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The view from Israel: Pondering the chances of a long-term solution

by Shmuel Rosner

August 14, 2014 | 5:03 pm

<em>A girl holds a sign during a rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Aug. 14. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters</em>

A girl holds a sign during a rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Aug. 14. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Just after the start of the initial 72-hour cease fire last week, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) encouraged residents of communities near its southern border who had left during the war to return to their homes. They did — and then quickly discovered that the belief in the advent of calm had been too hasty. The head of the Southern Command had to admit that a mistake had been made; that the war was not over until someone in Cairo sings. As this article is written, talks are again in process, and another 72-hour cease fire is in place. What happens next? One thing is certain: The government isn’t again going to prematurely call on people to go back home. 

The less shooting there was around Gaza, the more noise there was in Jerusalem. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed in a Knesset meeting to give the United Nations a more active role in ruling Gaza, and he expressed his opposition to giving such an active role to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wants the exact opposite: to give Abbas a more active role and revive the hope for a peace process. The problem for Netanyahu, as his emissaries went to Cairo to handle negotiations, was twofold — or maybe threefold: how to keep the political arena quiet, how to reach an agreement for a more prolonged cease fire, and how to accomplish the latter in ways that will be compatible with finding a more stable long-term solution for the Gaza problem.

[RELATED: The view from Gaza]

This is one issue on which there is a lot of talk but no agreement — whether the war made enough of an impression to become the engine for gradual change in Gaza. Former Secretary of the Cabinet Zvi Hauser said on Aug. 11 that Gaza should be the real pilot for a Palestinian state. The territory is free of Israelis; it is small and contained; it can receive material support and assistance as much as necessary; and it can prove to the world, and to Israel, that a Palestinian state is a practical concept. If the Palestinians can make something out of Gaza, it might convince Israelis to be less apprehensive about letting them establish a state in the West Bank.

I’d be surprised if Hauser believes in such a possibility — that Gaza suddenly would become Singapore. And even if it were to do so, the steps required from all players to make it happen would take a long time to realize. In the meantime, most Israelis have little faith in Gazans, in the international community and in the Palestinian Authority (PA). They do have faith in the IDF and, to a much lesser degree, in Israel’s decision makers. 

There’s an old Israeli poem by Amir Gilboa, to which Israel’s most popular singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi wrote a tune, called “Song of the Morning.” Almost every Israeli knows the words of this poem, and although interpretations of its meaning vary, most would acknowledge its basic optimism: “Suddenly a man wakes up in the morning / He feels he is a nation and begins to walk / And to all he meets on his way he calls out ‘Shalom!’ ” 

This song comes to mind as one closely examines the mood of Israeli society in recent weeks. Curiously, such an examination reveals a sense of satisfaction about the Gaza war among Jewish Israelis. Not that they want war, or like it; not that they aren’t worried about the future of their country. They are. And yet, there is an undeniable comfort in the way that this war united the majority of Israelis. In the fact that Israel, even if for just a short time, felt again like a family in a way that we had long forgotten is even possible. A man wakes up and feels like a nation. 

Yes, there was some bickering, and there were many outrageous statements made on social media, and disruptions to this general atmosphere of unity. And, at times, the demand for unanimity was too much to bear. But there was — there is still — a sober mood of a shared destiny, of a hardened connection to the land and to the people. There is an understanding among the majority that there are times and there are circumstances in which doubts and small objections should be cast aside to keep the harmonious national front. 

This can be clearly demonstrated by looking at the polls, and by listening to the statements from Israel’s leaders. But it can also be detected by looking at deeds, large and small. By looking at the tens of thousands of Israelis who attended the funerals of the Lone Soldiers killed in the conflict. And by looking at much more mundane activities. In one of the offices in which I work, I suddenly began to receive an almost daily note suggesting that I buy produce from southern farmers who had lost their closer-to-home market. At the workplace of a friend, all employees decided to contribute a certain amount and buy candy for the troops. Their boss, hearing about the initiative, doubled their contribution. 

Two weeks ago, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, at a rally in Jerusalem, stated that the “battle in Gaza is just, there is no dispute about it.” His party, the main opposition party, stood alongside the government in support of the troops and the operation. The more leftist Meretz was less supportive of the war and more skeptical of its chances to achieve its goals — but appropriately kept its tone and manner measured. When funerals of soldiers become a daily scene and the public is highly supportive of the operation, the reasonable response is to let criticism lie.  

