Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
February 4, 2013 - 1:00am

I was sitting the other day at a cafe called English Cake in a shopping center at the heart of this cluster of settlements near Jerusalem. Israeli settlers — many would not like the term — were sipping Turkish coffee, flirting over pastries and enjoying the afternoon sun. The scene was relaxed, as life generally is these days. The conflict, at least in the West Bank, is present but not pressing.

A few meters from me there was a Palestinian boy holding a ladder for his dad who was above our heads repairing the awning, an inversion of the general state of affairs that places the weak Palestinian beneath the powerful Israeli. The Israelis around me were oblivious to this Palestinian presence. The boy and his father were invisible.

That, increasingly, is the status of Palestinians to Israelis: invisibility. It is not the separation barrier snaking over the hills that has ensured this, although it has played its part. It is not the exhaustion, two decades after Oslo, of dreams of peace, although that too plays a part. It is, I think, the accumulation of 45 years of ruling over Palestinians in the occupied territories that has led to the Israeli conclusion that this is an inevitable state of affairs and that whatever discomfort this oppression causes is best ignored through selective blindness.

Most people in Gush Etzion do not even think of themselves as living beyond the Green Line. Israel would certainly claim the area (against land swaps) in any peace deal.

In the brand-filled malls of Tel Aviv, where a new Israeli affluence is palpable (income inequality is growing here as elsewhere), the conflict seems even farther away. With each year that passes the worlds inhabited by Palestinians and Israelis increasingly diverge. There is no fable here of the tortoise and the hare. The Palestinian tortoise remains mired in a disordered morass. The Israeli hare has dashed ahead to high-tech modernity. And the race, it seems, is over.

The Israeli election last month was notable for being the first in which the Palestinian issue scarcely figured and for ushering to political prominence a former television host, Yair Lapid. He seems nice and reasonable and moderate — a good-looking regular guy for a country that wants to be normal — but his views and policies remain blurry. His themes, in so far as they came into focus, were domestic. He called for the ultra-Orthodox to be drafted and pleaded the case of a squeezed middle class beneath a slogan of “Where’s the money?” He steered away from the settlements and the conflict.

But of course Lapid’s focus on domestic issues is not as divorced from the conflict or the scene at Gush Etzion as it might appear. The fine highways, long tunnels and elaborate barriers that accompany settler life in the West Bank are expensive. They consume funds, as does Israel’s huge security budget. I went to an outpost in the Gush Etzion constellation whose caravans were under army protection and had been connected to the electricity grid. That’s where the money is. At least that is where a lot of money is. And the money in Gush Etzion is of course not available to build kindergartens in Tel Aviv.

Before entering an Israeli government that will almost certainly be headed by a weakened Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid needs to make clear where he stands on settlement expansion. That will also clarify where he stands on two-state peace talks. New settlements do not prepare the ground for a Palestinian state; they erode the possibility. If Lapid wants to be part of a more moderate coalition that resumes negotiations with the Palestinians he cannot substitute vagueness for policy.

The current calm is a little more fragile than it seems. Three young Palestinians have been killed already this year in West Bank incidents. The Israeli response to non-violent Palestinian protest is often heavy-handed. The Palestinian Authority is squeezed for cash, in part because Israel has not handed over tax revenue. Salaries are not being paid; teachers are on strike. All the reforms in the West Bank led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — reforms that have improved security for Israelis dramatically — were supposed to lead to statehood but have not. As a result, the Palestinian mood is sour.

Israel is a miracle of inventiveness, determination and strength. But it cannot be normal, as it craves, by willing abnormality into invisibility. The Palestinian in the West Bank is there, as close as the repairman perched above those blithe, unseeing Israeli eyes.


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