When I was twenty-four years old, I moved to Jerusalem. It was basically my junior year abroad, only three years after my actual junior year. I took some Hebrew, began Arabic lessons, and enrolled in a few graduate level classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but I did not take these studies very seriously. I spent weekends in Tel Aviv, south Sinai, and the Galilee. I also hung out in East Jerusalem—where I discovered what real hummus tastes like; sorry, Israelis—and ventured into the West Bank any number of times. By the standards set by the second intifada, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians at the time was fairly tame. The first Palestinian uprising was winding down before I even arrived in Israel. Once I got to know the city pretty well, I would walk from the university through Sheikh Jarrah and from there to Damascus Gate for the above referenced hummus. I’d ride the 29 (or was it the 23?) Aleph bus through East Jerusalem just to see if it would get stoned—this was a few years before Palestinian suicide-bombers began blowing up buses. I do not actually remember much in the way of bloodshed during my year living on French Hill, though I am sure there was violence.
I have been back sporadically over the years, most recently last week after my travels in Tunisia and Egypt. It had been eight years since my last visit. There is nothing like some ground truth for much-needed perspective. The debates that occupy us in Washington, and the West more generally, about Israel, its conflict with the Palestinians, and the country’s role in the world seem, well, either small, divorced from reality, or both when confronted with the actual experience of contemporary Israel. Here is what I learned:
- The Israelis feel vindicated and they have a point. For as long as anyone can remember, Israelis and their supporters around the world have been arguing that the conflict with the Palestinians is not the cause of the Middle East’s various problems. It did not matter because the world insisted on “linkage”—after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, there was a big push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the final report of the Iraq Study Group (released in December 2006) called on the Bush administration to pursue peace; and, recently, King Abdullah II of Jordan as well as the Swedish foreign minister suggested that resolving the Palestinian issue will somehow make the self-declared Islamic State go away. It is obvious that the combination of dispossession and occupation has radicalized the Palestinian political arena, offered various extremist groups rhetorical justification for bloodshed, and provided an endless trough of fodder for Arab intellectuals and their fellow travelers. That said, the linkage argument that reduced almost anything and everything to “the conflict” was always weak. Now, with Syria consumed by violence, Iraq struggling with the political forces that have been pulling it apart since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Yemen failing, Libya fragmenting, and Egypt lurching from crisis to crisis, the Israelis say, “You see, none of this has anything to do with us or the Palestinians.” They are correct.
- It’s never been better regionally, for Israel. Even with the Iran deal, the Israelis have never been in a better strategic position—at least in the short term. Syria’s military, which previously gave the Israelis pause, has proven to be ill-equipped, poorly led, and reduced to little more than the most grotesque displays of wanton violence like barrel bombs and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Hezbollah is being ground up in Syria. The group’s mystique in the Arab world diminished greatly since its collaboration with the Assad regime and Tehran in the carnage that has killed more than 400,000 and displaced half of Syria’s population. Hamas has made it clear that it wants to avoid another round with the Israel Defense Forces. The Turks, whose strategic position in the region cratered in 2013, want to make up with the Israelis. Officials in Jerusalem seem ambivalent, having proved that they can get along just fine without Ankara and the nasty anti-Zionism of the Justice and Development Party. Israel now enjoys strong security ties with Egypt (just ask the Egyptians) given the confluence of Israeli-Egyptian interests in fighting extremism in the Sinai Peninsula. To top it all off, there is strategic consensus among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia on the need to confront Iranian power in the region. The Israelis feel pretty good about all this and they should, but risks remain. Hezbollah still has thousands of Iran-supplied rockets trained on Israel. Turkish and Israeli interests diverge on the future of the Kurds as well as Cypriot gas. And while it is true that the Gulf countries do not care much about the Palestinians, some kind of flare up concerning the Temple Mount—not an impossibility given the nationalist, religious, and nationalist-religious makeup of the Israeli cabinet—might make it hard on the Saudis, in particular, to continue their current “forward leaning” posture toward the Israelis.
- There really are no partners for peace. How many times have I heard Israeli leaders say that they do not have a partner in peace? Too many. The Israeli public apparently agrees with them and evinces a “[expletive deleted] ‘em” attitude toward the Palestinians. Early last week, I rode to Jerusalem from Modiin on Route 443, a road that was built two decades ago for Israelis and Palestinians. Since the second intifada, however, Palestinians have been forced to go through checkpoints to access the road, greatly diminishing the number of them who use it. It is now just another commuter route for Israelis who travel this ribbon of asphalt between two sections of the West Bank separation barrier, marked by watchtowers. I am not sure the sea of Israelis who were using Route 443 the morning I rode on it noticed or cared that they have created an environment in which a morally obtuse occupation enables their convenience. I should not be shocked by this, however. Like everyone else, Israelis place a premium on their security and their prevailing narrative is: “There was a peace process and they blew up our buses, we withdrew from Gaza and got rockets, and now our people are being stabbed randomly.” All of this is true, albeit stripped of all the complexities and physical consequences of the continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank as well as the blockade (in collaboration with Egypt) of the Gaza Strip. This has produced what seems like a structural shift in the Israeli electorate to the right, which in turn has resulted in a government whose ministers have no interest in a two-state solution. There are many Israelis who are unapologetic about these developments, but then they surely must recognize that they are not the only ones who can legitimately claim that they have no partners for peace.
- The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) forces have lost. Tel Aviv is a boomtown. It has always been cool, but it has a certain creative vibe that is making it a global city. The world clearly does not buy the BDS message. While American and European campuses are ablaze with controversies over BDS and anti-Semitism, the folks in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel seem to have shrugged it off. Maybe that is the fabled “Tel Aviv bubble,” which is so far removed from refugee camps, the hilltop youth, Hamas, and the ugly politics of “the conflict” that it allows Israelis to tune it all out if they choose to do so. The Israelis have succeeded in making their conflict with the Palestinians manageable and have thus turned inward in pursuit of a dynamic and creative society. I am not sure this kind of complacency is a good thing, especially since there is good reason to be concerned about BDS, especially the recrudescence of anti-Semitism associated with it. The Israeli government is pouring money into combating BDS, but it all seems rather beside the point. Israelis do not seem to care all that much about what the world thinks—a recent survey found that they were among the happiest people in the world—and the most effective anti-BDS strategy is one that the Israeli government (and the Palestinians) do not have much interest in—a credible peace process. All the while, Tel Aviv keeps rocking.
It seems odd that it needs repeating that Israel is complicated, but so much of the commentary about it bears little resemblance to the country that actually exists. Israelis are neither uniquely good nor are they uniquely bad. I met neither war criminals nor sages during my visit, just people trying to figure out how to live. Given their circumstances, Israelis have tried to insulate themselves from their neighbors through walls, fences, roads, guns, and territory. It is a good thing they never gave up the Golan Heights—it is too valuable strategically—but, in the long run, the West Bank is another story. There are a lot of people there who do not want to be occupied, want to build their own state, and deeply resent and reject the presence of Israeli settlers. There are many Israelis who know this and would like nothing more than to wash their hands of the Palestinians, but remain frustrated at the obstreperousness of the Palestinian Authority, the threat of violence from Hamas, and Israel’s own crazy politics. As one friend said to me after meditating on the circumstances in which he lives, “What are we supposed to do?”