President Obama's visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank and speech to the Israeli people left a serious impression on some, while others thought it well constructed but suitably vague - while the reality of Israel and Palestine is a far more testing situation.
Over the past few years, attitudes towards Israel have shifted considerably both from within and abroad. When Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, decided to market the city as a destination gay hotspot four years ago, it paid dividends immediately from the point of view of increased trade and a different kind of story that usually goes told about Israel. Tel Aviv has subsequently superseded New York and even Sydney as a gay destination, and it is expected that visitors will double by 2014, from 50,000 to 100,000. While many in Israel lamented that the world often discussed it only in terms of religion and war, here was a marketing dream for some. With the tech industry so important also, Tel Aviv can often seem like a world away to Jerusalem, where religion, tradition, history and culture are far more prominently obvious.
The division within Israel, between the religious groups, settler communities and the secular Israelis -- as well as the demographic divisions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi -- and more recently Russian immigrants -- makes for a far more complex and complicated reading than is sometimes portrayed internationally. That is why on some issues, such as young people questioning the institution of marriage, the script can read like a re-run of other western nations, whereas Israeli can be far more cantankerous, as Jon Stewart pointed out on his show, much more challenging than often is the debate when it is had in the United States.
I decided to interview a number of people living in Israel and asked them all the same very particular questions: What did they think about President Obama's comments on Benjamin Netanyahu and "Israeli interests" just prior to the election? To what extent did the protests in 2011 about socio-economic issues have an impact on the results? When the world (and many living in Israel) all expected a big "shift to the Right" with Likud-Beitenu, why did this not quite happen? Is this the end of old style Ha'Avoda (Labour)? What is the impact of the changing landscape in the Middle East? What does this mean for the peace process? Finally, and certainly the most difficult question of all, what is the future for Israel?
Twenty-three-year-old Nir Kaplen works in the media sector, and told me he was surprised at the results. He voted for Ha'Avoda (Labour) but this was "a default choice" because while he did not agree with all their views, he wanted to vote Left. He told me that a problem with the Left was that it was too vague, but the shift to the Right didn't happen because "People are sick of the Right, they feel betrayed by Likud. No one will define the last four years as positive. Not economically. Not in security. Taxes are too high and the rich are getting richer, while the poor get poorer..."
Kaplen said that he quite liked Yesh Atid (There is a Future) but that they were "afraid to annoy anyone" and really that made them a "plastic Party, who want to be 'okay' with everyone, even if they don't agree with them." He was more optimistic now, compared to six months ago when he was "very pessimistic that we were headed... for very dark times," although he said of Gaza "We feel totally isolated from the rest of the world."
The big winner in the largest electoral turnout since 1999 was the newcomer Yesh Atid, headed up by former presenter and Israeli film star Yair Lapid, garnering 19 seats in the Knesset. Nitzan Peled is an almost-30-year-old sports journalist who voted for Yesh Atid. He told me: "I thought about voting for Yachimovich, but if I voted for her she'd only be in opposition, rather than someone on the inside. She'd be... yelling 'Bibi you're wrong' like Kadima did for the past four years."
Peled was keen to impress upon me that he is very concerned with how Israel is seen in the world, and that Netanyahu and Lieberman acted "like only what they think counts, not anyone else," and that Yesh Atid would be different because "there's a mixture of Left and Right, old and new, like a soccer team with players from all over," and he hoped Lapid would "put his foot down with Bibi and Lieberman".
It is striking how many people voted for parties that they did not necessarily believe entirely or even particularly believe in. An older voter living in the north, who asked to remain anonymous (I shall refer to as 'Daniel'), told me he voted for Tzipi Livni's HaTnuah (The Movement), but that it was a "real swallow" to do so. He thought the 2011 protest on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv was immensely important, however he became most animated when discussing President Obama's comments in the run up to the election. He told me:
"Obama is enormously unpopular in Israel... Almost all Israelis misread American society -- they (Israelis) don't have a clue and tend to project Israeli values and culture on to Americans and expect them to interpret issues in the same way. They are abysmally ignorant of American history. The average Israeli knows nothing about American-Israeli relations, very few would have read Michael Oren's book for instance."
Daniel told me that he remained optimistic when thinking about events such as Nixon's role in China or Ariel Sharon making peace despite "being an old man."
Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) is seen by many as an ultra-nationalist and ultra conservative Party based on the merging of Moledet (a religious Zionist Party) and Tkuma in 2008 (from which most former Moledet members subsequently broke away). Although Michael (not his real name) voted for Habayit, he does not think they are so Right wing. "Bibi, who knows how to use the media to present them as extreme Right... remember, their previous name was Maftal and they also sat in government when the Left was in charge," he told me.
This underlines the complicated nature of Israeli government-forming. Michael is keen to explain to me that he thinks "it is great that (Yesh Atid) is in the Knesset" and that he is "absolutely optimistic" about the future of Israel and shares much of the outlook with the Left when it comes to issues regarding housing prices, wages, distribution and the like, however "From a social point of view the Left is very good... but on the conversation with the Palestinians -- that is where the Right connects with Israelis and the Left cannot."
He continued, "When we gave back the Gaza strip in '05 '06, all the people said 'Okay it will be much easier now -- perfect.' What happened was the opposite. They used the Gaza strip to shoot missiles to the center and south of Israel. People realized that giving them more area won't stop them from firing on us. I voted because of security."
I ask Michael how he thinks the world sees Israel today.
"As long as the UN is controlling the main media, nothing will change. Israelis say that the UN is not relevant any more. It is a big problem -- how people see Israel outside."
