People shelter in a large concrete pipe during a rocket attack on the southern Israeli village of Nitzan. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Without a two-state solution, Israel is set on a course of war

So fragile is the “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians that it takes the smallest spark to light the fuse of war.

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Sean Rayford/Getty Images
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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.