When I was teaching journalism some 12 years ago, I invited the press officer of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to speak to my students about the State Department’s working relationship with the media. One of the students asked him: “What do you do if a reporter calls you in the middle of the night and tackles you with a sensitive question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”
The press officer smiled, opened his briefcase, pulled out a file and opened it in the chapter titled Middle East. Then, in a monotonous voice he read aloud the policy of the U.S. government regarding our region, and quoted the recent remarks of the secretary of State referring to that matter. “Any State Department official or diplomat stationed anywhere around the world will tell a reporter exactly the same thing,” he said.
“What happens if an official says something his superiors don’t like?” asked another student, to which the press officer replied by reminding the class of Gen. Mike Dugan, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, who was fired on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990, for being “loose-lipped” with the press.
The students looked at him with admiration mixed with disbelief. What a far cry from the Israeli zoo, where every minister or official can say whatever he or she wants, regardless of their own government policy on the subject (assuming there is one).
Indeed, let’s take a look at the policy of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the so-called peace process. Two out of every three Israelis believe that a two-state solution is vital if we want to keep Israel a democracy and a Jewish state. Doing nothing to promote this solution means that we doom our children and grandchildren to a situation where sometime in the future, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there will be more Arabs than Jews or, if this is any relief, the two communities will equal in number.
How will they share the power without a bloody, Balkan-type struggle over the identity of the common state?
The need for Israelis to separate from Palestinians, in order to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic, seems to have been accepted even by people who have been ideologically opposed to the idea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself an avid believer in greater Israel, who has written books on the dangers of a Palestinian state, came to that conclusion. Exactly four years ago, in his speech at Bar Ilan University, he spoke the unspeakable when he agreed to a Palestinian state living in peace next to Israel.
However, nothing much happened since to facilitate that solution.
Needless to say that the Palestinians bear a lot of the responsibility for that, by proposing preconditions to their returning to the negotiation table. President Obama wasn’t helpful, when he proposed the ill-advised idea of freezing the settlements: Netanyahu agreed, but the Palestinians nevertheless remained entrenched in their hardline positions. The result was a loss of trust in the hearts and minds of the Israelis, both in the Palestinians’ genuine quest for a settlement, as well as in the ability of the U.S. administration to play any serious role in the process.
We seem to be at a standstill, then, but this is only an illusion. We have all the right to blame others, but by doing nothing we are actually moving ahead with our eyes open toward a bi-national state — a situation we agree is dangerous.
In the meantime, however, without being threatened by an Intifada or terror attacks, Israelis don’t feel pressed to take action. It reminds me of the man who fell from a 30-floor building. Upon passing the 15th floor, a man sitting on the balcony asked him how he felt, to which he answered, “So far so good.”
With this kind of complacency and in the absence of any loud and clear message from Netanyahu, no wonder that there is a cacophony of official voices saying one thing and its opposite at the same time — unusual even by Israeli standards. Tzipi Livni, the justice minister who strongly believes in a two-state solution and who has been appointed by the prime minister to presumably negotiate with the Palestinians, makes noises like she means business.
However, Naftali Bennet, who sits with Livni around the same government table as minister of economy and trade, said recently that there will never be a Palestinian state. Speaking last December, before he became a minister, he said, “I will do everything in my ability, forever, to prevent a Palestinian state from being founded within the land of Israel.” I don’t think he ever changed his position.
One can explain this by arguing that these are two ministers who represent parties that are partners to the Likud-led government, having different views. Fine, but where does Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, stand? We don’t really know, but here is what a rising star of his party, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, has to say on this. After dismissing off hand the idea of a Palestinian state, he said last week: “The international community can say whatever they want, and we can do whatever we want.”
Maybe that’s true, at least for the time being. I doubt if that’s wise.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.