To many people internationally, the media is often held responsible for shaping understanding of situations. It is certainly the case that international opinion has shifted further regarding Israel -- so that it often seems acceptable to say things about Israel using language that would not be permissible in other contexts. Not so long ago, during the Cold War when national liberation struggles occurred, the language was one of an aspiration towards autonomy and freedom and against control by others.
It was in this context that the Palestinian liberation struggle discussed its opposition to the Israeli State -- and to Zionism as a political outlook. However, the collapse of politics and "the end of ideology" led to a dumbing down of political discourse, and with that, an implosion seems to have occurred whereby many think it acceptable to simply blame "Jews" and "Arabs" -- as though politics were irrelevant, and it was something inherent within certain "peoples." The old European Left seems to be particularly keen to do what Zionists used to accuse everyone of doing, unfairly at the time -- but now imploding into anti-Semitism. This is particularly resonant as far as the issue of the West Bank and Gaza goes. Also, re-branding Palestinians simply as "victims" -- aside from being patronizing -- ends up making it a therapeutic discussion rather than one of statehood and autonomy for citizens.
Ahmad Tibi is the leader of Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal), the largest Arab Party in Israel and is seen by some as a controversial figure -- one who is very clear about his opinion on what identity means today in Israel. He told me:
"It is very uneasy to be an Arabic Palestinian in Israel -- and very unpleasant to be an Arabic Palestinian in the Israeli Parliament. There is no equality in any walk of life, not in industry, in agriculture, education, for youth, sport, employment or infrastructure. There is a gap of two decades between Arab villages and Jewish settlements. This is due to discrimination in the allocation of infrastructure and against the Arab sector."
Mr. Tibi told me that he believed it was a "glorious victory" for Yair Lapid, and that he thought Mr Lapid was "very determined in the need to proceed with the peace process." However, "Palestinian President M. Abbas will not accept the same style of negotiations -- of photo ops -- without a clear timetable. There is a new legal situation now. Palestine is now legally recognized in the UN -- those settlements are illegal and should be stopped. What happened in the past will not happen again. Netanyahu should agree to the 1967 borders."
Tibi went on to say "If there is no two state solution, there will be a one state solution, which will be a nightmare for some Israelis." I ask him what he means by a one state solution and how he sees the future and he tells me he sees three possible options, one is, "There will be no Palestine beside Israel -- and there will be no Israel in the future... This is in the direct interest of Israelis to have one nation. The second is a two state solution, but if Netanyahu bans development and the UN then the first will succeed. The third is status quo."
Tibi recognizes that some Palestinians also see the situation as terminal, although what he sees as the most glaring contradiction in Israeli society currently is that "Israel is described as a Jewish and a democratic state. If you are democratic, that is for all. But if you are defined ethnically, that means Jewish is superior to Arab citizens... It is democratic towards Jews but it is Jewish towards Arabs."
He concedes this is complicated and enormously difficult to create a two-state solution, let alone a single one -- although then says it is the only chance he would have to become Prime Minister. I am reminded of some of the other people I have spoken to who reinforced the glaring sentiment of hopelessness among some. Moshe (changed name) lives in Jerusalem and he told me,
"I think that we can no longer maintain our Apartheid policy in the territories. Something must change, because Israel can't stand an international economic boycott ... and I think Obama lost patience... that doesn't mean there is going to be peace. Peace requires two sides, and I don't know the real intentions of the Palestinians. But something must move."
Natan, (not his real name) is 29 and voted Yesh Atid. He is an Information Technology consultant who lives north of Tel Aviv. He told me:
"With the Palestinian conflict, it is all about good partners. I'm not sure if Netanyahu, or Abbas are good partners. I think all of us want to live our lives. We don't want redundant aggression ... just the terms are not right at the moment. But, yes,they will be at some point in the future ... We are not going to exterminate each other. There has to be a solution."
What is certainly clear is that there seems to be a weariness about the potential for a real, long-lasting resolution to the issues of territory and nationhood. It was a smart and cosmopolitan journalist in Tel Aviv, funnily enough, that summed up a sentiment that seems to epitomize a broader loss of direction and disillusionment:
"People in Israel, and also in Palestine, are so exhausted with years of trying to realize what the hell is going on in this process that no one -- on both sides -- really believe that things will change. Except for Tzipi Livni (eho got only six seats in the Knesset), no one was talking about the peace process. People think that it is too complicated to solve and that Israel has so many inner problems that are more important to start with -- the achievement of Yesh Atid is the most important sign of that. I think that the religious and economic class conflicts are more important now for the citizens... but not everyone here is in to politics. Most of them just want to live their life quietly..."
Since the elections there has been an air strike on Syrian territory and of course, President Obama's visit and warning to Iran. There will surely be hopes and anticipation, however the Israel of today is clearly fraught with many of the problems that affect and impact other western nations -- but of course it is exceptional because of the contested nature of Zionism, the ongoing question of what a Palestine should actually be and look like -- and what it means for everyone in the region.
Israel still embodies so many of the contradictions and challenges of a nation forged in a previous era. While there is some enthusiasm for Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, it remains to be seen how many of these core issues will be resolved. Obama will move on and John Kerry will visit, but the crisis of politics and ideas that goes to the heart of our "post-ideological" (or pre-political) period means that for the time being, the debate about Israel and Palestine is conducted in very limiting terms. Simply vilifying Israelis or patronizing Palestinians as victims, rather than agents of potential change will only continue to hold back any progressive change in the region.