Viewed in the crystalline light of this mid-March day, Israel could reasonably be expected to betray some alarm. Instability stalks its borders, from Lebanon in the north to Egypt in the south. Civil war rages in next-door Syria, with the fighting – it is said – visible from the Golan. And for six weeks, until yesterday, it was without a government after an election that was unusually fragmented even by its own fractious standards.
Despite all this, the country that Barack Obama will visit next week for the first time as US President exudes an air of calm. Perhaps for the first time in the history of modern Israel, an election was fought on domestic economic and social issues, rather than national security or the Palestinians. That hitherto pervasive question – the future of the peace process – was relegated to the sidelines.
The official word is that Obama’s visit will change nothing. Both sides have spent weeks playing down expectations: the President will come to listen, he will bring no new initiative; at best, he will restore Israeli trust in Washington’s continued engagement.
Impressions and official indications, though, may be deceptive, as – more certainly – is the air of calm. Israeli voters might have turned their gaze inward; they might be cynical, after all these years, about the prospects for peace. But a case can be made that this election result, with its quite unexpected turn to the political centre, coupled with the huge and historic shifts sweeping the region, just might offer a now-or-never opportunity.
Yesterday, none other than Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, spelt out themes which others would discuss only off the record. What had begun, he said, was “a very deep and fundamental change” that was social, economic, religious and ethnic, and would have a real and long-term impact on the region as a whole. “The reaction and counter-reaction,” he said, “have only just begun.”
Another senior military man had spoken of “being in the middle of a storm whose outcome we cannot know”, of “Turkey, Iran and Egypt still playing out their ancient contest for control of the region”, of being caught up in changes that could last many, many years.
For me, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the profound sense of accountability shown by many of those in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s as communism collapsed across Europe, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union imploded. The depth of the uncertainty was similar, as was the apprehension, and the awareness that one rash step could spark a conflagration. The arrogance of power was replaced by a modesty rare in politicians and a genuine desire, if at all possible, to do the right thing.
There are many reasons why the Middle East is already less fortunate than Europe in the scale of the death and destruction that has been caused – and the mayhem that probably still lies ahead. But the understanding of the risk that one incautious move could entail at such a perilous time was a small positive after all the rhetorical threat and bombast of the past year.
Which is also why it is just possible that the next few months – but probably no longer – may offer a tiny opportunity for an advance in that concept that already sounds obsolete: the Middle East peace process. Amid all the big-picture uncertainty, here is something already well-rehearsed, which seems to have a solution that seems relatively feasible and contained.
As the surprising election result shows, there is a majority in Israel in favour of what is known as the “two-state solution” – Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side in peace. There is also a belief in some quarters that the way the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions have turned sour may encourage Palestinians to look at their prospects in a new light. Above all, though, there is a sense that the changes in train will so alter the region that if the moment is not grasped, it will be gone.
It can be argued that Israel will never accept a fully sovereign Palestinian state as its neighbour, that the likely borders of a new Palestine will make it unviable, and that it might be preferable to abandon the whole outdated concept and see what cards the Palestinians are dealt in a new Middle East. To conjure with those arguments, however, is not to deny that – for reasons largely out of his control – Obama may have the narrowest of opportunities to achieve what has eluded at least five American presidents. He has been a fortunate politician. He can afford to try his luck one more time.