Monday, July 18, 2011
Thriving Israel is getting on with life
Some time ago, Time published a provocative cover story suggesting that Israelis no longer see peace with their enemies as a great national ambition. The story was titled, "Why Israel doesn't care about peace."
The magazine described a wealthy, distracted, detached people who have, after years of fruitless negotiation, given up on coming to terms with the Arabs.
"The truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter," wrote correspondent Karl Vick. "They're otherwise engaged; they're making money; they're enjoying the rays of late summer."
Among other evidence, the article cited a poll that found that just eight per cent of Israelis think the conflict with the Palestinians is "the most urgent problem" facing Israel, after more pressing domestic issues.
The article was called anti-Semitic. Critics said that Time was calling Israelis callous and decadent.
Yet, it's hard to dispute the image of a contented people with a heavy sense of resignation about the prospects for peace, particularly having left the Gaza Strip and received rockets in return. The conclusion isn't anti-Semitic; it's reportage.
"Startup nation" is a byword for a country that has marshaled its intellect, managed its finances (no debt crisis here), integrated immigrants, created wealth and built a praetorian state that has delivered security. Israel has guns and butter.
The struggling society is the successful society. This humid, coastal city boasts beaches, boutiques, theatres, cafes, clubs, restaurants and three-bedroom apartments fetching millions. If I ha bo it an
Jerusalem remains more religious, but on a serpentine, treelined promenade in late afternoon, cyclists whiz by on expensive imported 10-speeds and motorized Segways. This looks like Nice or San Francisco.
This is no longer my father's Israel. It isn't the needy country to which we sent used clothes and from which we bought Jaffa oranges.
As students in Hebrew class, we bought leaves on a tree for a dime each. Twenty leaves, a donation of $2, would plant a sapling in the National Forest. It was the Diaspora's duty. In the 1960s, Israel was about stout pioneers "making the desert bloom," creating a great Jewish socialist exemplar that became the darling of the international left.
Now Israel sends us clothes from inventive designers. Oranges don't matter (agriculture is 2.5 per cent of GDP). As for the kibbutz, today it's more likely to be a commercial enterprise than a collective farm.
If Israel has become bourgeois, it is another sign of becoming normal despite living in a nasty neighbourhood. The biggest issue in Israel today seems to be the high price of cottage cheese, a breakfast staple.
Israelis are angry.
Of course, the security threat remains. Soldiers are everywhere. The difference between today and 10 years ago is that there is now a tolerable sense of safety that fosters business and protects tourism.
Violence is less frequent. That's largely because of superior intelligence and the notorious security fence, which clings to the ochre and olive hillsides around Jerusalem and extends far beyond. Without bombs on Ben Yehuda Street, Israelis feel safer.
This isn't to say that no one cares. It may well be that Israelis, with their classic shrug, have decided to get on with their lives. That may mean bringing streetcars to Jerusalem or expanding national museums. Here, the construction crane is a coat of arms.
Oh, Israelis of conscience worry. One of the more reliable discussions over dinner is said to be the ethics of drinking wine produced in the settlements, much like purists in British Columbia might argue about eating wild or farmed salmon.
The larger question is the affluence of those settlements, and the success of the wine industry, which, in my father's day, was plonk drunk by North American Jews out of a sense of obligation, like buying Israel bonds.
Many of the settlements on occupied land will have to go, particularly the noxious one in the centre of Hebron. Ultimately they're unsustainable. So, too, is the Palestinian demand for the right of return. Ironically, in recent years, reports suggest that the two sides have been closer to cutting a deal that neither has the courage to conclude.
Now, though, the prospects are dim. Egypt is unstable and the Muslim Brotherhood may well take power there in five years. Jordan, Israel's other peace partner, is trembling. In Syria, a dictator murders his people without outrage from the hopeless naifs who sail flotillas to Gaza.
Peace? It will only take rockets in Tel Aviv or suicide bombs in Jerusalem to concentrate the mind. Or more nuclear sabre-rattling from Iran, which remains the "existential threat" in a country where existential really means something.
The undeniable reality remains that this is a small region, where proximity matters like nowhere else; it is only a taxi ride from Jerusalem to Ramallah. And this is still a country with more history than geography.
For the moment, though, the old fears are receding.
For Israelis this Mediterranean summer, life's a beach.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University