Dispatch

Rise of the Annexers

In Israel's heated electoral politics, peace is becoming a fringe position.

JERUSALEM — The top story in the Israeli media right now is Barack Obama's blunt warning, transmitted through American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to the Israeli political class. "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are," the U.S. president has said repeatedly, warning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unyielding stance toward the Palestinians was leading the country toward suicidal isolation.

With an election less than a week away, it's safe to say that Israelis disagree. The most ubiquitous campaign banners on billboards and highways are Netanyahu's "A strong prime minister means a strong Israel" and rising star Naftali Bennett's "No to a Palestinian state, yes to The Jewish Home," which is the name of Bennett's extreme right-wing party.

This Israeli campaign has thrown into stark relief the growing rift between how the world and how Israelis view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the world, Israel faces a clear choice -- either go on ruling the Palestinians or meet their demand for independence. Israelis used to agree that this was indeed the dilemma -- in years past, it's what elections were fought over. Not anymore, though.

In the Israeli election campaign that culminates on Jan. 22, the idea of uprooting West Bank settlements, ending the 45-year military occupation, and making way for a Palestinian state has been pushed off center stage. It's now the preserve of marginal candidates in the multiparty electoral system, artist and intellectual types, and the octogenarian figurehead president, Shimon Peres. A new idea has risen to take its place: More than ever, popular voices are calling for Israel to annex the bulk of the West Bank, which is the primary territory of a would-be Palestinian state.

Most of the opposition has seemingly given up on the peace process. Ex-journalist Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, makes virtually no mention of the occupation or the Palestinians, concentrating solely on socioeconomic issues in the hope of attracting right-wing voters. Yair Lapid, a former media star and head of the new Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") party, does the same. Among mainstream candidates, only former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni runs on a peace platform -- but she undercuts her credibility by seemingly angling for a spot in the next government, which, barring the Messiah's arrival, will be led again by Netanyahu, only this time with an even more hard-line, anti-Arab supporting cast. Livni's party, at any rate, is sinking in the polls and is expected to have a negligible presence in the next Knesset.

The reasons for the Israeli peace camp's disintegration are clear. The bus bombings of the Second Intifada killed the public's belief in negotiations; then the rockets from Gaza that followed the 2005 "disengagement" from the strip killed their belief in unilateral withdrawal. As far as the Jewish majority is concerned, that leaves only one solution -- managing the conflict with military force. That is what Netanyahu has done, and he has been able to keep a lid on the situation -- in the four years of his term, Israelis have been almost untouched by political violence. They feel safe, which is more important than anything else -- including the future, which they feel they have no control over anyway.

Fatalism has taken hold among the Israeli public. In a public opinion poll taken at the turn of the new year, Israeli Jews agreed by a 67 percent to 30 percent margin that "no matter which of the large parties wins in the upcoming elections, the peace process with the Palestinians is at a standstill for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel and there is no chance of progress in the foreseeable future."

So much for the public -- but what about their leader? What about Netanyahu's supposed change of heart, dating to his acclaimed 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, when he purportedly broke with a lifetime of opposition to Palestinian statehood by accepting it in principle? It was just a "tactic," Tzipi Hotovely, one of many ultranationalists who've ascended to the top tier of Likud, told a settler newspaper late last month.

Hotovely isn't the only Likudnik to downplay the importance of Netanyahu's remarks. "He didn't speak about a state in the full sense. He spoke about a long list of conditions that he himself says have no chance of being fulfilled in the near future due to the actions of the other side," said Yariv Levin, another rising Likud far-rightist. "Two states for two peoples was never part of [Likud's] election platform," said Education Minister Gideon Saar, yet another Likud ultra.

While no organized political opposition exists, some political figures have tried to make hay over Netanyahu's palpable disdain for cutting a deal with the Palestinians. A "top-ranking statesman" -- widely presumed to be Peres -- told an Israeli newspaper late last month: "The prime minister discounts the entire world. He is not interested in the Palestinians, but this will all blow up in our faces."

Netanyahu, however, has batted away such criticisms by pointing to the tumultuous events gripping the Middle East. After Peres later delivered the same message on the record, though in more diplomatic terms, the premier responded by noting the upheavals in Egypt and Syria as well as Hamas's takeover of Gaza, warning that Hamas could do the same in the West Bank, thereby establishing a "third outpost for Iranian terrorism."

"Therefore," Netanyahu said, "as opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions, [and] withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste."

