Why Israelis Don't Trust "Peace Talks"

Joel Mowbray

9/21/2010 12:01:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

TEL AVIV – In Israel, politics is the national pastime. Israelis follow politics the same way certain New Yorkers absorb every statistic, past and present, about the Yankees. Last week, which was sandwiched between the Jewish new year and the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, Israelis were still following the news—just not the latest round of Middle East peace talks.

News outlets gave what felt like obligatory coverage, but the talks typically ranked as the second or third item. This is a pronounced shift from past go-rounds, during which the primarily left-of-center news industry breathlessly provided wall-to-wall coverage.

This lower attention level, though, does not validate last week’s Time magazine cover story, “Why Israel doesn’t care about peace.” The reality is actually much more straightforward and far less conspiratorial.

After years of false hope and extraordinary bloodshed, Israelis largely have given up believing that peace talks actually bring peace. Consider that various polls show upward of two-thirds of Israelis support some form of a two-state solution, but fewer than a third believe peace talks will succeed.

What most Israelis understand is that after the landmark 1993 Oslo peace accords, Palestinians ran as fast and as far away from peace as possible. Former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat stonewalled during negotiations, which meant most of the concessions were made by an Israel desperate for peace. At the same time, Arafat was moving full steam ahead with his ambitious plan to radicalize his population through Islamic indoctrination at all levels.

All this culminated in a sequence of events Israelis remember all too well. In July 2000, Arafat walked away from what most observers consider the best deal the Palestinians could ever achieve. That fall, he launched the so-called intifada, an unprecedented terror campaign that fundamentally changed Israeli life.

Israeli hopes were dashed. Anger permeated Israeli society, which went from built-up optimism to genuine agony. Less than a year after they were willing to make painful concessions for peace, even small errands or shopping trips became acts of bravery.

For Arafat, the move made sense. After all, his political advances almost always had owed to terrorism, notwithstanding some setbacks along the way.

Take away his high profile because of his terrorist attacks over the decades, and Arafat likely wouldn’t have been rescued from his Tunisian exile in the early 1990s, when Israel decided to foist him on the Palestinians in the name of having a negotiating partner. The deal he was offered in 2000 was almost certainly better than any he could have received without the terrorist attacks since Oslo.

But the gambit backfired. Israelis now harbor a deeply disheartening sense that peace talks and concessions achieve little besides increased violence.

“Every piece of territory we've pulled out of in the past 10 years has been used to launch rockets at us,” said Chaim, an Israeli taxi driver who supported Oslo, referring to Lebanon and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. “Why should we give them more land for launching more rockets?”

Almost as if on cue, the very same Palestinian leadership engaged in the peace talks has been reassuring its public that “armed struggle” remains very much the right of the Palestinian people.

As documented by the invaluable Palestinian Media Watch, various Palestinian Authority leaders responded to the Hamas murder of four Israelis two weeks ago by criticizing solely the timing while explicitly supporting the morality of “armed struggle”—when done at the right time. Perhaps not coincidentally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proudly stated last week that his policies are the same as Arafat’s, under whom he served for decades.

Belief in “Palestine” as running from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea will not suddenly dissipate. It is deeply ingrained in the public psyche, reinforced by the annual commemoration of al-Naqba, which marks “the catastrophe” of Israel’s establishment in 1948. Children are taught to hate Israel and “Zionists,” and adults are reminded at every turn that the entire land is rightfully theirs.

Further hardening the Palestinian position is that the society is much more Islamic than 20 years ago. Arafat, not Hamas, instituted radical Islamic curriculum into the schools, and he put fiery clerics on TV to deliver weekly sermons. His idea was both to co-opt Hamas and to pull the society behind his terror campaign.

Arafat might be gone, but the poison remains in the well. So even if Abbas has a miraculous change of heart and embraces peace with a Jewish state of Israel, it’s not clear he’d have any meaningful support at home.

Which raises the question hanging over the entire peace process: Would the Palestinians accept an agreement to live side by side with a Jewish state of Israel and relinquish what they've long envisioned as “Palestine”?

Until there’s at least a chance that Palestinians would embrace true peace, it’s a safe bet that while Israelis want peace, they won’t care about the seemingly endless cycle of peace talks.