“Israelis don’t want to hear about the two-state solution and peace,” Daniel Meron said. “For now, this is too sensitive. We are feeling too raw. This doesn’t mean the issue won’t come back in a year or two. But for now we are aching, and of course, we are still at war.”
Meron, the deputy director of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was addressing a delegation in Jerusalem consisting of British peers and MPs plus two journalists, one of whom was me. Organised by ELNET, an NGO that promotes ties between Israel and Europe on the basis of our shared interests and values, it proved to be an invaluable opportunity to assess the impact of the October 7 atrocities at close quarters, and to hear from a wide range of Israeli officials in widely differing fields.
I stayed on for several days after the delegation returned home, spending time in both the north and the south, reporting for the JC and talking to everyone I could. Diverse as my interlocutors’ backgrounds were, they all shared the message conveyed by Meron: that for the time being, the trauma experienced throughout Israeli society means serious consideration of the longer-term relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is almost impossible to contemplate.
For me as a reporter, the last three months have been difficult and frustrating. I’ve spent them writing about almost nothing except the Hamas attacks and their aftermath. Israel is a country I know well: I must have been there more than 20 times, but I have spent those months in England, feeling cut off from the unfolding story’s heart. Seeing the country first-hand again has deepened my understanding - and also brought home the depth of its political and psychological wounds.
The leader of the ELNET delegation was the former New Labour policy guru and Cabinet minister Lord Peter Mandelson, to whom it fell as Northern Ireland Secretary to handle the implementation of the historic Belfast Agreement brokered by Tony Blair, which brought Ulster’s Troubles to an end. Central to that, as he pointed out, were a degree of mutual trust, as well as a strong desire by all parties to end the violence.
Alas. Right now in Israel and the Palestinian territories, trust is a quality in short supply.
One of the bitterest aspects of the terrorist attacks is the fact that in Israel, there were no doughtier champions of a negotiated, two-state peace than many of the victims raped and butchered in the kibbutzim around Gaza where the terrorists did their worst.
Some of them were members of an organisation that took Palestinians from the Erez border crossing to medical appointments at Israeli hospitals, and then ferried them back. The kibbutz residents employed and did business with Gazans who had permits to enter Israel, and tried their utmost to promote a sense of a shared Israel-Palestinian community.
Yet it now seems clear that some of those they tried to help repaid them in the worst way imaginable: by gathering intelligence that informed the Hamas attacks, so that when the terrorists stormed the kibbutzim and nearby towns such as Sderot they knew who lived where; when the Sderot police station (where Hamas killed 30 people and the station was destroyed in the subsequent battle) would be most vulnerable, because officers were changing shifts; where they might find women to rape.
One evening, the ELNET group was addressed by the former Blue and White Knesset member Ruth Wasserman-Lande. I’ve known Ruth for years, since she studied in Oxford, and I knew that – as she told the delegation – she had spent years trying to build good relationships and inter-communal organisations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. In every sense she was a moderate, committed to the cause of peace.
But when we heard her speak in Tel Aviv, the phrase “two states” did not pass her lips. Her address was an anguished howl of pain. The terrorists, she said, had dehumanised their victims, and “what I don’t understand is why the world doesn’t get that”.
The conflict, she went on, ultimately stemmed from an evil, jihadist impulse: “We are first but if we lose, the rest of the world will be next. This is a world-domination endeavour, the good guys versus the bad guys.
“There is no good thing about gang-raping a 16-year-old and putting it online. What kind of freedom fighters are we talking about? They don’t want land, they want a Caliphate, and they shame the Islamic religion, because true believers know this is not Islam.”
It’s easy to see why Ruth and millions of other Israelis feel this way. After all, recent polling suggests that as many as 90 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank, rather than Gaza, believe the October atrocities were justified. And the wider world’s denial of some of what Hamas did, notably the organised sexual violence, only makes this worse: as First Lady Michal Herzog told me in a JC interview, it amounts to a total betrayal of Israeli women.
In these circumstances, rebuilding the mutual trust required for negotiating a lasting peace looks near impossible. Here I stress the word “mutual”, for Palestinians will not find it easy to trust an Israel whose campaign in Gaza has led to so much destruction, and the loss of civilian life.
Others I spoke to insisted that in time, trust can be rebuilt. But my advice to Israel’s British and American allies is to be aware how hard this will be. Hamas wanted to make Israelis feel insecure in their own country, to explode the notion that Israel is the world’s safest place for Jews. In this, they largely succeeded, and it is hard to see Israel being ready to negotiate until it is restored.