Saturday, August 31, 2002

I've just returned from about a week in Israel, most of which I spent listening to a variety of speakers--politicians, journalists, academics and others--lecturing and taking questions about current conditions there. (Believe it or not, that's my idea of the perfect vacation.) I would summarize my main conclusions as follows:

  • There is emerging an overwhelming centrist consensus in Israeli politics. The right has for some time now (with the exception of a tiny fringe) given up on the idea of controlling the occupied territories ("Judea, Samaria and Gaza") indefinitely, let alone annexing them. Meanwhile, the last two years of violence have driven the left (again, with the exception of a tiny fringe) to abandon as suicidally unworkable any kind of unilateral withdrawal from those same territories. The consensus, therefore, is that Israel will be happy to accept a Palestinian state--but only within the framework of a sincerely reciprocal, practically enforceable peace agreement that puts an end to the conflict once and for all and offers a solid expectation that organized Palestinian violence against Israel will genuinely, permanently cease. Sadly, that prospect seems distant at the moment.

  • Regarding the current two-year-old campaign of terror, the solid majority view is that while it is likely to continue at a low level for quite some time, Israel is now, for all intents and purposes, and barring a major new development, the undeclared winning side in the conflict. Two years ago a divided Israel, desperate for peace, was unilaterally offering an all-but-sovereign Palestinian Authority full, unfettered statehood on virtually all the territories, ceding control over much of Jerusalem, and even considering allowing for a limited "return" of Palestinians to Israel proper. Today, the Palestinian economy and polity are in utter disarray, Israeli troops run unimpeded through the West Bank's largest cities, Yasser Arafat is an international pariah, and nobody (outside the fantasyland of international diplomacy) is expecting Palestinian Independence Day to arrive anytime soon. By adhering doggedly to their twin pillars of terrorism and maximalism, the Palestinians have once again, in Israeli eyes, missed an historic opportunity, and are now paying the terrible price.

    (I would add as an aside here--and this is not part of the reigning consensus--that the turning point in the conflict was "Operation Defensive Shield", in which Israeli troops invaded the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and began dismantling the "terrorist infrastructure", thus proving the absurdity of the left's mantra that "there is no military solution" to the problem of Palestinian terrorism. It is widely believed, in Israel and elsewhere, that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon acted with wise and shrewd restraint during his year or so in office preceding the military operation, waiting until support among the Israeli public and in the White House for military action reached a level that made it politically feasible. In my view, Sharon simply waited a year too long, and the ultimate success of the operation in vastly reducing the rate of terrorist attacks actually generated support for the military approach, rather than relying on it. Had Sharon acted sooner, the consensus I described might well have been built right away, and hundreds of lives might have been saved in the interim.)

  • Although terrorism is obviously still a top priority, the current lull in the violence, and the emergence of the aforementioned two-pronged consensus, have shifted the attention of the Israeli populace somewhat towards other matters--most notably, the rapidly imploding Israeli economy. The collapse of the high-tech bubble has coincided with the sudden absence of war-shy foreign tourists, and the consequences of these roughly simultaneous shocks have been devastating, with businesses closing en masse and laying off workers left and right. The economic crisis, many argue, presents both a danger and an opportunity: while the increasingly straitened circumstances may exacerbate internal political and social tensions, they may also provide the impetus to resolve simmering conflicts over resource allocation and force needed reforms in areas such as welfare, sectoral subsidy and military burden-sharing. Meanwhile, the long-term problems--the demographic time bomb of Israel's Arab population, and the inevitable, devastating water shortage--are likely to go unaddressed for some time to come.

I expect I will elaborate further on these ideas in future postings, but for now I will let this summary suffice.

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