A trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority a week after an election is a fascinating time. I have been visiting the region since the 1970’s, and the challenges and opportunities never cease to amaze. I spent this last week with young Canadian Rhodes Scholars from Oxford, and it was a learning experience.
My first observation is that Israel is a real place, and so is the West Bank and Gaza. The region has been the subject of demonic stereotypes for so long that the texture and depth of real life are lost in a tsunami of rhetoric and hatred.
The election result was complex, involving many parties, which the headlines and soundbites in the rest of the world don’t really grasp.
So the simple conclusion “Netanyahu sweeps to victory” is much too easy. Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won the most seats, but largely as a result of weakening smaller right-wing parties. He is now building a governing coalition, with a stronger base in Likud, but still needing to deal with demands on policy and insistence on cabinet seats and other positions of influence.
Out of this complex kaleidoscope of competing ambitions both personal and programmatic will come a government, facing a neighbourhood and wider world of ever greater tension. At the end, issues of security and leadership were decisive when voters were marking their ballots.
People outside the country took note of three things during the election: Mr. Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress on Iran; his comment two days before the election that there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch; and his desperate plea to his supporters on election day to vote because Israeli Arabs were allegedly flocking to the polls.
Of these three, I found a broad and deep apprehension in Israel about whether a deal with Iran is either desirable or possible. Opinion is united about the threat to its security by an Iranian government that is reckless, anti-semitic, and has its fingers in every conflict in the region.
The trouble is that Mr. Netanyahu’s vehemence and partisanship make it harder for some people to listen. Hence the controversy about the Iran speech in front of a Republican dominated Congress just before his own election. Some thought his presentation “Churchillian”. Others felt it was divisive and a direct snub to Barack Obama, whose consequences will be felt for some to come. His statements on two states and Arab voting were not just polarizing, they were so divisive that he had to backtrack on the one and apologize abjectly on the other.
Even if one were to accept his post-election “re-statement” on the conflict with the Palestinians, the members of the right-wing coalition he is trying to build will have no part of a realistic two-state solution. This is not to say that a “zone of agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians is as close as some earnest outsiders would have us believe. Fatah and Hamas have not reached a durable agreement on internal governance, and more importantly, Hamas has not dropped its root and branch opposition to Israel’s existence.
It is a simple rule of conflict resolution to never ask your adversary to do something they simply cannot do. All the difficulties in the way lead many Israelis to conclude that all that can be done is to “manage the conflict”. One shrewd observer put it this way. “Continuing the occupation poses an existential threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. But the continued hostility to Israel all around us poses an existential threat to our existence.”
In discussions with both Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, and Salam Fayyad, the former prime pinister, both re-affirmed their commitment to “two states for two peoples” and to taking the human footsteps to building stronger Palestinian institutions so that statehood could become more of a reality than an abstract aspiration. But these assurances are met with a glazed scepticism by many Israelis.
Pollsters say that a full 70 per cent of the Israeli population also supports two states, but that majority is not reflected in the government that Mr.Netanyahu hopes to form. Iran, the Palestinian conflict, the violent disarray in the region and the undisguised animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu all make for a difficult time ahead.
Meanwhile, the Israeli economy is showing resilience and strength, but with growing inequality and a serious housing crisis. Its high-tech sector continues to be a world leader, and natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean could give the country a resource strength it has never had. Ramallah, the capital in the Palestinian Authority, is bustling, while Gaza’s re-building after the summer conflict is painfully slow. All of which brings to mind the comments of an Israeli when asked how things are going. “In a word, good. In two words, not good”.