The Fatal Quiet Netanyahu Leaves Divided Israel for Europe Trip

Some Israelis say that they have almost never had it this good, while others say that the prospects for peace could hardly be worse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pays his first official visit to Berlin this week, has divided the Jewish state and is openly quarreling with the West.

By Erich Follath


For once, there is good news from the Holy Land. But in the Middle East, what may seem positive today could lead to even more catastrophic developments in the future.

Tel Aviv's beaches are packed with tourists, the hotels in Jerusalem are booked solid, and Israel is reporting record numbers of visitors for the first two weeks of August. The country's robust economy has returned to positive numbers this quarter. Even more important, an almost total calm has descended on Israel. Rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip have dwindled, there have been almost no Palestinian terrorist attacks from the West Bank, and the weapons have been silent on the Lebanese border.

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The Palestinians are busy with their own problems, including deepening internal political divisions. The general congress of the moderate Fatah movement, which is in power in the West Bank, has just ended in Bethlehem. But Fatah was unable to swallow its pride and unequivocally recognize Israel. Instead, what emerged from the congress was a backward looking policy, only with younger faces presenting it. The group wants to see what it calls the "murder" of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat by the Israelis almost five years ago investigated once again.

The radical Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, makes no secret of its view of Fatah as its adversary and Israel as its mortal enemy. But Hamas is currently preoccupied with its bloody suppression of competing extremists with ties to al-Qaida in its territory.

A Relatively Comfortable Status Quo in Israel

For many Israelis, it seems as if the Middle East conflict were on hold, and they are having little trouble getting used to the relatively comfortable status quo. They credit the hard-line administration of Netanyahu, 59, with the current calm. The controversial politician, who has been in office for close to five months, is serving as prime minister for the second time. His first term, from 1996 to 1999, is widely viewed as not having been very successful. But "Bibi," as Netanyahu is affectionately known, is popular at the moment, and so is his intransigence. As a result, he is traveling to meetings with allies armed with strong popular support. On Tuesday, Netanyahu meets in London with George Mitchell, the United States government's special envoy to the Middle East, and on Wednesday he is expected in Berlin.

Members of his 30-member cabinet and an archconservative press have recently been pounding out a seductive message: Why agree to painful compromises with the Palestinians, and why enter into peace negotiations in the first place, if there can be calm without any of these measures? Why give up the illegal settlements or even halt the expansion of existing settlements, as US President Barack Obama is demanding, if there is no threat of sanctions and if Israel has an additional bargaining chip, just in case? And why not simply ignore the serious human rights violations committed by the Israeli military during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, even though they were condemned by the United Nations?

A majority of Israelis favors reaching a settlement with the Arabs, including the two-state solution the international community has called for. But now the Palestinian state bordering Israel would take on a new shape, at least according to the plan Netanyahu described in June, when he accepted the concept publicly for the first time: with no army of its own, no control over its airspace, no right of return for all Palestinians, and without Jerusalem, which, according to Netanyahu, must remain "Israel's undivided capital." Israelis should not fear these "concessions," Netanyahu's father, Benzion Netanyahu, 99 -- one of the right-wing "revisionists" in the olds days and still among the prime minister's closest advisors today -- explained with disarming openness. According to the senior Netanyahu, the terms of his son's plan are structured in a way that would prevent the Palestinians from adopting it.

No Surprises Expected in Berlin

When Netanyahu visits the German Chancellery this week, he will not expect to be greeted with embarrassing surprises, as he was recently in Paris when French President Nicolas Sarkozy abandoned all diplomatic protocol and bluntly told Netanyahu, in the presence of witnesses, that he should dismiss Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, notorious for his racist remarks. "There is hardly a leading politician who isn't saying: What's this delusional appointment?" Sarkozy is reported to have said. When Netanyahu objected to Sarkozy's meddling and said that Lieberman is not only an "important member of an elected government," but also a "very nice person," the French president upped the ante, comparing the Israeli foreign minister with a leader of the extreme right wing in France. "In private conversations Jean-Marie Le Pen is also a nice person," he said.

Because of Germany's history, Chancellor Angela Merkel feels that any harsh criticism of Israel is inappropriate. In her 2008 address to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, she didn't even criticize the country's illegal settlement policy -- much to the indignation of the Israeli left and the European Union, whose common policy she thus ignored. In Jerusalem, Germany is now considered Israel's staunchest supporter, while the United States, which sends billions in aid to Israel, is currently its most uncomfortable ally. Obama, hoping to develop a reputation in the Islamic world as an honest broker, wants Israel to make substantial concessions.

But where are the fault lines within Israeli society?

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