It's pure hubris to visit a country for a week and think you've obtained deep insights into the region's complicated sociopolitical issues, so I won't pretend that my recent trip to Israel and Palestine transformed my understanding of the conflict. It did, however, reinforce the thesis of Karl Vick's recent and mildly controversial Time cover story, "Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace." Many of the Israelis who are aware of the article reacted strongly against its title because they're deeply invested in a narrative in which the Jews have always been the ones offering compromise and the Arabs have been the ones to reject it. Vick's core point, however, is one that Israelis eagerly confirm: Despite the international community's continued obsession with the Palestinian question, it has little practical impact on mainstream Israelis' everyday lives.
The successful crushing of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s has created a dynamic in which most Israelis neither fear Palestinian violence nor witness the injustice of Israeli occupation. The economy is one of the strongest in the developed world, the cultural scene in Tel Aviv is thriving, and the tourist trade in Jerusalem is robust.
But on the frontlines, things look very different. The East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, where settlers are evicting Arab families from their homes, are tense. The situation in the heart of Hebron is completely horrifying. In Wallaje, a nonviolent resistance movement protests the construction of a security wall that will cut the villagers off from their land. The leader of a similar resistance movement in Bil'in was just sentenced to a year in prison. Those inclined to wonder where the Palestinian Gandhi is should consider the possibility that he may be languishing in an Israeli jail. The people directly involved in the conflict are soldiers or a self-selected group of settler ideologues. Despite conscription, Israelis disinclined to perform combat duty in the occupied territories are largely able to avoid it by accepting other kinds of military responsibilities.
Less noted is a parallel development in the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah. I'm not sure exactly what I expected from a city under Israeli occupation, but it wasn't what I found in Ramallah. Once you get through the checkpoint and on the road into town, Ramallah turns out to be a pretty nice place. Not uniformly, of course. It has a Third World vibe and the slum districts that come with it. But the Grand Park Hotel is very nice and by no means the only hotel catering to foreigners. The friendly cab drivers ask if it's your first time in Palestine and chitchat in passable English. Five Americans can walk without fear late at night through the confusing street grid and find a delightful Palestinian-Italian fusion restaurant with a bustling crowd and enjoy round after round of drinks. A construction boom is underway, with banks and offices and houses springing up everywhere. Roads are being renovated, with banners eagerly extolling the U.S. government's role in footing the bill.
The bubble in Tel Aviv is a bit jarring to the politically oriented visitor, but the Ramallah bubble is entirely unexpected.
Credit for this achievement goes to Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund economist with a doctorate from the University of Texas who has served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority since the Hamas-Fatah civil war rendered Palestine's nascent democratic institutions inoperable.
Fayyad is the toast of the West, lauded by The New York Times' Tom Friedman, the leaders of the moderate Arab states, and mainstream Zionist politicians from the Labor and Kadima parties. To his enormous credit, he has delivered physical security to the population of the West Bank and enormously improved the practical living conditions of the Palestinians under his rule. His fans believe he's the competent, clear-eyed, moderate Palestinian leader for whom the world has been waiting. The one who will make the key compromises on refugees and demilitarization that the Israeli center demands, and the one who will be able to credibly promise to clamp down on Palestinian irredentists. That this optimism seems to coexist with pervasive cynicism about the current round of peace talks is odd but doesn't necessarily mean it's incorrect. One can certainly imagine a scenario in which a different coalition comes to power in Israel and forges a historic compromise with Fayyad, and then Fatah and Israel team up to crush their mutual enemy Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But the Ramallah bubble is truly a bubble. Fayyad's achievements come either as gifts from Israel (in terms of reduced checkpoints and road closures) or from the U.S. and Europe in the form of money used to underwrite a massive growth in the state apparatus. He has no democratic legitimacy and has no way to deliver sustainable economic gains under the current circumstances of the occupation. Politically aware Palestinians understand what's happening all too well: More than one described him as a tool of the occupation rather than a leader of the Palestinian people. Nonviolent resistance organizers observed that Fayyad's strategy is predicated on engaging in essentially no resistance of any form. His economic-development strategy amounts to running a tight ship in terms of personal corruption, plus begging for scraps from Israel and America, which severely constrains his political options in a way that utterly destroys his credibility.
One can question the wisdom of a strategy that amounts to propping up a dictatorial Palestinian collaborator regime. But the simpler issue is that if this strategy is to work at all, there's a great deal more urgency to the situation than Israel or the U.S. seems to perceive. If Fayyad starts scoring big wins on the core issues soon, he could emerge as something of a Palestinian analog to Michael Collins, the Irish military commander who delivered independence to his country at the cost of selling out Northern Ireland's nationalists. If not, the Fayyad era is likely to go down as an Arab version of Marshall Pétain's Vichy France. That in turn would serve the short-term agenda of the Israeli fanatics and provocateurs in the settlement movement who operate outside the consciousness of mainstream Israel. For the longer term, though, the real winners will be the extremists in the Arab world and the religious fanatics around the world who will milk this lingering conflict for all its worth.