Why Israel’s Gaze Has Turned Inward

By Yiftach Ofek
Thursday, January 31, 2013

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman expressed his disappointment with not only the Israeli Right but the Israeli Left for brushing aside the peace process with the Palestinians as a “non-issue.”  He criticized the Right for its arrogance and indifference to U.S. concerns—and the Left for accepting the Right's “dominance” in this sphere while focusing its own efforts on “bringing down housing prices and school class sizes” rather than addressing the most critical matter that Israel needs to face. 

With the Israeli elections behind us, it appears that in one way Friedman's fundamental observation was correct.  The issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace was much less prominent in this electoral campaign than in previous years.  The only party that stressed the centrality of reaching a peace agreement, Tzipi Livni's Hatnua (the “Movement”), gained only six out of the 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset.  In contrast, all the other major parties placed their emphasis on social concerns.  The Labor Party and newcomer Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, which won 15 and 19 seats, respectively, both focused their messages on the plight of the middle class, whose members bear most of the tax burden in Israel and do more than their share of service in the armed forces.  The Jewish Home party, under its charismatic new leader, Naftali Bennett, had a resounding success, winning 12 seats; but even Jewish Home, heir to the old pro-settler National Religious Party, concentrated on finding the common denominators between secular and religious Jews.  If Likud failed to achieve a corresponding success—indeed, it suffered severe losses—it was mostly on account of another issue of domestic politics: the perception, justified or not, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's neo-liberal policies have gone wild and will ultimately hurt the middle classes. 

The question that remains, however, is this: why did the peace process become such a marginal issue in Israeli politics?  According to Friedman, the reason is that Israelis have gone “blind:” the combination of the Security Fence that protects them against suicide bombers from the West Bank and the Iron Dome that protects them against missiles from the Gaza Strip has convinced them that the Palestinians are no longer a force with which they have to contend.  But Friedman is confusing cause and effect.  Rather than blaming Israel for shielding itself from enemy threats, he should ask himself why many Israelis have assumed such an inward-looking stance in the first place.  The real explanation is the consistent Arab refusal to make the compromises necessary to reach a peace agreement or bring an end to anti-Israel violence. 

In recent years, the Palestinian leadership has given Israelis little reason to believe in its sincerity.  As Condoleezza Rice notes in her recent memoir, four years ago, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a far-reaching peace proposal, including the cession of more than 90 percent of the West Bank, Abbas’s response was a resounding no.  Earlier this month, Abbas used the occasion of the 48th anniversary of Fatah's first attack on Israel to “renew the pledge to [our] martyrs” and sing the praises of Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who allied himself with Hitler during World War II.  Then there is the Palestinians’ ongoing bid for observer status at the United Nations, which looks to most Israelis like an attempt to find a shortcut to statehood that would eliminate the need to make any concessions at all to Israel.  

Terrorists are not blowing up buses and cafés in Tel Aviv these days, but the past year has seen rocket attacks on Israeli towns near—and not so near—the Gaza Strip.   The Hamas forces that control Gaza repeatedly renew their vow to seek Israel’s destruction.  Among increasing indications that the Palestinians are preparing for a third Intifada, newspapers report that 88 percent of the population continue to support an armed struggle.  Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that the Left, “the peace camp,” has found it increasingly difficult to win over the Israeli electorate.  “It takes two to tango,” goes the oft-quoted idiom—quoted especially often in Israel.  Without a reliable partner, the Israeli public seems to have chosen, to paraphrase Billy Idol, to dance with itself. 

What Thomas Friedman does not see is that as long as he and others with his views continue to hold Israel responsible for the failure of peace to materialize, regardless of the actions or inaction of the other side, the Palestinians have no reason to change their behavior.  In turn, it is because the prospect of peace continues to seem remote that Israelis have become more aware of the other pressing needs with which they must deal, like the secular-religious divide, the middle-class tax burden, and the need to share the responsibility for defending the country more equitably among the different sectors of the population.  It is not Israel’s increasing inwardness that has diminished the prospects for peace but the diminished prospects for peace that have made Israeli society strive to become more inward-looking and—if the word can ever be used in the Israeli context—normal. 

Yiftach Ofek has an M.A. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago.  He lives in Jerusalem. 

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