Moving facades

It's not so different from those arguments in a Tel Aviv coffee shop: at the end of the day, everyone goes back home tired of talking but still buzzing with caffeinated irritation. If only they would get up and walk into the streets, so that the people who need to hear them might listen.

25 February 2013

The most fascinating thing to me about examining the politics here in Israel is the extent to which it all seems at one and the same time so animated yet so becalmed. The campaign ads for Tzipi Livni's Ha Tnuah party, some of which are still posted on billboards around here in Haifa, proclaim in bold lettering: "Bibi and Lieberman, international boycott; Tzipi Livni, Diplomatic solution." And yet, this past week came the announcement that none other than Tzipi Livni was the first to officially sign an agreement to join Prime Minister Benjamin (the "Bibi" above) Netanyahu's coalition. She will reportedly serve as a member of the security-diplomatic inner cabinet, as Justice Minister and most importantly, as head of the negotiations team. This is of course, better than Bibi collaborating with the PA directly, but that's really not saying much. Livni has never been shy about putting the need for continuing negotiations with Palestinians front and centre on her agenda, and has a few years of (failed) talks to her name. Then, as seems likely now, peace talks stalled because of the conditions under which negotiations took place: namely, the threat of expiring settlement freezes.

Still, we should give credit where it's due: the boulder standing before substantial changes is a hard one to move. But at least Bibi is stepping out of the way. Or is he? It all appears to be in slow motion somehow, he seems to be waving the Palestinians in, and of course with this there is some hope. But very few inside Israel seem to bat an eye. What passes for cynicism anywhere else is often called "being realistic" here. If there's anything worse than this cyncism, it's stubborn cynicism.

Too many stalled peace negotiations, too many expired settlement freezes, too little pressure on the governments (both of them, while we're doling out blame), make for these self-fulfilling prophecies. It's not so different from those arguments in a Tel Aviv coffee shop: at the end of the day, everyone goes back home tired of talking but still buzzing with caffeinated irritation.

There should be more pressure now on Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni to champion 1967's borders (with land swaps), and the creation of a viable State of Palestine according to studies and polls, showing 67% consensus among Israelis and even higher (82%) among Palestinians. As +972's Noam Sheizaf points out, "Even the settlers don’t oppose peace talks, as Naftali Bennet has publicly stated, since they assume they will result in nothing." This impotence in some strange way, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For a lot of people outside of politics, it seems that because these past peace negotiations have been like typical coffee shop arguments (ending in everyone going home a little more agitated than when they came and no problem beyond semantics being solved), there lies the most dangerous plot we implicitly chart: the expectations that future attempts will end the same way. It seems to me an uncomfortable truth both governments will have to confront: if they are to play their role in undoing a conflict as politically, economically, socially and spatially mangled as this, it will involve a lot more than just a new (or even an old) face at the table.

To put it another way, Benjamin Netanyahu's government should not be involved in a polarized coalition against itself, a possibility that seems all too likely. It is precisely because Tzipi Livni's involvement comes as a surprise, that a lot of people hold little hope of it. By most accounts, Netanyahu is expected to compose the rest of his coalition with some of the more right-of-center parties, like Jewish Home or the ultra-religious Shas and United Torah Judaism. These parties, taken together with the center-right Kadima, more or less comprise the coalition he was expected to form before the election-day surprise of Lapid's Yesh Atid. What's worse, none of those parties (except the weak Kadima) would be what you might call 'partners for peace' (to put it mildly).

Only the future will tell if the coming peace negotiations will come, and further, if they will be more meaningful than a fabled day of caffeine-fueled shouting. Will settlement freezes (if they happen) be allowed to expire before any starting point is reached, or will there be another stalemate with the illusion of change? Will the PA even agree to come to the table in light of the rest of the new coalition, or how will social movements step in and demand political movement towards reconciliation? I'll admit that my own hopes lie with the people engaged in the arguments at coffee shops, if only they would get up and walk into the streets, so that the people who need to hear them might listen. It'd be a shame if 67% of Israelis let them get away with another stalemate.

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