I arrived in Israel thinking that when the earth collides with a meteorite 500 million years from now, Israelis and Palestinians will still be fighting. I came home more optimistic. There may actually be reason to hope.
Let’s start with the bad stuff. The other day I stood on a hill overlooking the Palestinian West Bank. It’s not a “bank” any more – it’s more like a patchwork quilt. Little islands of Palestine are surrounded by Israeli settlements that just keep growing. It’s easy to tell the Palestinian homes: they have black water tanks on the roof, because Israel doesn’t assign them enough water.
Most of these Israeli settlers aren’t religious extremists from Brooklyn with rifles. They are ordinary Israelis – teachers and computer programmers who want cheap homes. Even a few Israeli peace activists live in settlements.
For Palestinians in the West Bank, isolation keeps worsening. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer who won Britain’s Orwell Prize for his book Palestinian Walks, told me, “You cannot have a proper walk now, because on a proper walk you don’t have to think about anything. Now you have to think about settlers, armies, wild boars.”
Shehadeh lives in Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority. It’s 15 miles from Jerusalem, but walls and checkpoints make the trip almost impossible. Life in Gaza is much worse.
If you don’t believe me, listen to six former chiefs of Israel’s domestic intelligence service Shin Bet. They speak in the new Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, rightly nominated for an Oscar. I watched it in a packed cinema in Tel Aviv. “We are making millions of people’s lives unbearable,” says one ex-chief. “We have become cruel,” says another. “When you retire,” a third says of his job, “you become a bit of a leftie.” No doubt American conservatives will dismiss them as “self-hating Jews”.
Now for the optimism: peace may just be breaking out. Israel spent its early years fighting for its survival, with the Holocaust fresh in Israeli minds. But no Arab state has launched a war against Israel for 40 years.
Terror groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah have attacked, but as the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told me, “We know how to fight terror.”
Israel’s current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps warning about future aggressors: Iran, perhaps the new Egypt, Syria post-Assad, etc. Netanyahu is a classic Israeli hawk, as defined by writer Amos Oz: “The hawks are convinced that the Jews are liable to some mysterious primeval curse, bound to remain forever isolated, hated and persecuted … doves maintain there is no such mystical verdict.”
The trend of history may be with the doves. War is in decline worldwide, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his magnificent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. In part, states have learnt that war rarely achieves its goals. In part, mass media and international pressure put the brakes on prolonged bloodshed. Israel now gets only brief windows to fight wars (“to cut the grass” as its army says) before the world intervenes. Hence its “mini-wars” of recent years in Gaza and Lebanon.
For now, there’s near-peace at home too: the occupied Palestinian territories are almost unprecedentedly quiet. Shin Bet says that last year, for the first time since 1973, no Israelis died in violence on the West Bank.
B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, calculates that from the end of the war in Gaza in January 2009 through October 2012, 422 people (mainly Palestinians) were killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence. That’s horrible – but it’s a far lower death rate than the homicide rate in a safer than ever New York City over the same period.
Israelis may never have lived so peacefully. True, that could end. Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, of Israel’s joint Jewish-Arab socialist Da’am party, cautions: “The violence is waiting in a corner to explode. Many people are talking about the third intifada as something that will be.”
Yet for now anyway, relative peace is changing Israel. This was always a military state led by military heroes. But in last month’s elections, Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran found little resonance, and the big winner was television presenter Yair Lapid. Meanwhile former army chief Shaul Mofaz barely scraped into parliament with his Kadima party.
The election was fought largely on the cost of living. Partly that’s because few Israelis believe peace can be made with the Palestinians, but partly it’s because they are getting comfortable. Tel Aviv really has become a hip Mediterranean beach town with an IT boom. Military leaders worry that civilians are becoming less willing to sacrifice. “The country is more focused on living than on fighting, perhaps,” says Olmert. Israel’s top television programmes, he marvels, are now reality shows like MasterChef.
Israel’s appetite for using violence may just be diminishing.
If the current peace holds a while, trust with Palestinians might grow. Optimism about this region may not be completely crazy.