Ever Since Oslo, Israelis Have Been Aiming for Stagnation

Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Israelis have been caught in a temporary state whose scientific term is ‘the process.’

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An Israeli border policeman at a checkpoint in Hebron, March 15, 2015.
An Israeli border policeman at a checkpoint in Hebron, March 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Intifada or terror wave? The semantic efforts to put a name to the recent attacks have been most impressive. As if to say, if we just knew how to accurately define this situation, to find just the right verbal garb for it, something familiar and not too earthshaking, we could calm down. Just as long as we don’t have to dig a new path into the heart of the conflict, one that would carry too heavy a price tag.

Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, Israelis have been caught in a temporary state whose scientific term is “the process.” It may be likened to the state of a chemical element during the transition from solid to liquid, or liquid to gas. The “process” does not lead anywhere; it has no goals or aspirations. Unlike the process of the expansion of the universe and the fascinating theories that go with it, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not accompanied by any theoretical model. It serves as a model, an experiment, as its own result. All that’s seemingly left to measure is the length of time this process may be preserved without altering its state.

The hypothesis that accompanies this diplomatic experiment says that if, heaven forbid, the process “heats up,” it could yield an accord and thereby upset the routine in which every person knows just what sort of dream he is supposed to have in mind. But “peace,” or the dream, must remain an unattainable apparition, because its fulfillment would spell terrible danger. On the other hand, should the process “cool off,” the consequences would also be unbearable, albeit familiar: a war, a military operation, an intifada. Nothing that the ordinary citizen hasn’t encountered before and deluded himself into thinking he can get through in one piece.

As long as the process persists, without promising any particular result, all options remain open, and there is no immediate need to choose one of them. The sense is that one could go on in this state indefinitely, without paying a price.

Israelis can find support for this feeling in the status quo that has arisen between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A status quo in which the Palestinians do not have a state, but Israel relates to them as a responsible state that should protect Israeli interests; in which there are terror attacks against Israelis, but Palestinian security and political interests prevent the eruption of a full-fledged intifada; in which the Palestinian economy is dying but this does not place a budgetary burden on the occupier; in which the Temple Mount is permanently simmering but not sparking a regional religious war.

Everything that’s happening in the region also gives Israelis powerful reasons to want to maintain the soothing status quo.

Israelis are certain that the establishment of a Palestinian state will lead to one of two things: an Iranian- or Islamic State-controlled entity on Israel’s border. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are taken as proof that there is no avoiding the political chemistry ingrained in the region and its peoples. They remain unconvinced, despite the simple statistic that of the 57 member countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (which includes 22 Arab countries), only a handful are undergoing violent revolutions.

Who, they say, is ready to guarantee that Palestine will be like Tunisia or Qatar, and not like Yemen or Libya? Haven’t the thousands of victims of the “Arab Spring” proven that the Arabs aren’t mature enough yet for a democratic revolution? The Palestinian leadership can’t even unite the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Two movements, Hamas and Fatah, have Palestinian society by the throat, a seemingly familiar model that will likely spawn civil war.

While the tragic conflicts occurring in some of the nations in the region offer a conceptual basis for preserving the political status quo and deliberately postponing any resolution of the situation, the international attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is providing real reasons for the idleness of this dangerous policy.

Today, not a single major power in the West or Middle East is putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of its political agenda. It’s not even in third place – or 15th place, for that matter. Paradoxically, it’s a formidable terrorist organization like the Islamic State that is giving Israel free rein in the territories. No Arab country made its joining the Western coalition against ISIS contingent upon solving the Palestinian problem; no Arab or Western leader has taken up a new mediation effort.

International pressure was once thought able to affect Israeli policy, but the recent regional wars have burst that bubble, too. Who still needs to be convinced that the average Israeli finds that the peace process makes for a good topic of conversation around the dining table or at conferences, but that, generally, “the situation” is okay?

All that remains is a minor issue that has also yet to threaten the average citizen’s sense of complacency and self-confidence. Little by little, the Palestinians have also been shaping the character of the Israeli state and society. The legal system is perceived as a political enemy; race-based laws are reinforcing the perception of Jewish superiority; the school system is exalting the status of God over man; settlements are dictating large portions of the state budget; and the occupation is outlining the limits of freedom of expression and the confines of permissible art. Other than that, La Vita e Bella – “Life is Beautiful” – just as in Roberto Benigni’s incongruously titled film.

The writer is the Middle Eastern affairs commentator for Haaretz, a columnist and member of the editorial board.

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