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?
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.
Is a Life Without Peace Possible After All?
The roughly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union brought obedience to authority to the country, which only amplifies the negative consequences of the occupation mentality. Surveys show that the new arrivals reject equal rights for Arabs and prefer having a strongman as their leader. As a result, many of them voted for Avigdor Lieberman, an Israeli version of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and head of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party. Lieberman has been Israel's foreign minister for the last two years.
The failure of the Camp David peace agreement, brokered by US President Bill Clinton between former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, has contributed greatly to the current political paralysis. When Barak returned home, he announced that the Palestinians had rejected his "generous offer" and were "no partner for peace."
This was apparently confirmed by the years of suicide attacks that followed, which only convinced Israelis that they were the ones who wanted peace while the Palestinians wanted terror. Several years later, the same belief was reconfirmed when the Israelis evacuated their settlements in Gaza and the Palestinians responded by firing rockets into Israeli territory. But what the media often ignored and the Israeli public tended to forget was that Israel had also made mistakes, that the second Intifada was partly a reaction to Israeli violence, and that neither the Israeli offer at Camp David nor the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were particularly "generous."
A Technical Problem
The suicide attacks also engendered disappointment, fear and hatred -- and, most of all, indifference to Palestinians -- also among many Israeli liberals. Nevertheless, peace at the cost of compromise seemed necessary, as long as the attacks continued. But since they have ended, many Israelis prefer the current calm over the effort and uncertainty associated with a peace treaty. And since the security barrier was erected and the Iron Dome missile defense system installed, the lack of peace seems more like a technical problem that can be controlled.
"From the Israel perspective, a life without peace is now possible. There is hardly any terrorism, there is no war, and there are no major decisions that could trigger arguments at the breakfast table," says Segev. "Netanyahu is so strong, because he pursues a policy of doing nothing about the Palestinians. And he has managed to make his policy the consensus."
The feeling of being in a constant state of emergency helps reinforce this consensus. No one has as many enemies as Israel, no other country has been threatened to be wiped off the face of the earth by Iran, and nowhere else in the world is the trauma of the extermination of a people so deeply rooted. For a nation that constantly fears for its survival, everything it does is self-defense. The right wing, for example, refers to the 1967 borders as "Auschwitz borders," thereby suggesting that ending the occupation of the West Bank would endanger Israel's very existence.
"Politicians are using the Holocaust more and more to create fear," says historian Segev. This, he adds, makes a politician who believes in peace and coexistence appear as naïve and unelectable in Israel today -- or even as someone who is betraying his own people.
'Real Danger Is Here and Now'
Mordechai Kremnitzer, 62, is familiar with the consequences of this vicious cycle of paranoia. The vice president of the Israeli Democracy Institute, Kremnitzer warns, almost daily, against a "democracy on a diet." He says: "The moment of real danger is here and now."
In recent months the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has adopted several initiatives directed against Israeli Arabs, who make up a fifth of the population. Under the most recent piece of legislation, the Nakba Law passed at the end of March, Arab schools or communities that commemorate the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians after the founding of Israel can be penalized with the denial of government funding. New citizens must now swear an oath of allegiance to the "Jewish and democratic state." Small villages in the Negev Desert and the Galilee have been given the right to reject new arrivals who do not "fit" to the community. This will enable Jewish communities to reject Arabs in the future without violating the principle of equality.
"Now that the conflict is increasingly seen as an existential dispute between the two national projects, the Israeli Arabs are viewed as an internal enemy," says Kremnitzer. Such a rigorous distinction between friend and foe divides society. While settlers who attacked soldiers during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were pardoned under an amnesty law, leftists are sent to jail for as little as taking part in an unauthorized demonstration.
Categorically Against Them
The majority of the population doesn't protest. This, says Kremnitzer, is partly because the ultra-rightists have managed to brand anyone who disagrees with them as disloyal and unpatriotic. According to this mindset, increasingly accepted as common knowledge, criticism is not simply criticism, but instead stems from a fundamental hostility. According to a survey, more than half of Israelis believe that the world is categorically against them, regardless of the country's policies.
For example, Richard Goldstone, an internationally respected judge from South Africa who had been appointed to head a United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza war, was vilified as a self-hating Jew and anti-Zionist. At the end of March, members of the Knesset seriously debated the question of whether J Street, a Jewish lobbying group in the United States that condemns the building of settlements, should be allowed to call itself "pro-Israeli." Some critics are being barred from entering the country, even if they are prominent Jews, like linguist Noam Chomsky and political scientist Norman Finkelstein.
