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Obama in Israel’s New World

PARIS – Now that Binyamin Netanyahu has formed a new Israeli government out of a dizzying kaleidoscope of possible post-election permutations, has the country’s politics moved to the center? US President Barack Obama would be wrong to think so as he prepares for his first official visit.

The unexpected second-place finish of Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party in the recent election has certainly changed the complexion of the government: the two leading Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are out, while two smaller centrist parties, Kadima and Hatnua, are in. But those who breathed a sigh of relief at the weakening of Netanyahu’s Likud and the country’s extreme right-wing parties should be as anxious as ever.

The political horse-trading is over for the time being, and the outcome seems assured. Netanyahu will return as Prime Minister, and every party – in power or not – is ready to block, dilute, or paper over whatever policies the new government manages to adopt. In Israel, the question nowadays is not whether the center will hold, but whether it matters.

In both domestic and in international terms, Israel has not so much moved to the center as it has embraced a new type of national consensus that began to emerge in 2011. In May-June of that year, while the international community was still mooting potential land swaps for an increasingly distant peace settlement with the Palestinians, Israelis were focusing on a domestic battle over the regulation of cottage cheese.

The new consensus was best symbolized by the massive popular protests that erupted two months later, bringing together young, economically frustrated, mainly middle-class Israelis who might once have been politically divided by their allegiance to either the center-left Labor party or Netanyahu’s Likud. No mention was made, then or now, of the need for peace initiatives; of the state of mind of the now-invisible (to Israeli eyes) Palestinians, now relegated to their side of the security wall; or of the growing inequalities that separate Israel’s Arab citizens from their Jewish counterparts.

By representing the aspirations of middle class Israelis seeking a better economic deal, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett of the nationalist Jewish Home party became the two sides of a newly minted political coin, one backed by an inward-looking ethnic and national identity in a country that sees itself as alone in the world. This identity may be secular or religious; it may seek middle-class normality or proclaim an Israeli version of manifest destiny – the two are not incompatible. Either way, the country no longer resonates with the expectations, hopes, and fears of a world still focused (ever more dimly) on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nor does Israel listen to the anguish of its own Ciceronian Zionists, perhaps best represented by the novelist Amos Oz. Israel has simply stopped seeking to reconcile its Jewish identity with its commitment to democracy, for it has stopped addressing the contradiction that the Israeli-Palestinian question represents.

Simply put, that contradiction is no longer relevant to the new Israel. Despite the deep economic frustrations of many of its middle-class citizens (the truly indigent did not protest), Israel has become a global economic and military powerhouse. The country increasingly lives in its own virtual reality, simultaneously proximate to and far removed from the revolutionary pre-modernity of most of its neighbors.

Indeed, Israel is now on an equal footing with all of the rising new powers of an increasingly globalized world. Few of them are democracies, and not one of them holds Israel to task for its settlement policies in the West Bank or cares, like the United States, about Middle East peace. Why should Israel continue to focus on a weakened West that is constantly reprimanding it when the rest of the world beckons?

Nor does the old secular/religious divide have much salience anymore. Israel has become post-modern, producing new – and sometimes startling – synergies among its avant-garde high-tech sensibility, its secular and ever more orthodox religious identities, and its overall ethno-nationalist outlook. Its ancient biblical past can now coexist seamlessly with its ultra-modern present. Israel’s new millionaires can easily live in far-flung settlements in “Judea and Samaria” and commute daily to their coastal startups.

And the army has already become the purview of nationalistic and religious cadres, even without conscription of the ultra-orthodox – one of the centrist camp’s demands in pressing for fairer national burden-sharing. As a result, the Israeli state seems to be moving closer to its Asian counterparts, with their emphasis on economic innovation and their indifference to universal values or, for that matter, peace.

Israel is now proud to be in a world of its own, in which it feels free to act unilaterally and scoff at toothless criticism from Europe (and now partly from the US). There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s new government will seek to revive the increasingly feeble and moribund peace process, beyond offering verbal promises and inconsequential half-measures.

Nor should anyone expect a moratorium on settlement expansion. On the contrary, the settlements offer cheaper housing than is available in Israel, and thus resolve one of the main economic problems of the country’s middle class.

“Red lines” in Israel have a way of mutating into lines drawn in the sand, which are then rendered invisible at the slightest wind. The new government’s fragile equilibrium only reinforces this sober interpretation.

In Israel, Obama will encounter a country that has indeed moved, but not toward a missing center. It has moved into its own orbit.