Visiting Israel last week, I found a very different feel of daily life compared with my last visit 20 years ago. Soldiers were walking around or riding buses without their weapons (used to carry them everywhere). People were not tuning in the news hourly, all day, to see if there had been an incident. The political protests were not about peace or security. In short, life in Israel is becoming normal.
Driving around the country, one finds a repeating theme about how this normalcy has been achieved. In the Golan Heights, I recalled visiting in 1968 and looking through Syrian gunsights down at the kibbutz settlements below. The Syrians used to drop shells down on the Israelis pretty regularly, but then in 1967 Israel captured the Heights and it’s been quiet ever since. In the north of the country, Palestinian guerrillas used to infiltrate from Lebanon and attack Jewish communities. But then in 1982 Israel sent the army into Lebanon and cleaned out the PLO; another problem solved. Only to be replaced with a new problem: Hezbollah, which emerged as a force in southern Lebanon in response to the Israeli occupation, began shooting rockets into northern Israel. To solve that problem, Israel sent the army in again in 2006 to pound Hezbollah. It was heavy-handed and disproportionate, killed a lot of civilians, but the rockets stopped.
In the interior of the country, suicide bombers used to cause constant anxiety as they targeted civilian crowds anywhere they could. Israel built the “separation barrier” between Israel and the occupied West Bank — a high wall (or in some places fence) that juts into Palestinian land, splits up communities, and is an ongoing source of humiliation for Palestinians. Again heavy-handed, but the suicide bombings pretty much stopped. In the south, rockets from Gaza were dealt with by a massive Israeli attack in 2008. There are a lot fewer rockets now. This is the narrative of the Israeli right, and the stage on which Israelis now enjoy a more normal life.
The trouble is, right underneath this new normal is a layer of denial and, below that, a volcano ready to erupt. The most fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not been resolved. They won’t just disappear. But they’re no longer in Israelis’ faces day-to-day. It reminds me of my childhood growing up on top of the San Andreas Fault. You lived with little shakes all the time, and you knew the Big One would come some day but didn’t think about it. And, in fact, most of us go about our daily lives and drive around in our cars while global warming proceeds; life goes on, right?
There isn’t much room between complacency and fear to make peace. When Israelis are being attacked, they are too afraid to take risks for peace. When they are not being attacked, they are too complacent to see the need to.
The once-magical city of Jerusalem seems to be turning into New York, with nonstop traffic jams. When UN mediator Ralph Bunche arrived there in 1948, the airport runway was unpaved and his plane had to make a first pass to drive off the goats before landing. The British-controlled city was a war zone, though, with barbed wire and sandbags everywhere. Now it’s the reverse. It’s secure but built up with masses of new housing blocs, especially on the east (i.e. Palestinian) side where Israeli governments have created “facts on the gound” by moving in large numbers of Jews to new neighborhoods. The beautiful old parts of Jerusalem are now almost hidden inside the rings of new apartment buildings. In its determination to hold Jerusalem tight and not share it, Israel has ruined it. My opinion.
One other change has swept the country. There are a lot more orthodox Jews than before, and the secular Jewish majority (including the many who spend Yom Kippur at the beach) seems more invisible. Religion is more salient. One strand among the many varieties of orthodox Judaism, the Chabad Lubavitch movement, has plastered the country with pictures of their leader, who died in 1994, declaring him the Messiah. I have some doubts about that claim, but one thing for sure is Israel needs help — be it from God, Messiah, Obama, whoever — in waking up from a false normalcy and solving the Palestinian problem before the Big One arrives.