People who know something about Israel and the Israelis are often puzzled by this paradox: How come a country titled “Startup Nation,” famous for its innovative spirit, is so conservative when it comes to making peace with the Palestinians?
Recently, the world, through the U.N. General Assembly, expressed in no uncertain terms its support of a Palestinian state. In objecting to the move, Israel, together with its unwavering American ally, managed to mobilize the support of only a handful of small countries. Yet it was the same Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who denounced the U.N. resolution, who in his speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009 had expressed his consent to a Palestinian state.
Furthermore, in poll after poll, two out of every three Israelis say that they favor a two-state solution. Yet in less than a month, many of them will probably vote for parties which stand against such an idea. Indeed, Israelis wish there was a Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel, and at the same time they will soon bring to power a right-wing government that will build more settlements, thus making the realization of such a Palestinian state impossible. How can this be explained?
The answer lies in the Israeli DNA. You have to be careful, Israelis learn the hard way from early childhood, because so much is at stake. With all due respect to what the world thinks, they truly believe that their case is a special one, not to be compared with others. For example, in seven decades, France was attacked by the Germans three times, the last attack followed by a cruel occupation. Yet the French, even in their darkest hour, never thought that France itself was lost forever. Indeed, in 1944 it was liberated by the Allies, and in perspective, the German occupation, somber as it was, became just another chapter in the long history of France.
Not so with Israel. Even without the perpetual memory of the Holocaust, ever present in the back of the mind of every Israeli Jew, the feeling here is that you just can’t have the luxury of gambling on your future, because one misguided decision might doom the whole Zionist enterprise. Nothing less.
Is this a gross exaggeration? A sheer paranoia? Can a small, demilitarized, Palestinian state really pose a mortal threat to the mighty Israel? Israelis don’t know for sure, they have their doubts, and when in doubt, they prefer to stick to their guns. The threat, in their minds, is not a military one only. A Palestinian state in the pre-67 borders, they suspect, is only a threshold for further Palestinian demands to return to pre-48 Haifa and Jaffa, and flood Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees. The end of the Jewish state, in short.
The Israelis, then, seem like paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state while in practice they are undermining it. To their credit, though, it should be reminded that reality taught them some hard lessons.
In 2005 Israel pulled out of Gaza, with the hope that once Palestinians were free to rule themselves, they would start laying the ground for a Palestinian state which will live peacefully next to Israel, and would prosper thanks to the unlimited economic potential of the region. Instead, Israelis were rewarded by a barrage of rockets on their southern cities. Can they be blamed for not being keen to see the same rockets fired on Jerusalem from a Palestinian state in the West Bank?
Israelis, then, theorize and hypothesize about a Palestinian state, and even support it in principle, but on Election Day, when it comes to the hard decisions, when they feel that if such a state existed it might have threatened their future and the future of their children, they are instinctively against it.
The problem is that by not endorsing a Palestinian state, the Israelis are making an even more dangerous gamble on their future. Some day, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there will be more Arabs than Jews. If there is no Palestinian state to funnel the national aspirations of the Arabs, and accept some of the refugees, then there will eventually be one state which will either lose its Jewish identity or stop being a democracy, whichever is worse.
Only a strong and reliable leader could bridge the gap between the dreams of the Israelis and their concerns, and move them to overcome their doubts and support a Palestinian state. Yitzhak Rabin tried and was assassinated; Ariel Sharon tried but fell into a coma; and Ehud Olmert tried as well but was removed because of corruption charges.
Assuming that Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected as prime minister, it remains to be seen whether he chooses to cultivate among Israelis their hopes or their fears.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.