Is There Good News in the Holy Land?

Mona Charen

1/4/2011 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

JERUSALEM -- "All of these correspondents," IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich notes, referring to the hundreds of reporters, photographers, and producers from world press organizations stationed in Jerusalem, "are not here to report on Tel Aviv's beaches or the wineries of Judea and Samaria. They are here to report the conflict."

True. And because conflict equals news, lack of conflict usually equals neglect. By contrast, between 2000 and 2006, during the Second Intifada, 1,100 Israelis were killed by suicide bombers and thousands more were wounded. With buses, pizzerias, and department stores exploding on an almost weekly basis, the entire nation was weighted down with dread.

Today, Jerusalem's shops are bustling and its hotels and restaurants are full. Tourism is booming -- a record 3.45 million visitors this past year, bringing $20 billion in revenue to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (some Christian holy sites, like Bethlehem and Nazareth, are in Palestinian territory).

More surprising is the economic vitality of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had pledged during his election campaign to make Palestinian economic development a priority in hopes that an improved standard of living would conduce to peace. A permanent peace remains elusive, but living standards in the West Bank are dramatically improving.

The PA reported a 9 percent growth rate for 2010. There is a functioning stock exchange in Nablus. Unemployment, which was 30 percent four years ago, has been reduced to 16 percent. Israel has removed more than 200 checkpoints to facilitate economic activity, and installed expensive but fast scanners at other points to permit trucks carrying goods for export to pass quickly (about eight minutes per truck). Since July 2008, the 1 million Arab citizens of Israel can come and go freely from the West Bank.

Jenin, the origin of so many suicide bombers during the Intifada, is now the site of a five-story shopping mall, a movie theater, and a number of cafes that operate well past sundown -- something that would have been impossible a few years ago when armed teenage gangs ruled the streets.

With training and equipment from the United States, the Palestinian Authority's 28,000 police now provide security for the West Bank's 2.4 million residents as well as reigning in terror (coordinating with Israel). West Bank residents can patronize casinos, shopping malls, and nightclubs. In contrast to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which imposes Islamist strictures (e.g., men are barred from cutting women's hair, and girls were recently forbidden to participate in the United Nations summer camp program), women in the West Bank tend toward Western dress and behavior.

Whether this economic boomlet will actually promote peace remains to be seen. Suicide bombers have been thwarted by a combination of the security fence Israel mostly completed in 2006 (for which it was widely reviled by international organizations and governments), and pinpoint targeting of would-be terrorists during nighttime raids into the West Bank. In this, Israel receives cooperation from the PA.

"We tell them where they (the terrorists) are, and they arrest them," explains Leibovich. "This never happened in the past."

And yet, as the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman very undiplomatically blurted last week, the Palestinian Authority government is "illegitimate" since it does not conduct elections. In a direct contradiction of the Netanyahu government's position, Lieberman declared, "Even if we offer the Palestinians Tel Aviv and a retreat to 1947 borders, they will find a reason not to sign a peace agreement with us ... We cannot make peace with them."

There is quiet on the streets on Israel and the West Bank. Business is pretty good. But the fundamentals remain: Even the "moderate" PA President Mahmoud Abbas refuses (he did so again in November) to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas, dug in securely in Gaza, accumulates more accurate and longer-range missiles from Iran. And Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon.

Those reporters waiting for conflict to report will probably not be disappointed much longer.