The new normal
No matter what Israel's prime minister says, the conflict with the Palestinians cannot simply be “managed”
THE prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, has sought to make life normal. While the Middle East has gone up in flames, Israel's economy has thrived. Cafés emptied a decade ago by Palestinian suicide-bombers are once again teeming with customers. Demonstrators in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have protested not just about war and peace, but even more vociferously about the price of cottage cheese.
This unreal normality is now under threat. After a two-year lull, rockets fired from Gaza have rained down on Israel. The Israel Defence Forces have struck hundreds of sites in Gaza. The army is ready to mobilise up to 40,000 reserves. The talk is of a ground offensive against Hamas, which governs Gaza (see article). Palestinians, 70 of whom have already been killed, are sliding towards a third uprising, or intifada.
Mr Netanyahu's mistake—compounded by the actions of Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinians on the West Bank—is to think that their versions of normality can be sustained simply by managing the conflict. A stand-off is always liable to tip into violence. Lasting peace will come about only when the two sides reach a comprehensive settlement.
More than maintenance
Today's violence was triggered by the murder of three Israeli teenagers, snatched on their way back from study at ayeshiva in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu blamed Hamas—on evidence that remains unclear—leading to the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians, including some prisoners who had recently been released under an American-sponsored scheme designed to boost peace talks with Mr Abbas. In retaliation, and outraged at the murder of a young Palestinian, militants fired rockets into Israel. The IDF responded with lethal force. In a few short days, the original offence was superseded by the logic of escalating action and reaction.
Such fragility is a symptom of the influence of extremists on both sides. Some on the Israeli right see a chance to smash Hamas, which has been weakened in Gaza, both by its own incompetence and by Egypt's new government closing the tunnels leading from Sinai into Gaza. But Israeli force is more likely to revive Hamas than break it. The Islamists would once again rally support as the main resistance to the hated occupiers, whilst leaving Mr Abbas looking more like the stooge.
Centrist Israelis would settle for periodic missions designed to tamp down Hamas—“mowing the lawn” they call it. The idea is that the occasional brutal show of force can buy a few more years of normality. Yet doing so is becoming harder. Even if Hamas's rockets remain inaccurate and are rarely lethal, the latest have reached parts of northern Israel 125 kilometres (80 miles) from Gaza. People in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will, understandably, refuse to live under constant threat. Israel could of course smite its enemies with ever-bloodier fervour. But to the watching world, its overwhelming use of force, which always leaves many more Palestinians than Israelis dead, has often looked excessive—and its international standing, which moderate Israelis care about, tumbles further.
In any case, the status quo on the Palestinian side looks untenable. Mr Abbas is tired and ineffectual. Under him, normality for the West Bank's Palestinians has come to mean accepting Israeli occupation while Israeli settlers gobble up ever more territory. Without even the prospect of statehood, Palestinians are impatient.
For all these reasons, the failure of Mr Netanyahu to make peace a priority is dangerous. He did not make the most of the recent plan put forward by John Kerry, America's secretary of state. Both he and Mr Abbas recklessly pursued short-term advantage during the talks, leaving their countries vulnerable to those who argue that, with the hopes of peace exhausted, conflict is all that remains. That is wrong. Two states, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, remains by far the greatest hope for peace. The parameters of an agreement are well-rehearsed. What is lacking is the conviction among reasonable people that such a settlement is needed now. Without that belief, Israel's normality will always have an air of unreality.