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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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