Israel Is at Peace (With Itself)

The country can’t form a government, its peace process is permanently stalled—and things have never been better.

Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day in Jeruslam's Old City on May 13, 2018.
Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day in Jeruslam's Old City on May 13, 2018. Mehahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government on Wednesday, you could hear a collective groan from all 8.7 million Israelis at the thought of having to endure another election campaign this fall. But the exasperation was quick to dissipate. Israelis—at least Jewish Israelis—are at peace with themselves and aware they are enjoying an unreservedly good moment. “It could be worse,” declared a former Israeli official as we sipped coffee on a spectacular May evening overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate.

The country is clearly on a roll. Israel ranks as the 13th-happiest country in the world, its economy is steady at 4 percent unemployment, no one is afraid to board a bus, the tourists keep coming, relations with its neighbors are mostly good and growing, and no one (outside of the government) much cares about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. On that May evening, one would have never known by the crowds on the beach south of Tel Aviv that Hamas and other extremist groups had recently poured rocket fire into Israel from Gaza or that the U.S. national security advisor was threatening war with Iran. The rockets had stopped, there was no war, and so things were good. They certainly “could be worse.”

Among the many benefits of personally visiting a given country is the chance to take all the chatter currently in circulation about it before separating the nonsense from the relevant parts. This is especially true in Israel’s case given the distortions and even outright lies that have become accepted facts about the country. The Israelis have a lot to answer for, including their slow-rolling, 52-year-long annexation of the West Bank; the terrible conditions they’ve allowed to fester in the Gaza Strip; and the so-called corporate Mossad that is doing everything from running hit squads for hire in Yemen to providing spyware to unsavory governments around the world. But Israelis do not harvest the organs of Palestinian prisoners, and they are not responsible for police brutality in the United States. On most of the crucial issues of the day, Israelis simply do not conform to much of the most widely prevalent reporting, analysis, and caricatures, both good and bad.

Now that the Israelis find themselves again waiting for a new government, the peace plan prepared by White House staffer Jared Kushner (if it even exists) will itself have to wait until at least September for its rollout. But the whole thing barely rates a mention among Israelis. They seem to be more interested in chatting about Israel’s domestic political dramas. Mostly they do not seem to care about foreign efforts to forge peace, because it has become an article of faith that the Palestinians cannot, will not, and do not want to negotiate in good faith. That there is “no partner” sounds like an excuse, especially because Palestinian security forces have worked hard to maintain security, but it speaks to the searing experience of the Second Intifada that ended almost 15 years ago.

The Israelis have managed to use technology, territory, power politics, and the success of Israel’s economy to minimize the pain to themselves of occupation. The one thing that the Palestinians can do that would make a difference is something they emphatically will not do: shut down the Palestinian Authority and make the Israelis pay an actual price for their occupation and annexation. Under these circumstances, the Israeli attitude seems to be, “Let Jared Kushner try to sell his plan—we have better things to do.”

Israel has always been a sort of regional Sparta—heavily militarized with steely national security focus—but it has also been more cautious than anyone gives it credit for.

If Israelis are feeling any sort of worry right now it’s over Iran—or rather, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran policy. Israel has always been a sort of regional Sparta—heavily militarized with steely national security focus—but it has also been more cautious than anyone gives it credit for. After years of sounding the alarms, raising red flags, and otherwise trying to get the attention of just about everyone concerning Iran—efforts that were almost always interpreted as warmongering—the Israelis are pleased that Trump understands the challenge the Iranians pose and like the squeeze Washington is putting on Tehran. That is a long way away from wanting war, however. The Israelis I met were worried about the price they and their kids would pay in the event of a conflict between the United States and Iran. No one believed National Security Advisor John Bolton’s saber-rattling was wise, and they certainly did not want it to be at their behest. Their lives were good, after all. Deterring the Iranians, like what the IDF has been doing in Syria, seems to be their preferred policy, particularly because the Iranian response has been weak.

If not for Netanyahu’s legal troubles, he likely would have won April’s election in a landslide. Netanyahu tends to frame all discussion of politics among Israelis. That makes sense given how long he has been prime minister, but it also speaks to how dominant he and the right have become. The coalition of former generals (plus one TV anchor) known as Blue and White is not an opposition in terms of its conservative approach to policy, but rather personality. Taken together, Netanyahu has already won half the battle.

Between now and September a lot of smart analysts will game out the Israeli elections and inform their readers and listeners of all the different ways in which Netanyahu is vulnerable. But upon the dissolution of the Knesset, an Israeli interlocutor—someone who dislikes the prime minister—sent me a message saying he cannot be hopeful for a different outcome. That is because Netanyahu, for all his faults both real and perceived, has kept Israel prosperous and safe. And that is what Israelis seem to care about most and why heading into a long, hot summer of crazy politics and electioneering, the prime minister continues to have the electoral edge. If Netanyahu is interested in a new campaign slogan, he’d be smart to consider: It could be worse.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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