Meretz was more vocal in its condemnation of right-wing attacks, verbal and physical, against leftist elements that publicly objected to the war. The condemnation might have been somewhat hysterical — out of an instinctive tendency to look for right-wing brutality or for colder political calculation — but the worry about ugly demonstrations of flawed patriotism were real and justified. Even more worrisome are the heightened tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis — the latter of which could hardly fit into the newfound national unity. Jewish thugs occasionally cursed, harassed and attacked Arabs. And less problematic, but at times more painful, Jews disappeared from Arab neighborhoods, leaving restaurants empty and shopping areas struggling to find shoppers. 

Notable Arab public figures and writers, such as Sayed Kashua and Uda Basharat, expressed their despair with Israel’s society. “When Jewish youth parade through the city shouting, ‘Death to the Arabs,’ and attack Arabs only because they are Arabs, I understood that I had lost my little war,” Kashua wrote. It was a devastating article. Basharat, in an article for Haaretz Daily on Aug. 11, called the members of the political opposition “full-time collaborators” — that is, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.    

A lot more debate can be expected in the coming weeks about the outcome of the war. But oddly enough, if there is dissatisfaction in Israel with the current situation, it comes mostly from the faction of society — by the way, not all of it nominally belongs to the “right” — that wanted to see an operation with more ambitious goals and more decisive military victory.  Late last week, 60 percent of Jewish Israelis told pollster Menachem Lazar that ending the operation was “not the right decision,” while only 26 percent thought the timing was proper. Eighty-six percent said that the IDF should keep a large force around Gaza. Sixty-seven percent said that they do not feel “safe” from Hamas. Only 15 percent believed that the calm is going to hold for a “significant amount of time.” It is almost as if a consensus remains the norm: this time, the consensus of reluctant acknowledgment that the victory was not decisive enough, coupled with the understanding that the real battle over a long-tern arrangement is far from over.

Thus the public, at least for now, keeps giving the political leadership high marks for the supposedly unsatisfying results it was able to achieve. On July 10, Netanyahu’s approval was 51 percent. It then climbed to 53 percent, to 67 percent, to 72 percent on July 31, and then declined a little, back to 63 percent on Aug. 8. President Barack Obama, speaking to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman earlier this week, knowledgably explained to his interrogator that Netanyahu is too strong. “In some ways, Bibi [Netanyahu] is too strong, [and] in some ways [Abbas] is too weak to bring them together and make the kinds of bold decisions that [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat or [Israeli Prime Ministers] Begin or Rabin were willing to make,” Obama said. This was yet more proof that this president is either disinterested or incapable of ever understanding Israel. Netanyahu was able to keep the Gaza operation under check and keep the hardliners on the right relatively quiet only because he is so strong. And as for future peace with Abbas — Obama has little to be concerned about. Netanyahu is not going to keep such high approval numbers for very long. It will not be his political strength that prevents peace between Israel and the PA. 

If you ask Israelis, a majority would say that for too long Israel tolerated the constant harassment of southern communities that suffered constant shells and rockets falling on their heads. It was prompted to real action only when the drizzle turned into rain. “The promise of three years of quiet is no longer enough for me,” a resident of one of the kibbutzim near Gaza said in a radio interview this week  — yet it seems that her government is striving to achieve exactly that: three, or five, or maybe eight years of calm in the south. Partially, this stems from a positive motivation of a government that is not adventurous in pursuing its goals. Partially, it is the result of highly pessimistic worldview — namely, the view that, for now, hoping for more than temporary calm is unrealistic.

Thinking about the views of Israeli officials and ministers, it is customary for observers to separate the “doves” from the “hawks,” those wanting to “eliminate” Hamas rule and those seeking to use the pretext of the Gaza war and what follows to reignite the peace process and negotiations between Israel and the PA. Surely, this is one possible way to understand the positions of Israeli leaders, but another possibility is to divide them not by their positions vis-à-vis Hamas and the peace process, but rather by their level of expectation for change. There are the optimists — those who believe that Israel has the power to bring about real change, whether by toppling Hamas or by strengthening Abbas. And there are the pessimists — those who believe there are no decisive winners and losers in this war, that the best Israel can hope for now is a time-out in a long battle.

That is the division among the ministers, but for the public, the picture is a little different. They want more action but don’t believe it will bring about calm. They want negotiations but don’t believe that will bring about peace. They are not at all happy with the way the war ended — and yet, they are also not entirely disappointed. Most Israelis, to borrow Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi’s term, are in an “opsimist” mood.

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