Last night Mrs. Goldblog and I went to a dinner at which The Situation was the main topic of discussion. At one point, someone asked an Arab ambassador at the table how central the question of Jerusalem was to the peace process. Very central, he said, and then threw the question to me. I answered that it wasn't an entirely relevant question. Seventeen years after the inception of the Oslo peace process, the Israelis and the Palestinians -- or at least the half of the Palestinian polity theoretically committed to peaceful compromise -- are no longer speaking directly to each other. In other words, asking about the final disposition of Jerusalem right now is akin to asking how best to distribute the AIDS vaccine to the interior of the Congo. It's a good and necessary question, but we should probably develop an AIDS vaccine first, and then worry about its delivery.
One main reason it is so premature to talk about the disposition of Jerusalem is that the cynicism among Israelis about the ultimate aims of the Palestinians is deep and wide. It is true that many Israelis believe -- as many American Jews believe -- that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are very different sorts of leaders than Yasser Arafat. They are practical men who are trying to create reality-based policies that actually serve the best political and economic interests of their people. But Israelis tend to see them as semi-powerless; they see Hamas as the rising power (especially after Hamas's victory in the Turkish flotilla war), and they understand, in ways that many Americans don't seem to understand, that Hamas poses an existential threat -- you should pardon the expression -- to the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas and Fayyad. Seizing the Palestinian Authority, and taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization, is Hamas's penultimate goal (well, maybe not penultimate, because Hamas's ultimate goal is not merely the eradication of Israel but also the creation of a pan-Muslim entity led by the Muslim Brotherhood.)
But about those Israeli doubts: For the typical Israeli (and again, I'm not talking about settlers, but about people who have, in the past, agreed in principle that the Palestinians should have an independent state) two events in particular have soured them on the chance for compromise. In 2000, the Israeli army pulled out of Lebanon. It was hoped that this pull-out would lead to peace on the northern border, but instead it led to rocket attacks by the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah. In 2005, Israel unilaterally pulled its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza. Again, rockets followed. The saving grace of these rockets attacks -- both the Lebanon attacks and the Gaza attacks -- was that the rockets did not reach the center of the country -- Tel Aviv, as well as Israel's only international airport, Ben-Gurion.
Now, of course, the peace process, such as it is, hinges in part on an Israeli willingness to withdraw from the West Bank, including the hills of the West Bank that overlook Tel Aviv, the airport, and the entire thickly-populated central region of the country. This withdrawal will not be happening anytime soon, because there is a high degree of certainty among Israelis that a withdrawal from the West Bank hills would be followed not by peaceful reconciliation, but, again, by rockets. No Israeli wants to be a freier, a sucker, and right now the Israelis feel like suckers. Twice in ten years they've withdrawn from territory, and twice they've been hit by rockets. They are not doing this again, not until the politics of the Palestinians -- and the politics of Iran -- change dramatically.
So this is Prime Minister Netanyahu's dilemma. He has said he agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state, but he knows his populace will not soon countenance the birth of a Palestinian state of the type and size the Palestinians demand. He also knows that Israel's protector and benefactor, the United States, believes that the creation of this Palestinian state will help ameliorate other problems in the Middle East, especially the problem of Iran, while he believes the opposite, that only the neutralization of Iran (preferably by the Americans) and its proxies will lead to conditions in which it is possible for Israel to once again take risks for peace. So he has five main tasks over the next year: Stopping Israel from committing grievous, unforced errors of the sort we saw with the Turkish flotilla, despite the rising number of provocations emanating from the Hamas-friendly movement that seeks to delegitimize the idea of a Jewish state; continuing to pressure the world to confront Iran and its existential threat to Israel, so that he doesn't have to do it by himself; creating a better life for Palestinians on the West Bank, all the while knowing that he will not be able to give them what they say they want; figuring a way out of the Gaza blockade morass that does not wind up rewarding Hamas; and all the while maintaining good relations with an American administration that wants Israel to do things right now that it can't do.
This next period, in other words, is going to be among the most challenging in Israeli history.