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Commentary: Not the same old, same old

by on April 17, 2014 10:10 AM

At first, the article in The Jerusalem Post last week seemed like the same old, same old: A picture of a ransacked Israel Defense Forces post in the West Bank. Then a quote from Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon: “The State of Israel will not tolerate such criminal activity, which is terrorism in all respects.” Those Palestinians will never quit.

Oh, wait a minute. Yaalon wasn’t talking about Palestinian terrorists. He was talking about Jewish terrorists, renegade settlers, who slashed the tires of an IDF jeep parked in the settlement of Yitzhar, after Israeli soldiers came to demolish illegal buildings. “Settlers clashed with security forces during Monday night’s demolition and lightly injured six officers,” The Post reported. “A group of 50 to 60 settlers then raided an army post located to the west of the settlement, destroying generators, army equipment, heaters and diesel fuel tanks.” Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni warned that extremist settlers had crossed a line: “An ideology has flourished that does not recognize the rule of law, that does not recognize us or what we represent.”

These small stories tell a bigger one: We’re not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, and they’re not dealing anymore with your grandmother’s America either. Time matters, and the near half-century since the 1967 war has changed both of us in ways neither wants to acknowledge — but which the latest impasse in talks only underscores.

MORE RELIGIOUS

Israel, from its side, has become a more religious society — on Friday nights in Jerusalem now you barely see a car moving on the streets in Jewish neighborhoods, which only used to be the case on Yom Kippur — and the settlers are clearly more brazen. Many West Bank settlers are respectful of the state, but there is now a growing core who are armed zealots, who will fight the IDF if it tries to remove them. You did not go to summer camp with these Jews. You did not meet them at your local Reform synagogue. This is a hard core.

But even the more tame settlers are more dominant than ever in the Likud Party and in the Israeli army officer corps. It is not a fiction to say today that the Likud prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, represents the “center” of Israel’s right-wing bloc. And it is not an accident that Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, who comes from a pro-settler party to the right of the Likud, approved a tender for 700 homes in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, across the Green Line — just as Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks were coming to a head. As Minister Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, put it: “Minister Ariel purposefully and intentionally did what he did to torpedo” the peace talks.

There are now about 350,000 Jews living in West Bank. It took 50,000 Israeli police and soldiers to remove 8,000 settlers from Gaza, who barely resisted. I fear the lift in West Bank to make peace there is now just too heavy for conventional politics and diplomacy. The only way settler resistance can be trumped would be by a prime minister, and an Israeli majority, who were really excited about the prospects for peace or truly frightened of the alternative.

But I do not believe Netanyahu will ever be anything other than ambivalent. And his ambivalence is reinforced by many factors: Israel today is so much more powerful, economically and militarily, than the Palestinians; Israeli (and Palestinian) security forces have effectively shut down Palestinian suicide bombers and the Israel lobby in Washington has effectively shut down any pressure from the White House or Congress. Israel has never been so insulated.

But these are not your grandfather’s Palestinians either. There is a young generation emerging that increasingly has no faith in their parents’ negotiations with the Jews, have no desire to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and would rather demand the right to vote in a one-state solution.

At the same time, America has changed. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the fate of the Middle East was critical to our economy. After all, there had been an Arab oil embargo in 1973. And, strategically, the Middle East was seen as the arena most likely to trigger a U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear war. Peacemaking in Henry Kissinger’s day was a necessity. Today it is a hobby. It is not an unimportant hobby: If Israelis and Palestinians go back to war, it surely would make an unstable region more unstable, creating myriad difficulties for the U.S. But urgent? America will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2015, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

ACT OF FRIENDSHIP

The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state.

But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel.

Kerry, in my view, is doing the Lord’s work. But the weight of time and all the changes it has wrought on the ground may just be too heavy for such an act of friendship. If he folds his tent, though, Israelis and Palestinians will deeply regret it, and soon.



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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