Israel is a highly militarised country in a state of perpetual preparedness for war. To the north, south, east and west, it sees only mortal enemies, real or imagined, in a region in flames. Yet until very recently the mood inside the country was one of relative calm. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had emboldened the Likud-led government and considerably weakened Hamas in Gaza. Israel has been largely unaffected by the civil war in Syria, with its 160,000 dead (there are suggestions that the actual figure could be twice that) and the exodus of millions of refugees to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The border between Syria and Israel has been closed since the seizure and occupation of the Golan Heights during the 1967 war. Recently there have been sporadic attacks by jihadist groups on Israel from inside Syria but nothing that has unduly alarmed the Israel Defence Forces.
The construction of the security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank – a tragic symbol of the conflict between two peoples destined to claim ownership of the same land – ended the largely Hamas-directed suicide attacks that traumatised Israelis during the second intifada. Most of the pressure and urgency for peace talks with the Palestinians seemed to be coming from not inside but outside Israel – from the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who was ultimately defeated in his courageous attempt to bring the two sides together.
Yet so fragile is the “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians that it takes the smallest spark to light the fuse of war. Against this backdrop, the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli Jewish teenagers whose bodies were found not far from the town of Halhul, near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, were always going to have dire consequences.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, specialises in overreaction: in response to the senseless murder of the three youths and the resumption of missile attacks on southern Israel from inside Gaza, he launched a new offensive against Hamas, the ludicrously titled “Operation Protective Edge”, and, as we went to press, was mobilising for another possible land invasion of the blighted strip. Attacking Gaza might halt rocket attacks in the short run but will do nothing in the long term except revive Hamas’s faltering reputation as the focus of Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership is in disarray.
Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, claim to support a two-state solution but is this now mere rhetoric? Indeed, so polarised is Israeli politics that Mr Netanyahu has emerged as something of a pragmatist when compared to belligerent right-wingers in his coalition such as Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party. Mr Bennett is himself a settler and a territorial maximalist who does not recognise the Palestinian claim to statehood. His influence grows.
Mr Kerry deserved credit for his attempts to revive the peace process but he is the latest in a long line of powerful politicians who have failed. No diplomatic and political initiatives can compensate for how the participants are not properly engaged, partly because they know they do not have the support of their constituencies.
Where to go from here? It is certainly time for a new generation of politicians, though there are few obvious candidates. And it is time for more imaginative thinking – time to consider constitutional and political arrangements that acknowledge the new facts on the ground. At least the settlers have been honest about the consequences of their actions: they know that expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has led to the demise of the ideal of two separate nations, something that, as believers in the ideology of Greater Israel, they never supported.
However, the anxiety for liberal Israelis is that a putative single, binational state would, in time, cease to be a Jewish-majority state. The Palestinians have strategic depth. They know they have the support of much of the Muslim world and that, in the absence of any progress towards a two-state solution, time is on their side. Already Israeli Arabs, who account for nearly a fifth of the population, are engaged in a struggle for civil rights.
Mr Netanyahu has spoken of the “demographic threat” to Israel. The threat is real enough but, with each passing year, the government he leads is set not on a course of peace but on one of war.