The American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recently asked: "What if Israel ceases to be a democracy?" He outlines a scenario that is not even that unlikely anymore.
"Let's just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister Lieberman's government (don't laugh, it's not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs," Goldberg wrote. "Or let's say that Lieberman's government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won't be voting in Israel. What happens then? Do the courts come to the rescue? I hope so. Do the Israeli people come to the rescue? I'm not entirely sure."
Hope for the Future
Israel is still a free country, with a dynamic democracy, a free press and an independent judiciary.
But all it takes is a drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to see that there is also an alternative world within Israel, one in which every 10th Israeli now lives. It's the world of ultra-orthodox Jews, of men dressed in black suits and women in wigs, holding their children by the hand. Most of them would prefer a theocracy.
When a photo of the American president and his advisors was published after the death of Osama bin Laden, it wasn't a Saudi Arabian newspaper but an ultra-orthodox Israeli paper that used Photoshop to erase US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's image -- because ultra-orthodox men are forbidden from looking at unfamiliar women.
At the same time, the seemingly intractable conflict has facilitated the merging of religion and nationalism, with the once politically moderate Orthodox Jews taking sides with the rightwing settlers. Leading rabbis are fighting against government courts and calling on the public to disobey orders issued by the army. Representatives of this nationalist-religious camp hold key positions in the parliament, the military and society. One is the new national security advisor, for example, who, according to Ha'aretz, said at a conference that anyone who interrupts a military mission, even a soldier, should be shot.
Secularists, nationalists and the religious are wrestling over the character of the nation, and over how Jewish or how democratic it should be. After 63 years, this question is still oddly unanswered, and yet the future of Israel and the West Bank hinges on it. Can Israel be democratic if it continues to occupy the occupied territories? Conversely, can Israel be Jewish if it gives up the biblical regions of Judea and Samaria?
It is by no means certain that democracy will prevail. The biblical connection to the land has joined the secular narrative of the occupation and is more important today than it was in 1967. This is why it makes perfect sense to an Israeli prime minister to use the stories of Abraham, David and Isaiah to justify Israel's claims to the West Bank. Nevertheless, politicians become more irrational where religion is involved.
In the end, demographics will probably decide the outcome of this conflict. Settlers and the ultra-orthodox are the ones having the most children. Israel has a higher birth rate than Libya, and in some cities up to 64 percent of residents are children.
And what of Israel's left, its peace activists, artists, entrepreneurs and liberals? What has happened to the country's silent, secular majority?
The old elites, who once dominated the politics of peace, have largely withdrawn from the political process. Most have gone to Tel Aviv, the liberal enclave where Palestinians, settlers and Orthodox Jews seem equally far away. They are more likely to become involved in environmental causes than political parties. Tel Aviv is also home to those who are enjoying the economic boom and its benefits, including the many new restaurants, spas and wine bars that have opened in recent years. The effervescent, lively and overwhelming city of Tel Aviv is synonymous with this flight from politics.
Smarter than the Politicians
This is partly the result of a widespread feeling that parties and politicians are corrupt. Hardly any prominent politician has not faced a scandal in recent years. Netanyahu was accused of accepting luxury hotel stays paid for by others. Minister Lieberman faces an indictment for embezzlement and money laundering. And then there is the case of Moshe Kazaw, the former president, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for rape.
It would be easy to call Israel a corrupt nation, but it isn't quite that simple, in fact. "There is a lot of exaggeration when it comes to corruption," says Yossi Shain, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "Hunting people with charges of corruption has become a national sport in our country." According to Transparency International, civil servants are less likely to accept bribes in Israel than in France, and the country gets a more favorable overall rating than Italy and Greece.
And if corruption isn't as widespread as it seems at first glance, couldn't it be that ideological obstinacy is not as dominant as it seems?
Intransigence, nationalist and religious extremism paint a gloomy picture that does not in fact coincide with the buoyant mood in the country. In a survey on how satisfied people are with their lives, for example, Israel was rated ninth, well ahead of Germany. This is also part of the picture that is so difficult to understand outside Israel.
Of course, there is still hope for the future, as yet another survey indicates. Despite being accustomed to a constant state of war, and despite their contempt for the Palestinians, 67 percent of all Jewish Israelis support a peace plan that includes a partition of Jerusalem and a withdrawal from the West Bank, but only 47 percent of Knesset members share this view.
What this shows, most of all, is that ultimately most Israelis are smarter than their politicians.