By ROGER COHEN
International Herald Tribune
May 4, 2007
Israelis have had a lot to digest over the past year. They’ve watched Dan Halutz, their departed army chief, offload his shares on the eve of the Lebanon war last summer. They’ve suffered Defense Minister Amir Peretz gazing at the front through binoculars with the cover on. They’ve seen money best morality in their politics.
So what else is new? A materialist society running blind in the hands of venal leaders is not exactly a first on the planet. But this is Israel, a land bred on a narrative of the heroic, a country that was supposed to be better and aches because it is not, a Middle Eastern democracy that still fights for acceptance in its region.
As a result, the tawdriness hurts in a particular way. How else to understand the outcry over what happened in Lebanon? The war was not a success but nor was it a failure. Thousands of international troops now protect Israel’s northern border. The death toll, even for a little modern war, was modest. But it was embarked on, and conducted with, an almost sleazy irresponsibility, and that seems symbolic.
So there they were, perhaps 100,000 Israelis, perhaps more, in Rabin Square on an airless, hot night this week, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quit, venting their general anger, their frustration, their disquiet, singing wistful songs in a place where the hopes of the 1990s died with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
There were some national flags, but not a lot of them. The national anthem was sung, but in a way that was scarcely rousing. Israelis have grown wary of nationalism. They are more interested in normality right now. They see no hope of a warm peace, the one Rabin promised. It would be enough to be normal and a relief to be dull.
“We have never felt such failure as in this last war,” Eitan Davidi, representing a forum of northern border communities, declared at the rally. “In this war, we were without a mother, without a father, without a state.”
Yes, Golda Meir is gone, and David Ben-Gurion is gone, and a general sells his portfolio just before a war sends the Tel Aviv market plunging more than 8 percent.
Still, Israel has a state all right, one open enough and structured enough to produce a withering report on the war that was the prelude to this demonstration, and vigorous enough to turn Tel Aviv from a small town into a lively metropolis over the past several decades. A messy 34-day war does not a state undo.
Palestinians, by contrast, do not have a state, although they might have had one in 1948 and at various junctures since. I happened to travel to Tel Aviv from Jericho in the West Bank. Nowhere else, perhaps, are distances so small between places that are worlds apart as in the charged, diminutive geography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Things have gone south in Jericho since the “peace of the brave” that Rabin and Yasser Arafat engineered from some elusive, and ephemeral, mix of heart and mind evaporated, leaving only disturbing memories that sit on this area like a film of dust.
A solitary camel that has seen better days greets the visitor, as do assorted donkey-carts. A luxury hotel stands nearly empty. In 2000, there were thousands of foreign tourists in Jericho every day. Today there are virtually none. Palestine-in-embryo is a hard sell for tour operators these days, not a place in which to kick back.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, a pro on the interminable peace-is-not-impossible circuit, resides here. He has a thousand lines to describe the lineaments of the world’s most intractable conflict, and he has no doubt pronounced most of them a thousand times. Still, he perseveres.
“I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of man,” he told me. “I have no army, no navy, no economy, my society is fragmented. I don’t stand a chance with any U.S. senator. Who said life is about fairness and justice? I am the least-advantaged negotiator since Adam negotiated Eve and Eve Adam.”
The self-pity does not mean that Erekat is wrong. The disarray in Gaza and the West Bank could scarcely be more complete. Delivering peace is hard when you cannot deliver the mail or collect the garbage or get various competing security services to put national interest before self-interest.
Several books could be written about whom to blame for this mess. No doubt several will be. But in the end it does not matter in what degree Israelis and in what degree Palestinians have contributed to depositing the latter in a festering cul-de-sac that is not a state but is a breeding ground for radicalism. Only the facts matter.
Confronted by them, Erekat has reached this brisk conclusion: “It’s not negotiating time, it’s decision time. Israel is Israel on the 1967 borders, Palestine is Palestine, minus and plus agreed-upon swaps, minus and plus security arrangements, with a third party role.” That role would be to stabilize any deal.
If that sounds easy, if that sounds obvious, the fact is it is not. The history of the last 59 years proves that. The fact, speaking of facts, is that Israel has now ruled over occupied territory for four decades. Its nature has been conditioned more by these 40 years than by the 19 years that preceded them. Policing the subjugated is corrosive.
On the surface, the Tel Aviv rally was not about peace talks or the Palestinian conflict, but in reality I think it was. It was about the wall-slash-fence rising to disappear the Palestinians from view, the soul-devouring business of lording it over, the dashed hopes, the looking away to the materialist West, and the cost, moral and otherwise, of all that on a weary Israel.
“It is not the country we dreamed of,” said Aaron Liraz, one of the protesters. “But it is our country.”