Remember the fierce arguments we used to have in our living rooms on Friday nights, back in the gay `60s and `70s? Back then, the tribal bonfire dealt with just one subject: Should Israel give back the territories? Every social gathering over snacks and salads, every ride in a communal taxi, quickly deteriorated into a vocal discussion of what to do with the occupied territories, which is not how the West Bank and Gaza Strip were known at the time. For every two Israelis there were three opinions, just like in the joke.
Arguments about the territories may have been commonplace, even becoming the subject of jokes themselves, but they were still controversial. Those against returning the territories presented all sorts of security-related and historical reasons why Israel should not cede the land. Phrases such as "the ridge of the mountain" and "strategic asset," along with myths taken from the world of the Bible, were used in one large hodgepodge. Those who opposed returning the territories spoke in terms of the need for "territorial compromise" and "the Alon Plan" for the sake of peace - with Jordan, of course. Only a handful of weirdoes suggested giving back all the territories and establishing a Palestinian state.
But even though the gap between the sides was huge, the arguments were always passionate. The worst of the occupation had not yet manifested all of its cruelty and ugliness; terror had not yet raised its head; and most Israelis believed the Palestinians would continue to live under our control, submissive for ever. Figures showing a dramatic rise in the number of tractors and students living in the territories since they were occupied by Israel reinforced the prevalent assumption that the Palestinians belonged to us. Nonetheless, Israel was divided then into two clear camps: those who advocated Greater Israel, and those who supported territorial compromise. That was the national argument.
The echoes of that argument died down long ago. Today, hawk and dove are archaic - perhaps even prehistoric - terms. What was once a subject for joking has become something about which to get nostalgic: there is almost no significant public debate in Israeli society. When was the last time you heard a debate on the future of the territories? When, if ever, has politics been debated in your living room? One nation, one voice - subdued and dispirited. Is it possible that on such vital, basic issues, there are no loner two opposing opinions in Israel? And what does that say about us and our situation?
All of us, without exception, know there is no one to talk to, that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to make peace, that Palestinians only want terror and that they alone are responsible for their bitter predicament. Simultaneously, we all know that a Palestinian state will be established, that most - if not all - of the territories will be returned and that the security fence is the magic solution to terror. With the exception of the fringes, the peace camp has folded up its flag, the settlers are becoming more firmly established, with increased numbers from year to year, even if they live apart from the rest of society and are cut off from the mainstream Israeli experience.
Israelis no longer meet Palestinians (apart from those who may see one through the sight finder of their rifle during army reserve duty) and the same can be said for most settlers. The ultra-Orthodox are sequestered away in their own world, just like Israel's Arab citizens. Community after community is sinking into its own world, alienated from others and indifferent to them.
The only argument that is still being discussed here is sickening: should Israel kill Yasser Arafat, or merely expel him? There is no other argument of principles being held here. From assassination to outposts, from curfews to the fence, nobody is arguing about anything. The policy of occupation and its moral face are accepted without blinking an eyelid. Nobody is interested in the roots and causes of terror. The international condemnation and isolation of Israel are accepted as acts of God. Even the tough economic situation is looked upon as an unchangeable given.
The common opinion is that only the supreme power and the Arabs are responsible for the terrible price we pay every day. If that is the case, what is there to argue about? The "debates" in the media are more barren than they have ever been: in fact, only one opinion is ever expressed. In the absence of any sort of opposition, either inside or outside parliament, there is no one to conduct a serious discussion. The Labor Party and Meretz have been wiped off the agenda, Peace Now held its first rally last night after a long summer coma, and the settlers are quietly celebrating their achievements.
Most Israelis are in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state, but this is not much more than hollow lip service. What are they doing to make it real? What are they waiting for? Until people lift a finger to promote the idea of a Palestinian state, their government will continue to pave more bypasses and populate more settlements. Public opinion in the Western world shows that people there care more passionately about much less fateful issues, such as the question of joining the European Union.
As long as politicians, commentators and experts speak in a uniform, brainwashing, chorus, there is nothing to argue about. A society once considered split and politicized has turned dumb. And what about the fence, which everyone was in favor of, right from the outset. But what about the fence's foreboding route? No one says a word, just as long as the fence goes up and those Palestinians are no longer visible. The almost daily assassinations? A chorus goes up, But we have to fight terror. And none of the other central subjects - the huge defense budget compared to the crisis being faced by society's weakest, the continued occupation of the Palestinian people - none of these subjects managed to provoke a public debate. Just a reminder: Which was the only Western country that did not have a public debate of the merits or otherwise of the Iraq war?
The government and the IDF can do whatever they want, and no one will challenge them. What strong feelings Ariel Sharon stirred up after the Lebanon War, and now, when his policy should have been even more controversial, given the damage it has caused and is still causing - there is no dispute. Sharon is loved by all people - all the people. And the good old debate on the future of the territories? Everyone says that has already been settled. But what, exactly, was the outcome?
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