The three F's that shape Israel
The large front-page ad in Israel’s "Haaretz" newspaper this last Friday looked quite ordinary. There is nothing extraordinary about a text calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from going to back "the miserable track of the Oslo accords" and re- affirming the "natural , historical and legal right of the people of Israel " to all parts of their homeland. Ads using the same rhetoric, paid for by various right-wing movements, have been part of the Israeli political landscape for decades. One can re-cycle them to conserve energy and save money.
The uniqueness of this particular ad is not in its message, but in the identity of the signatories: six deputy ministers from Netanyahu's cabinet, including deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin from the Likud- Israel Beiteinu party, and 13 Knesset members, all from the ruling coalition. The ad was initiated by the "parliamentary lobby for Eretz- Israel (the Land of Israel)" ahead of Netanyahu's planned meeting with President Barack Obama next week.
Netanyahu’s situation is tricky. Ironically, the opposition is not making particular demands of him in advance of the meeting with Obama. But the more extreme elements of Netanyahu’s coalition, mainly representatives of the radical wing of the Likud and of the extreme right-wing "The Jewish Home" party, have assumed the role of an active opposition to the prime minister. This is the strange face of Israeli politics at the moment, a topsy-turvy scene where the coalition acts as an opposition and the opposition as a support group - at least for the time being.
In addition to reflecting the oddity of Israel’s domestic politics, the Haaretz ad served as an important and unexpected reminder to the Israeli public that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are actually taking place somewhere, sometime. I avoid the word "peace" negotiations intentionally, since it has in the past raised unrealistic expectations on both sides, and therefore caused more damage. "Final status agreement" is much safer terminology, or even just "negotiations," without specifying any particular goal. In studies conducted both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories some years ago, respondents tended to believe that a political agreement was still feasible, while peace was out of reach. Now, almost 80 percent of Israelis don't believe anymore in any kind of solution.
Given this sentiment, it’s no wonder that more than ever before, Israelis are totally indifferent to the ongoing talks with the Palestinians, launched last month under US auspices. The talks are a kind of background noise to a wide range of issues preoccupying Israelis - from the polio scare to the threat of a Syrian chemical weapons attack; from the Jewish High Holidays to the Iranian nuclear bomb. With so much on their plate, there is only that much Israelis can consume.
The explanation for the mental and emotional disengagement from the Palestinian issue lies in the three F's: fear, frustration and fatalism. The experience accumulated over the years thrives on all three. It's difficult to pin point the exact moment when Israelis lost an active interest in what we call here "the conflict." It happened sometime after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the second war in Lebanon the following year. Both episodes, though different, injected the Israeli psyche with large doses of the three F's.
Most Israelis who supported the disengagement from Gaza expected something very different than six years of rocket attacks from Gaza onto southern Israel; most Israelis who supported the Israeli pullout from Lebanon in 2000 to a recognized international border did not expect the abduction of soldiers six years later that turned into a full-fledged war and missile barrages.
These developments can all be politically explained. Yet no explanation can erase the feeling of many Israelis that whatever they do – the end result is unexpected, arbitrary and scary. The sense of cause and effect is lost in the process. The sense of futility has been re-enforced by the endless parade of US and European envoys bearing all kinds of solutions to the conflict, from plans to road maps. Some Israelis greeted them with a sense of expectation, others with resentment, depending on their political orientation. For both groups, the result was the same.
In the past, US secretaries of state going back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians with papers and maps were welcomed by feisty demonstrations against or in favor of the process. Now, Secretary of State John Kerry 's visits are hardly noticed. The three F's have turned Israelis inward and focused them on issues they believe they can control - like the economy, the social schisms. The hike in the price of cottage cheese can bring people out into the streets. But Palestinians? Well, wake me up when peace breaks out. This is why the ad published last Friday was an important reminder and reality check. If anyone even noticed it.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."