TEL AVIV — The Green Line — across which generations of Israelis and Palestinians have fought and haggled — was given its name because the United Nations mediator, Ralph Bunche, used a green pencil to draw the cease-fire boundary in 1949. In the Middle East, arbitrary markings can assume the geographic seriousness of mountain ranges.
The last Israeli prime minister to try drawing outside the lines was Ehud Olmert, who proposed a map in 2008 giving Palestinians control over 94 percent of the occupied territories and half of Jerusalem, along with a plan for joint custodianship of the holy places. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice observed that another Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had been assassinated for less.
Olmert lived; the peace process didn't. Olmert's Palestinian negotiating partner, Abu Mazen, never got to “yes.”
Now the Obama administration — or at least Secretary of State John Kerry — is trying to restart peace talks. So far, this has involved a process to produce a formulation that would allow both sides to sit at the same table. If there is a more substantive policy outcome in the works, it has been effectively hidden from everyone but Kerry.
Israelis of various political stripes admire Kerry's dedication but wonder about this timing. Recent Israeli elections were almost exclusively focused on nation-building at home. Israel is in the midst of a tech-led economic boom. Tel Aviv is a cross between Miami Beach and Palo Alto — and feels very distant (though it isn't by miles) from Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel also is protecting its “villa in the jungle” (Ehud Barak's description) more effectively than most thought possible. The vast security wall is ugly but effective. The Iron Dome and other missile defense systems have proved their worth. The result is the best security situation in Israel's history. But it has encouraged an Iron Dome mentality, in which every national problem appears to have a technical solution. Many Israelis seem content to manage conflict rather than resolve it through negotiations.
The arguments for Israel to define its borders through a two-state settlement remain strong. “Given the history and heritage of the Jewish people,” Olmert says, “we can't occupy forever three or four or five million people without equal rights.” An agreement, he argues, would increase Israeli legitimacy, open global markets and make a Jewish state more demographically sustainable.
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