home Middle East, Politics MASA, Netanyahu and Israeli ambivalence toward peace

MASA, Netanyahu and Israeli ambivalence toward peace

It has long been assumed that peace is in the national interest of Israel. A secure peace, of course, but nevertheless, peace and acceptance from the neighbors would be what any country wants, especially one who has had as much trouble fitting into the “neighborhood” as Israel has. Why else would Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of a right-center party and long an opponent of a Palestinian State, begin to make steps towards a negotiated peace?

A few recent articles and a stream of actions suggest, however, that peace as the West thinks of it might not get a full chance here. A tepid attitude towards negotiations on a large part of Israeli society comes from a few things: disappointment, fear, distrust, and perhaps above all, complacency.

Yossi Alpher notes disappointment over past peace in a recent op-ed for the IHT. Peace with Jordan and Egypt hasn’t brought great change to Israelis’ day-to-day lives. There is still a sense of paranoia and a fear of violence from within and without. Egypt and Jordan are not warm friends in the way of the West, and if this is all they’re going to get out of peace, the benefits are not that great.

Then there are the potential costs of peace to Israel. On the one side, there is still a heavy distrust and fear, justified or otherwise. The thinking goes that ceding the hills of the West Bank not only puts an avowed enemy in a strategically advantageous position, it also marks the first step in paving the way for the annihilation of Israel and the founding of a Palestinian state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. This sort of slippery slope irrationality, with complete lack of faith in the international system, can be found in an article by a former chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel, in which he compares the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process to the Israeli Arabs’ Nakba, their losing sovereignty over the land in 1948.

The argument is a bit bald-faced, as well as historically specious, concluding that any peace would certainly lead to the end of Israel, which would be the only way to make Oslo comparable to the Nakba. And many would argue that no peace would more harmful to future Israel, forcing it into either a binational state that would demographically overwhelm Jews, or a non-egalitarian state that would isolate Israel in the international realm. But the article serves as a reminder of the more extreme right-wing views that aren’t exactly “fringe” in Israel.

More common, and thus more difficult to root out, is a sense of satisfaction with the current situation. While there are still occasional rockets fired both around the Lebanon border and the Gaza Strip, things are fairly calm in Israel on the military front. And so the country can settle into its ways. Tel Aviv is a fine city that Israelis love to compare to New York City (conveniently forgetting that NYC is 20 times bigger and that Tel Aviv gets pretty sleepy around the Shabbat). Jerusalem may be a pit, but many of its residents are unwilling to allow for change, which must be a sign of happiness. And then there’s the ill-fated MASA campaign.

MASA is an organization funded by the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency is a government funded organization in Israel designed to connect Diaspora Jews to Israel, and MASA is its young adult focused wing. One of MASA’s major tools is to provide programs and funding for young Diaspora Jews to spend time or study in Israel, in hopes of cementing a bond between Jews from abroad and the home land. (Full disclosure: I am studying in Israel this year with generous funding from MASA).

MASA has other ways of trying to bridge the gap between those there and those here. For example, a campaign about “Lost Jews” in the Diaspora, in which Israeli Jews are exhorted to contact young Jews reported as “missing”, in danger of assimilating into their given “host” culture. The biggest danger: marrying a non-Jew. Fear the shiksa, if you will.

The campaign was received with uproar and outrage both inside and outside of Israel, and its conception and conceit is riddled with holes and foolishness. What deserves more attention within the context of Israel seeking or not seeking peace is the notion that, maybe, many Jews here really feel like life for a Jew is better here in Israel than in Europe, than in America, or wherever else. Never mind the glum faces, the abrasive daily interactions, the struggle to get the simplest tasks (fixing a car, renting an apartment, driving anywhere) done without unpleasantness, the political uncertainty, or the unequal treatment of minorities of many stripes here: this is Israel, land of sun, sea, beauty, and the Chosen People. And so if life’s better here than in the West, why would we need peace? Why give up anything when we have all we need already?

Few Israelis would say that, of course. Peace is still a holy tenet of both Judaism and Western society, whether actions follow through on words or not. Israelis may not change their daily routine to account for their fears beyond the occasional war drill, but they remain convinced that there are monsters at the door.

Yet instead of opening the door and going out to confront those monsters, paying whatever price, too many are content to stay inside, comfortable in their air-conditioned rooms, convinced that nothing could be better, especially when the costs aren’t seen. As Netanyahu continues to tiptoe through the process and everybody wonders whether we’ll actually get there, keeping in mind the political will of the people is a must. Especially when it’s unclear if they have any.