Soon after I came to this country 25 years ago, I learned that among my relatives, “Tali” was the real Arab-hater, the most extreme right-winger in the family. “For Tali, the only good Arab is a dead Arab, right?” one of my cousins ribbed her one Friday night. “Wrong,” she said. “For me, dead isn’t good enough – he’s got to be buried 40 meters underground, too.”
She was exaggerating for comic effect, but Tali really did have it in for the Arabs. So one day I asked her which political party she voted for, thinking it would be Tehiya or one of the small, far-right parties of the time, or at best Likud.
“Labor,” she tells me. I was amazed. Why Labor? “Look,” she explains, “I don’t want to live with the Palestinians, and we can’t get rid of them, so the only thing to do is divide the land, let them live in their country and I’ll live in mine.”
I think of Tali and that remark when I hear this country’s mouthpieces going on about how Israelis, starting with the prime minister, are ready to accept a Palestinian state, how poll after poll shows that two-thirds of the Jewish population is in favor of trading land for peace.
The implication of this hasbara is that Israelis have become so liberal, so dovish, so open-minded about the Arabs. Oh no we haven’t. In 25 years, I have never seen this country so blindly contemptuous of everybody and everything Arab, so drawn to confrontation, so intractably closed-minded. Israelis haven’t come around to the idea of a Palestinian state because they realize the Palestinians have rights, too, or because they think there’s something immoral about the occupation and the settlements.
Today, if Israelis thought they could get away with expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli Arabs from Israel, they’d support it. But they know they can’t, so they want to put as much distance and as high a wall between them and the Arabs as they can.
If this is your idea of peace, then the cliché “all Israelis want peace” is true.
YOU CAN say it doesn’t matter why the public has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, the important thing is that it has. But this is a misunderstanding of Israeli public opinion. People here accept the idea of a Palestinian state in theory, but they’re so antagonistic toward Arabs, so determinedly mistrustful of anything any of them says that in practice, Israelis are dead set against any move that might actually help bring a Palestinian state into being.
The lifting of West Bank checkpoints, the so-called settlement freeze and, most recently, the easing of the siege of Gaza – all these were done grudgingly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and accepted grudgingly by the public, and only because the Americans forced us into it. If it was up to us, we’d let the Palestinians stew and crack them over the head if they complained too much. Two-thirds of Israelis may tell pollsters they’re in favor of trading land for peace, but this country will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into actually giving up land because nothing on earth can convince us that the Palestinians will give us peace.
Since I’ve lived here, there’s only been one period when Israelis’ minds were open to the possibility that Arabs weren’t inveterate killing machines, that maybe we weren’t entirely innocent in this conflict, and that we should give them a chance. That period began when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in June 1992, and it ended in March 1996, after three suicide bombings in nine days killed nearly 60 Israelis.
From that point on, trust was finished. Yasser Arafat could do no right, even though he finally cracked down on Hamas and brought terror under control for years. We like to say Israel offered the Palestinians a state at Camp David and again in the Annapolis talks, but the fact is that the more land Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians, the more hopelessly unpopular they became at home. Imagine if Arafat had said yes to Barak, or if Mahmoud Abbas had said yes to Olmert – would the Knesset and public have supported the uprooting of 75,000 or 100,000 settlers, along with the redivision of Jerusalem? Unthinkable.
We gave them Gaza, we say, but it was a fluke. The one and only Israeli leader who could have gotten the public behind him for that move was Ariel Sharon, and again, the disengagement wasn’t done for the sake of justice and reconciliation, it was done to get the goddamn Arabs out of our sight, and accompanied by a popular, Sharon-style parting assault on the enemy. Since then, our vindictiveness toward Palestinians has only deepened.
IT DOESN’T come out of nowhere. It comes from traumatic bouts of violence and bloodshed at the hands of Palestinians who don’t accept the Jewish state by any means. Israelis have a right to be cynical.
Up to a point, though. Cynicism that closes their minds to the violence and bloodshed – not to mention colonial tyranny – that we’ve visited on the Palestinians is going much too far for anyone’s good.
Cynicism that keeps people frozen in the past, that blinds them to progress when it’s happening, that won’t allow them to say or hear a good word about Arabs – that’s crippling.
And except for the short period between Rabin’s election and the suicide bombings of early 1996, this has been the Israeli mind-set for as long as I can remember. (I wasn’t here for Anwar Sadat’s visit and the peace treaty with Egypt, which briefly broke the mold.) Israelis today are as safe or safer than they’ve ever been, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is everything we’ve ever asked for, yet I cannot remember a time of such bad blood against Arabs, and against anyone who criticizes how we treat them. Israelis say they want peace, but they resist with all their might any suggestion that it’s possible, that there are things we can do that we’re not doing to bring it closer.
No, Israelis are not ready to change, they’re not ready to free the Palestinians, they’re not ready for peace. That is, not unless you believe in polls.