Israel Lulled by the good life

Palestinian and Israeli leaders are engaging in peace talks. Yet, while people on either side of the

It is Friday night in Tel Aviv. I am sitting at a seaside bar, drinking a cocktail and eating seafood. Young men and women are playing beach volleyball nearby; others are rollerblading, cycling or just sauntering around. Israel, at least the secular part of Israel, is enjoying life. A few hours earlier I had been in another world: Jenin, the most northerly town on the West Bank, a place I had been before during the second intifada. Things are different now. There is almost no resistance, though that does not stop night-time Israeli military raids in which people are taken from their homes, into interrogation and most likely to jail.

The journey back from Jenin to Jerusalem - now the only viable crossing into Israel - took more than three hours, even though it is barely 50 miles away. Many roads have been closed off by the army. We went through five checkpoints and were questioned at three. It could have been more; Palestinian cars are stopped at random along the way. All movement between Palestinian towns and villages, and often within them, is controlled. Israeli settlements dominate the landscape. The word settlement is a misnomer, suggesting something temporary; rather, these are collections of suburban gated communities. They have been located in such a way as to separate Palestinian communities from one another. Road signs are first in Hebrew, then in Arabic.

In Ramallah, the notional capital, the people do their best to display nationhood. At the Muqataa compound, where the government resides, a mausoleum to Yasser Arafat has just opened. Two soldiers in Palestinian uniform try to stand to attention, but theirs is more of a slouch.

Everyone, it seems, wants to talk to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. On Thursday he was visited by his Ukrainian counterpart. Two days later it was the turn of David Miliband. Israelis like to point out that Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has spent more time in the Middle East in recent months than the man supposed to be putting it to rights, Tony Blair. On his occasional visits to his reinforced suite at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, he has been putting together an economic "rescue package" for the Palestinians.

Uniquely ill-suited

All roads, it seems, lead to Annapolis, a quaint naval town just outside the US capital, where, on 26 November, George W Bush is expected to invite Israelis and Palestinians to sign a declaration. Ahead of that meeting, I was part of a group invited to Jerusalem to talk to some of the most influential players in Israeli politics and security - from cabinet moderates such as the deputy prime minister Haim Ramon to the arch-neocon, the man who will become leader again if it all falls apart - Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

Their attitudes to the Palestinians may differ, but the prognoses of doves and hawks alike are strikingly similar. Ehud Olmert's grand coalition is weak (as all Israeli governments are nowadays, thanks to the constitution, which allows minor parties a pivotal role); Abbas's Palestinian Authority is even weaker. Both sides are, one Israeli figure told us, "uniquely ill-suited" to conduct meaningful negotiations.

Still, they are trying. Olmert and Abbas have met regularly over the past few months. The Israelis talk of the Palestinian leader as a "good partner". Old taboos appear to have been broken. The future status of Jerusalem is openly discussed (though it is as far away from resolution as it has ever been). The Israelis talk of international troops overseeing the Palestinian territories. A few years ago they would have seen that as an insult. The choreography of this latest initiative is intricate. At Annapolis they will be asked to pledge "immediate and continuous" negotiations, leading to a final status agreement.

Yet ask Israeli ministers whether any of this will work, and they smile and say "no". So what is the point of going? Various answers are given, ranging from "There's no reason not to" and "We don't want to insult Bush" to "We must prop up Abbas". The Israelis, together with the Americans and governments of other countries, have convinced themselves that if they don't help the Fatah-led government on the West Bank, Hamas will take over by force, just as it did in Gaza. One security figure told us that only the Israeli army stood in the way of a Palestinian implosion. "The Palestinians have to choose whether they want to live in Mogadishu or Dubai," he said.

This argument is used to justify the economic blockade of Gaza, which, according to official figures, has left more than 80 per cent of inhabitants below the poverty line. Some senior Israelis, though not all, have convinced themselves that Palestinians in Gaza will blame Hamas, rather than Israel, for the way their strip of land is being choked and will turn back to Fatah.

Olmert has more invested in a deal with Abbas than his more sceptical cabinet colleagues. He knows that, for it to work, he has to give something meaningful to bolster the Palestinian president. As one Israeli involved in the negotiations remarked: "We're having to write Abbas's victory speech in Annapolis." Yet Olmert's power base is too weak for him to make any concessions beyond the most cursory - a few hundred prisoners let out or a few roadblocks dismantled (there are 500 in total, according to the UN), or a freeze in the 2008 budget on settlement construction.

The real problem lies in the absence of any strong self-interest on the part of Israelis themselves. Israel is going through one of its rare periods of relative calm. The mood is quite different from that of my last trip, a year ago. Then it was reeling from its botched war in Lebanon, several political corruption scandals and financial mal aise. Now the economy is booming; liberalisation of a number of industries has helped boost growth rates. Once a state that prided itself on collectivism, Israel is now one of the most unequal. Money is being spent with alacrity. Israelis have flocked back to outdoor cafes and restaurants, no longer so fearful of suicide bombers.

The most important reason for the new mood is the "success" of the barrier that has been constructed to separate Israel from the West Bank. In highly populated areas such as Jerusalem, it is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. One of the main access roads taking Israelis between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv could just as well have been one of the transit routes for West Germans travelling to West Berlin. Apart from the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, attacks on Israelis have all but ceased.

Ignorance is bliss

An entire generation of Israelis has reached adulthood without any physical contact with Palestinians or first-hand knowledge of life inside the West Bank or Gaza. Before the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, some in the older generation would go over for a spot of shopping or to wander around. Now, apart from settlers, who are driven to and fro in armed convoys, almost no Israelis venture over the border.

According to Dr Mina Tzemach, a veteran opinion pollster, most Israelis want their leaders to go to Annapolis. Intriguingly, an almost identical number assume that the talks will fail. The younger generation, she says, is increasingly hostile to cutting a deal with the Palestinians. The public has convinced itself that the withdrawal of the small number of Israeli settlers from Gaza - Ariel Sharon's last major act as prime minister - has been a disaster. The Hamas coup has reinforced a stereotype that as soon as Israeli backs are turned, Palestinians descend into extremism and violence. Tzemach's polling points to another paradox. Israelis want, in the long term, the same kind of "normal life" as enjoyed by Americans and Europeans. They accept that peace and security, the two watchwords of their politics, remain fragile as long as Palestinians are oppressed and angry. But in the short term they are content with their lot.

In any event, by far the biggest concern in political circles is now Iran, or "the state from which all evil stems", as one minister put it. Security officials and politicians say Tehran will have acquired the technology to produce a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009 at the latest. They work from the assumption that either the US or Israel will launch a military attack before then in order to stop the nuclear programme.

In a few days' time, Olmert and Abbas will meet, shake hands, applaud an exhortatory speech from Bush, and return home to begin what will be described as a crucial phase in the peace process. Then what? As things stand, not much - which won't unduly trouble the rollerbladers on Tel Aviv's promenade.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times