Slouching Toward Peace: Israelis and Palestinians Exhausted by the Conflict

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Nobody but the U.S. administration is celebrating the resumption of peace talks. In Israel this holds true across the political spectrum: from Naftali Bennett to Yossi Beilin most commentators don’t give these talks much chance of success. Even Obama’s envoy to the talks, former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, has recently expressed great pessimism concerning the chances of reaching a peace deal.

The reasons have been analyzed to death. The distance between Israeli and Palestinian positions is too great; there is no trust between the two sides; extremists on both sides don’t want a two-state solution.

Actually it’s worse, because in Israel even mainstream parties like Netanyahu’s Likud are largely opposed to the two-state solution. Likud Transport Minister Yisrael Katz is now proposing a megalomaniac project for a network of trains that would connect all cities of the West Bank. Clearly he believes Israel is there to stay - forever. Why else spend countless billions on trains leading from nowhere to nowhere when the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area to this day doesn’t have a decent public transportation system?

Most commentators both in Israel and abroad agree that peace talks have started primarily because both Israelis and Palestinians do not want to be seen as peace-refuseniks and offend John Kerry, who is betting all of his considerable prestige on Middle East peace. It may well be that the name of the game is primarily that each side is waiting for the other side to walk out of the talks, and thus win a public relations victory.

This concludes the generally accepted pessimistic wisdom, but what about a positive outlook? Are there realistic reasons to believe that the talks could succeed? One reason is that most people who know Mahmoud Abbas well say that he genuinely believes in a negotiated two-state solution. He is now 78-years-old, and this is his last chance to complete his life’s greatest mission. Another reason is that some are trying to see signs of statesmanship in Netanyahu’s latest moves. They believe that he realizes that this is his last chance to leave a mark, rather than just ending his career as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

I would add a third factor. It seems that the Palestinians have realized how disastrous their attempts to achieve their aims through violence have been. The Second Intifada and the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip have got them nowhere. They have only hardened Israelis’ hearts and minds. And from Operation Defensive Shield in 2003 to Operation Cast Lead in 2008 Israeli governments have shown that they will no longer tolerate Palestinian violence, and that Israel’s reactions to any form of terrorism will meet overwhelming Israeli reprisal. In addition, most Palestinians are at this point willing to give up grand historical hopes of returning to Jaffa and Acre provided that they can lead lives of dignity in a viable state.

This leaves the question of what Israelis think and want. As I have written time and again, all indications show that the majority of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution, but simply don’t believe that it can be implemented. The Second Intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip have made Israelis highly unwilling to take security risks, and they do not trust the Palestinians’ ability to keep Israel safe even if they want to.

But Israelis are as sick and tired of this blood-soaked conflict as the Palestinians are. They are also beginning to realize that the occupation may soon carry a stiff price, and that the EU is about to apply sanctions that, in the long run, will severely harm Israel’s economy. And maybe some Israelis understand that if negotiations fail, Palestinians have the option of turn to the International Criminal Court and making Israeli lives miserable, because Israel’s settlement activity violates international law.

So far I haven’t used either the word ‘peace’ or ‘hope’. I am writing about fears, apprehension about reprisals, sanctions, retaliation and the like. I do so because I believe that both sides are utterly exhausted. Except for the ideological fringes that are passionately opposed to a negotiated two-state solution, neither Israelis nor Palestinians feel elation, optimism or even cautious hope: just wariness.

But something else may be happening: Years ago Israeli Writer David Grossman wrote that deep down, behind the deafening noise of violence and political rhetoric there is a dark, quiet place in the souls of all Israelis and Palestinians that knows that this whole conflict with its countless victims is senseless. Maybe from this dark quiet place in the soul and from sheer exhaustion by a conflict, which doesn’t serve anybody except the fanatical fringes of both sides, something may emerge. We may not dance to peace, but maybe we can slouch towards it.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Oval Office, July 30, 2013. Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

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