Sharon's real legacy - keeping the Arabs out of sight
Foreigners realize in London or Paris they see a lot more Arabs than in most Israeli cities.
Let's assume the optimistic forecast by special U.S. envoy George Mitchell comes true and in two years the establishment of an independent Palestine is declared at a ceremony. The event will be broadcast on prime time, but most Israelis will opt to view "Big Brother 6," "Survivor 7" or whatever the next television hit is. Viewers will behave this way not because they oppose a Palestinian state but because they are indifferent. Palestine-shmalestine simply does not interest them.
Most Israelis today are cut off from the conflict with the Palestinians and do not interact with them. From their point of view, the Palestinians are blurry figures during TV newscasts: Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh speak, women covered from head to toe mourn in a tent, men run with a stretcher after an ambulance, men concealing their faces fire Qassam rockets. Israelis have no interest in knowing anything further. Nablus and Ramallah are about 40 minutes by car from Tel Aviv, but in the eyes of Tel Avivians they are on a different planet. New York, London and Thailand are much closer.
The settlers beyond the separation fence are the only Israelis who see Palestinians, mostly through car windows on the roads they share. The settlers, like the Palestinians, are disconnected from the residents of the Tel Aviv region, Haifa or Be'er Sheva, who hardly ever cross the fence. They have no business in Elon Moreh, Yitzhar or Psagot. The big settlements like Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel can be reached almost without having to see Palestinians.
The policy of isolation is the real legacy of Ariel Sharon, who built the fence in the West Bank, left the Gaza Strip and pushed the Palestinians out of the Israeli labor force. Sharon did not believe in peace and was not interested in links with the "Arabs." All he wanted was to protect the Jews from attacks by their "bloodthirsty" neighbors. Keeping them out of sight lets Israelis live as if there were no conflict, with only settlers on the periphery and soldiers on the firing line.
The "demographic problem" also is not frightening when it is locked up behind walls and fences.
In the past Israel's economy relied on Palestinian workers, but only older Israelis remember them at restaurants, construction sites and gas stations. Here and there one can still find friendships; waiters at Restaurant 206 in Kiryat Shaul sometimes gather their tips for a Palestinian friend who once waited tables and is now besieged in the Gaza Strip. Stories like this are almost part of folklore. The Israeli economy is geared toward Wall Street, not Shuhada Street. The stock market is hardly affected by routine security issues, and real estate prices are flying high as if this were Hong Kong, not a country under threat on a constant war alert.
The Israel Defense Forces, who sent generations of Israelis to the territories, has minimized the exposure of its soldiers to the Palestinians. Fewer and fewer people do reserve duty, and even fewer in the West Bank. The regular army has minimized the activities of its units in the territories and transferred much of the policing duties in the West Bank to the Kfir Brigade. Air force crews, who carry the burden of the fighting in the Gaza Strip, see the Palestinians as silent spots on their screens fed from drone footage.
Entertainment intensifies the gap in the way Israelis have come to regard their country, and the way it is seen in the world. The local media describes Israel as a Western high-tech superpower, an annex of Manhattan and Hollywood. The foreign media covers the conflict: terrorist attacks and assassinations, settlements and peace talks. When the Israelis who have never visited a settlement see themselves on CNN they are offended: We are not like that. This is anti-Semitic propaganda.
Foreigners visiting Israel are amazed to discover the degree to which reality here is disconnected from what they heard at home. They expect a violent apartheid state, and are surprised that the toilets and buses are not separate for Jews and Arabs. They imagine a conservative, buttoned-up society and are shocked by Tel Aviv's nightlife. They walk in the street and realize that in London or Paris they see a lot more Arabs than in most Israeli cities.
Because of the entertainment and indifference, the government doesn't face public pressure to pull out of the territories and establish a Palestinian state, and the opposition to the American peace initiative is being led by the extremists on the right. Most Israelis simply don't care; they gave up on the territories a long time ago. If Mitchell succeeds in his mission, they will hear about it and change the channel.