The West Bank, then as now, was divided by the Oslo peace process into a crazy quilt of A, B and C zones under varying degrees of Palestinian control. Then, as now, the animosity between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority disguised a substantial amount of security cooperation behind the scenes. Then, as now, Israel faced a terrorist threat but not one that disrupted ordinary life: Sixteen Israelis were killed by terrorists in 1998 and 34 last year. Then, as now, security concerns could seem remote while strolling along the beach in Tel Aviv or sitting in a trendy cafe.
Israel was already wealthy in 1998 and has gotten more so: Per capita income has soared from less than $20,000 to more than $37,000. That puts Israel on the same level as Britain and France — a remarkable feat for a tiny country devoid until recently of natural resources. (Offshore natural gas fields were discovered beginning in 1999.) It may well turn out that Netanyahu’s most significant legacy will be the two years he spent as finance minister (2003 to 2005), when he led a deregulatory push to unleash the free market.
The Palestinians have not been so lucky. Their per capita income has risen from $1,400 to $3,000 — roughly the same percentage increase as Israel but one that puts them on par only with the Philippines and Sudan. Parts of the West Bank have flourished: On a visit to Ramallah, the Palestinians’ de facto capital, I saw a great deal of new construction. But the economy in Gaza has nosedived since the Israeli pullout in 2005. Unemployment is nearly 50 percent, and Gaza residents are lucky to get four hours of electricity a day.
Hamas blames the Israeli and Egyptian blockade; Israel and the Egyptian military regime blame Hamas, which both countries view as a security threat. Israeli forces have killed 140 people since March trying to penetrate the Gaza border. Hamas has also targeted Israel with rockets and even incendiary kites, resulting in burned-out fields that we saw on a drive along the border. Little wonder that there is less enthusiasm in Israel today than in 1998 for making territorial concessions: Israel has given up land but not gotten peace in return.
The Palestinians, for their part, complain that peace is not possible as long as Israeli settlers occupy their land. In the past, I had played down this complaint because Israel had shown, not only in Gaza but also in the Sinai Peninsula, that it was willing to evacuate settlers for the sake of peace. But the demographic changes over the past two decades have been stark: In 1996, there were 134,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, there are 430,000 settlers in the West Bank, not counting East Jerusalem, which is home to 200,000 Israelis.
Granted, most of the settlers live in large blocs along the 1949 “Green Line” that, in theory, could be incorporated into Israel in return for territorial compensation to the Palestinians in a “final settlement.” But uprooting 8,000 settlers from Gaza was traumatic enough; moving at least 80,000 out of the West Bank would be far harder, especially given the political strength of the settler lobby. The religious right is more powerful in Israeli politics (and the Israeli army) than it was in 1998, while the left is weaker. One result is the recent passage of a “nation-state law” affirming Israel’s Jewish character that has Arabs and Druze fuming that they are second-class citizens.
Among both Israelis and Palestinians, support for a “two-state” solution has waned since 1998. Extremists on both sides imagine they can somehow have the whole shebang to themselves. But it’s hard to imagine how, absent genocide, the Palestinians could gain control of roughly 7 million Jews or how, absent indefinite occupation, the Israelis can continue to control 7 million Palestinians. (The figures are projections for 2020 — and like everything else in the Holy Land, they are disputed.) Just as in 1998, there is still no practical alternative to a Palestinian state, even if that goal appears more distant than ever.
But not all is gloom and doom. One of the most hopeful things I saw on my visit was a matzoh factory in Jerusalem where Palestinian employees happily work alongside Orthodox Jews, showing that, on a human level, coexistence is still possible.