Sorting out claim and reality is often at the center of the puzzle that an observer of politics must ponder. The puzzle may be especially severe when contending parties or governments are dealing with sensitive issues touched by religion and nationalism.
Welcome to this tiny portion of the Middle East. In case you haven't noticed, Israel and Palestine combined are about the size of Maryland.
Is Bibi Netanyahu telling the truth when he says--about once a day--that he is serious in his desire to find an accommodation with the Palestinians that will result in a treaty of peace?
One does not have to go too far toward the center of the Israeli political spectrum to find politicians who express their doubts. Tzipi Livni is the leader of the opposition Kadima party. She has moved from her family and personal roots in Likud and its heritage in the tradition of Zeev Jabotinsky, but she is far from a raving advocate of Peace Now. A prominent theme of her 2009 election campaign was, "Bibi? I don't believe him".
At least one-half and sometimes more of Labor party MKs formally affiliated with Netanyahu's government express doubts about his intentions, and have said--yet again--that if he does not make progress with the Palestinians within a month or so they will leave his government.
There is no end of the commentary from Israel and elsewhere that Netanyahu is beholden to right of center and extremist religious and nationalist parties, and that his own sentiments keep him from challenging Jews who want to settle the land that should be Palestinian.
The Economist has identified the prominent signs pointing here and there in this puzzle.
The prominent message coming out of the Palestinian leadership is that Netanyahu's government is deceiving the world in its claims of good intentions. Mahmoud Abbas is traveling the world saying at every possible opportunity that it is Israel that is responsible for the impasse. He cannot begin negotiations until construction stops throughout the West Bank and in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and he will agree to nothing less than the boundaries of 1967, the rights of refugees, and a capital in Jerusalem. A number of governments have signed on to something very similar to what they signed on to years ago when Yassir Arafat was making similar tours.
But is Abbas any more serious than Netanyahu in his willingness to reach an agreement with Israel? The festering conflicts he is dealing with at home suggest that he would rather collect bouquets and photo opportunities from other national leaders than wrestle with Palestinian adversaries about a deal that Israel might accept. There is not only the mini-military power of Hamas and groups even more extreme in Gaza. Abbas has accused some of his colleagues in Fatah of conspiring against him. Prominent among them is a posturing former head of security in Gaza who fled Gaza for the safety of the West Bank. Yet another problem of claim and reality surrounds the problem that Abbas term as President of the Palestine National Authority ended two years ago. Officials have postponed the elections they have scheduled, so who is Abbas, and what is his status?
And what is the position of the United States government? Is the Obama White House really withdrawing in frustration from its efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Or is it regrouping on this issue while it concentrates on the more pressing domestic challenge of dealing with the Congress that resulted from the November election?
The leading headline on the front page of Ha'aretz last Sunday was, "Anger in the American Administration: Defense Minister Ehud Barak is leading us down a path to nowhere." The article claimed that the White House had lost faith in Barak due to his failure to live up to his promise to deliver Netanyahu on the peace process.
Two hours after I saw the headline radio news reported that an official American spokesperson was denying its accuracy.
Was Ha'aretz reporting reality, or only expressing the wish of editors who are notoriously to the left of the current government? (See http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/ehud-barak-is-a-parody-of-a-leader-1.335680)
And was the American denial a fair reflection of its posture? Long ago I began teaching that the American government, like most other democracies, speaks with many voices. More recently I have argued with those who are convinced that Barack Obama is anti-Israel. (I have stopped responded to those who claim he is a Muslim and/or anti-Semitic,) My reading of the iconic Cairo speech of 2009 is that the President's demands of Muslim countries and the Palestinians were no less impressive than his demands of Israel. Polls and commentary from throughout this region suggest that I was not far off the mark. Both Israelis and Arabs have trouble viewing him as a friend.
By all signs this remains a hot spot. Isaweea is 200 meters to the east. A month ago a car with Israeli Jews and tourists made a wrong turn into the area and barely escaped a lynching. Three kilometers to the south is the Old City, with its several points of intensity. Every day we read of rockets from Gaza and attempts at violence associated with Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arabs of Israel. There is no shortage of provocations coming from religious nationalists among the Jews. Other problems among the Jews are most prominently near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
I think about all of this. But life goes on, and it is generally no worse than experienced by acquaintances in North America or Western Europe. Like them, I am careful about where I drive and walk. There are neighborhoods that I avoid, and individuals whose ideas I find unworthy of further discussion.
My most pressing concerns deal with the weather. Will it will rain while I'm out walking. And what's for dinner?
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem