli Supreme Court's rulings on the clearing of the settlers' outposts. This has inured the Israeli public to a constant breach of the law, which needs a justification. The justification provided is that the occupation is essential to the survival of the Israeli nation. But Israelis have forgotten that David Ben-Gurion, the founder of their nation, was opposed to the takeover of the West Bank, because he saw it as a potential source of disaster.

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