Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace

Israelis feel prosperous, secure — and disengaged from the peace process with the Palestinians. Is that wise?

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Uriel Sinai / Getty Images for TIME

Israelis at the beach in Tel Aviv

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"There is no sense of urgency" about the peace process, says Tamar Hermann, a political scientist who has measured the Israeli public's appetite for a negotiated settlement every month since 1994, the year after the Oslo accords seemed to bring peace so close, Israelis thought they could touch it. They couldn't. It flew farther away in 2000, when Yasser Arafat turned down a striking package of Israeli concessions at Camp David. What came next was the second intifadeh, a watershed of terror for an Israeli majority who, watching and suffering waves of suicide bombings, saw no reason to keep hope alive.

"They watch less and less news," Hermann says of her compatriots. "They read political sections of the newspaper less. They say, 'It spoils my day, so I don't want to see it.'" The market responds. Newspapers print fewer pages of politics — as little as half as much now as just a few years ago in the popular daily Maariv, says editor Yoav Tzur — and more pages of business news. "The rise in real estate prices is more interesting to the public than future talks ... that no one knows will lead to something," says Hadas Ragolsky, executive producer of the 5:00 report on Channel 2, Israel's leading news station.

It's not just real estate that serves as a measure of economic success. Israel avoided the debt traps that dragged the U.S. and Europe into recession. Its renown as a start-up nation — second only to the U.S. in companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange — is deserved. A restless culture of innovation coupled with the number of brainiacs among the 1 million immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has made Israel a locus for high-tech research and development, its whiz kids leapfrogging the difficult geography to thrive in virtual community with Silicon Valley.

All this has combined to make the Palestinian question distant from the minds of many Israelis. And the distance is not only figurative. The concrete wall Israel erected on its eastern side during the second intifadeh sealed out not only suicide bombers but almost all Palestinians. An Israeli Jew can easily pass an entire lifetime without meeting one. "The wall," marvels a former Israeli negotiator, "put the Palestinians on the moon."

Looking for a Partner
It's quiet there, over on the Moon. In the West Bank, the territory administered by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, technocratic Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is taking a serious stab at governance, starting by professionalizing security forces. Even before the shooting deaths of four Jewish settlers by Hamas operatives on Aug. 31, the worst such incident since March 2008, Fayyad's security forces had arrested more than 300 Hamas supporters in dread of an attack like that. The Gaza Strip — the dark side of the moon, sealed off and ruled by Hamas — has been largely quiescent since the thunderous military operation Israel ended in January 2009.

Israel's walls work so well that its foremost security challenge is now what's thrown over them. Hizballah has an estimated 40,000 missiles pointed at Israel from its Lebanon redoubts, and Hamas collects a wide assortment of arms that enter Gaza through tunnels. In the peace talks, the "final status issues" are supposedly the borders of a Palestinian state, the question of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinians who fled their homes six decades ago. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his first priority will be to make sure that if Israel pulls its 10,000 troops out of the West Bank, its high ground will not become the latest launchpad for yet more rockets. He wants Israeli inspectors stationed on the Jordanian border to ensure nothing is smuggled in.

All that, of course, is a way for Netanyahu to talk about what he really wants to talk about, which is Iran. Tehran supplies the missiles to both Hizballah and Hamas and is closing in on the capacity to put nuclear warheads on its own long-range missiles. It is that danger that consumes Netanyahu, not the one posed by his immediate neighbors. "The Palestinian is no longer seen as a strategic threat anymore," says Hermann. "A nuisance, yes."

So the Palestinians need to make themselves listened to again. A few days before leaving for Washington, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat looked into a camera. "Shalom to you in Israel," he said. "I know we have disappointed you." In a bold, not to say desperate, bid to rouse ordinary Israelis, seven senior Palestinian officials addressed themselves to Israel directly in online videos. Each clip concludes with the words "I am your partner. Are you mine?" The videos spoke straight to the core doubt of the huge Israeli majority who in poll after poll say a two-state solution is best but are dubious that it will ever happen because the Palestinians won't play ball. "During the elections, a lot of people told me there is no partner on the other side," says Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima Party and a former Foreign Minister. She clicks on the video spots with evident relish. "This is good," she says.

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