Roger Cohen<br />
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 13, 2010 - 12:00am

I recently went to a dinner here hosted by a charming Israeli couple, just back from Umbria with assorted Italian delicacies, and found the guests riveted not by the ritual of a new round of U.S.-mediated peace talks but by the climax of “A Star is Born.”

We all rushed from the table to see 18-year-old Diana Golbi — a Russian immigrant born Diana Golbanova in Moscow — belt out her winning song on the Israeli version of “American Idol.” The runner-up, a Sephardic commander in the Israel Defense Forces named Idan Amedi, looked to the heavens and thanked God for second place.

Speaking of God, He struck me as pleasantly absent in Tel Aviv, a city that is secular and sensual and spared the follies that attend fanatical attachment to faith and identity. It is warm sand to Jerusalem’s hard stone. Juice bars are its answer to Jerusalem’s devout Judaism. I have little doubt Tel Aviv could make peace with Ramallah, another town of cafés and commerce, in short order.

But reason is only an occasional and selective visitor to the Holy Land. A vast realm of irrationality surrounds the competing national movements of Jews and Palestinians, each with its symbols and disasters. It is hard not to shrug, as most Israelis now do, at this latest U.S. stab at solving the unsolvable.

“Peace talks! The sequel! It’s like Rocky! And I’m supposed to pay attention?” said Sherry Ansky, a food writer.

It’s the end of a hot summer. The kids are returning to school. The economy is pretty good. Violence has become rare enough to intrude only lightly. Barriers shield Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza. The beach is beautiful, politicians corrupt. What’s the use of politics, anyway?

“This used to be a very, very political society and it no longer is,” said Tom Segev, the Israeli historian. “Israel has gone through a deep change. People don’t trust politics, they don’t really believe in peace and the million recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union didn’t bring democratic values. Democracy is weaker.”

The current Israeli government is certainly a misshapen democratic product. I would rather watch “A Star is Born” than its machinations. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from White House ceremonies inaugurating new peace talks, his own foreign minister dismissed the “international peace industry.”

Peace, rightist Avigdor Lieberman declared, was not “achievable in the next year or in the next generation.”

Question: What kind of government has its prime minister and foreign minister on different planets, spans secular-Labor to rightist-religious parties, and talks of peace within a year as it calls peace impossible for generations?

Answer: A cynical government that would prefer to avoid dramatic decisions, leading a society that has no illusions, where people — in line with most wired countries — are busy privatizing themselves in online worlds where national politics matter little.

Perhaps such a cynical-blasé culture, stripped of idealism, is not a bad backdrop to the talks between Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, that resume Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East envoy George Mitchell. If everyone is sick of the peace industry, perhaps it can actually put itself out of business.

Netanyahu, like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, has abandoned Greater Israel, admitting the inevitability of a Palestinian state: “I have to ask myself what should be done about the million-and-a-half Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria. Should they become Israeli citizens? That’s not my point of view. Should we see them as second-class citizens? I don’t think so. If the solution is that they will have a state, then the question is how to reach an agreement with this state to ensure the security of Israel.”

The old Likudnik’s biblical reference lingers — Judea and Samaria for the West Bank — but he’s embraced two states because he’s grasped the alternative: more Arabs than Jews in a single state. What Netanyahu wants in return for his shift, and wants up front, is Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Which Palestinians won’t give now because, among other things, it preempts the refugee issue.

And here we go, with the settlement-freeze extension quandary looming.

Mitchell, after 18 months of toil, believes Netanyahu will go the extra mile. I was shown minutes of a meeting this year with Palestinian officials in which Mitchell said: “Benjamin Netanyahu will be thinking about his legacy. My experience in Northern Ireland makes me strong in my belief. Ian Paisley blocked an agreement for decades. He hated Catholics and called the pope the Antichrist in Parliament. At the age of 82 he started thinking about his legacy, made a turn and was a key figure in reaching an agreement in Northern Ireland.”

To which Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestinian negotiator shot back, “Let’s hope that Netanyahu reaches that conclusion before he reaches 82!”

It’s hard to resist Erekat’s cynicism. Peace is tough when politics are dead. Netanyahu is only 60. So kick back, sing the praise of truces — and pass the remote.


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