Impressions from Israel - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Impressions from Israel

I spent last week in Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is an AIPAC-linked charitable organization. When you travel around the country and speak with public officials, citizens, and scholars, it becomes clear that there isn’t any sort of monolithic opinion of Israelis, so it was a good opportunity to get a variety of perspectives ranging from a far-right settler who doesn’t believe the much discussed two-state solution model is practical to a mom who supports the current peace process. I also had a chance to speak with a negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. It’s hard to know where to start, but I figured I’d offer the following impressions, and hopefully as the week goes on I’ll try to provide more detail on at least some of them.

— It’s pretty clear to me that the Israeli government views the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons as a worse outcome than the consequences of military action against the Islamist state.  While the rest of the world — including America – struggles with the issue, Israelis I spoke with believe that they don’t have the luxury to gamble on whether or not Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is serious about his threats to wipe them off the map. (Whether or not Ahmadinejad himself has power, or is merely a mouthpiece for the ayatollahs, is irrelevant in this context). While the threat to Israel from Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups is profound, a nuclear Iran would present an immediate existential threat. A significant majority of the Israeli population lives on a narrow band of coastal land north and south of Tel Aviv, so any nuclear attack there would have catastrophic consequences. Israelis hope that economic sanctions can stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions (especially with oil prices falling), but they are also convinced that time is running out, and they are prepared to do whatever it takes if sanctions don’t do their job.

— Israelis, overall, don’t really know what to make of Barack Obama’s victory. Most of those who I spoke with viewed Obama as intelligent, charismatic, and as a gifted orator.  But from there, the views I got were quite divergent. Some Israelis were positive about him, and thought that his intelligence would guide him to the right conclusions. Those who liked Obama were somewhat envious of the U.S. for having an exciting new leader, given the boring choices in their own upcoming elections (more on that below). However, I also spoke to a number of Israelis who are a bit nervous about Obama given his conflicting signals on Israel and the fact that they simply don’t know him as well as other American politicians. One man said he was utterly perplexed that Americans’ memories could be so short that they would elect somebody so inexperienced just seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he thought Obama’s victory speech was amazing, but he went back and replayed it several times and was shocked that Obama did not mention 9/11 once — not even when he recounted the events witnessed by the 106 year-old woman. The Israelis will be watching his national security-related appointments quite closely.

— The Israeli elections are coming up in February, and right now polls show a tight race between Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, and Likud, controlled by Benyamin Netanyahu, with Ehud Barak’s Labor way behind. Overall, Israelis are dispirited with their choices. Barak and Netanyahu already served as prime ministers and were overwhelmingly thrown out of office, while Livni lacks experience and represents a party that has been run by the widely unpopular Ehud Olmert. With Livni arguing for continuing the peace process and Netanyahu calling for pulling out and focusing on economic development in the Palestinian territories, the election outcome will largely be determined by events over the next three months. If the current relative calm persists, then Kadima has a better chance of winning, but if violence flares up before the election and Israelis become much more skeptical about the current prospects for peace, than it would favor Netanyahu’s Likud.

— I’m more convinced than ever that the current peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is a joke. The PA has absolutely no control over Hamas, which has only grown in military strength since the Israelis pulled out of Gaza. With Hamas in control of the area, rockets continue to harass citizens in southern Israel, and the terrorist group is no closer to reconciling with the Fatah arm of the PA. Earlier this month, Hamas pulled out of planned talks with Fatah, and a clash between the two groups is likely in January, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ term ends. He’s arguing for an extension of his term until 2010, which Hamas is fiercely opposed to. If the Palestinians cannot make peace among themselves, Abbas is powerless to prevent attacks originating from Gaza, and his grip on power is tenuous, it makes little sense for the Israelis to strike a deal with him. A PA negotiator I spoke with was dismissive of the Hamas issue, and tried to argue that Israel should cut a peace deal with the PA first, and then Hamas could be dealt with easier afterward.  But imagine if the Israelis came to the negotiating table and told the Palestinians that they wanted peace, but had no control over the IDF. Still, the peace process itself does have an appeal to some Israelis. One Jerusalem mother of three who I spoke with explained to me how difficult it would be to continue living under the constant threat of Palestinian terrorism if there were no hope that the issue could be resolved peacefully.

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