But Israeli politics abhors a vacuum, especially during election season, so a new "solution" has been run up the flag pole -- annexation. This plan involves making "Area C" -- the patchwork of territory that makes up nearly 62 percent of the West Bank and surrounds the 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- a legal part of the state of Israel. The roughly 50,000 Palestinians living in Area C would be offered Israeli citizenship, including the right to vote.

As for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the remaining 38-plus percent of the West Bank, they wouldn't be offered Israeli citizenship -- but they would get "autonomy" and would be allowed to run their lives without overt interference from Israel. The Jewish state, however, would retain sovereignty over the area, including military control, just in case the Palestinians didn't go along with the program. As for the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, they would go on living under Israeli blockade, cut off from the West Bank.

"It will abolish the claims of those who accuse us of apartheid," says Jewish Home's Bennett, the rising star of this election campaign, in a video about the plan. His envisioned map of Palestinian autonomy, however, recalls nothing so much as old South Africa's bantustans.

Bennett wasn't the first to warm to this idea: He was preceded by several powerful Likudniks who have been publicly pushing for partial or gradual annexation of the West Bank over the last year. One of them is soon-to-be Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, who turned up at a well-attended New Year's Day conference on annexation to suggest yet another creative solution to the conflict -- offer each Palestinian family in the West Bank $500,000 to emigrate.

Netanyahu is a milquetoast liberal among this crowd. The prime minister is not a member of the annexation camp -- it's inconceivable that he would provoke the international community in this way, especially when the world wouldn't recognize the annexation of the West Bank any more than it does Israel's annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And why should Netanyahu court international outrage when Israel has long been engaged in the quiet, "creeping annexation" of Area C by means of settlement expansion and destruction of Palestinian homes?

So though this brain wave of Bennett and the Likud radicals is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon, it may plant the seeds for future conflicts with the world, which is already losing patience with Israeli intransigence. It doesn't seem Obama will have reason to change his gloomy assessment of the powers that be in Jerusalem anytime soon.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Dispatch

France vs. Lance

The French aren't surprised by the fall of America's cycling hero. They knew he was cheating all along.

PARIS — Just two weeks before France learned that Lance Armstrong would confess his sins to Oprah Winfrey, readers of the popular French journalism and investigation website Rue89.com elected the Texan as "The Sports Bastard of the Year." In an open race, he won easily, with more than 40 percent of the vote.

Still, that selection may say more about Rue89's edgy readers than general sentiments here toward Armstrong. It isn't that the French were ever particularly fond of the seven-time Tour de France winner, but feelings here are, well, a little complicated. For one, a singularly focused, supremely confident, and utterly doubt-free American was always going to stand out in a country known for endless self-questioning, philosophical debate, and world-weary skepticism. And, yeah, he once inspired questions about a changing world in which an American could so thoroughly dominate a race long led by Europeans. But the main issue was something else: A whole lot of French people wanted to believe in Armstrong's cancer recovery-to-Tour-triumph storyline, but just couldn't bring themselves to do so.

So now, as word spreads that the man who transformed the world's most prestigious cycling race into the Tour de Lance, is finally coming (sort of) clean, there is a measure of vindication. But unlike the 'Say it ain't so, Lance' reaction of Armstrong's remaining die-hard fans in the United States, the response here has really been: Mais, bien sûr!

Daniel Baal, the former president of the French Cycling Federation and a former Tour de France organizer, put it this way: "In 1999, some of us had our doubts. But we couldn't prove it." That changed when the French sports daily L'Equipe published a devastating investigative report in 2005. "The Armstrong myth was finished," Baal explained, adding, "For me, the Armstrong page was turned long ago."

That said, the French attitude toward Armstrong is more complex than simple schadenfreude. The years of Armstrong's dominance were part-nightmare -- a cheater was winning and getting away with it -- but they also had dreamy elements. His heroic narrative, straight out of Hollywood, in so many ways, broadened the popularity of a race that projects France's natural wonders around the world. (In other words, Armstrong's success brought further glory for France.)

Yet that same Hollywood narrative, and Armstrong's superhuman performance, made many French people suspect that they were watching a fictional tale. The French watch tons of big-budget Americans films, and the early Armstrong narrative was a perfect fit. Too perfect, in fact -- and that inspired disbelief. (The French may watch such clean storylines on celluloid or on their televisions, but they rarely fully give themselves over the way that most people do in other countries, largely because they have a hard time believing that the world can be simple.) And as each Tour de Lance sequel ended the same way, with Armstrong atop the winner's podium, it only re-enforced the impression that none of this was possible, especially in a sport already marred by near-constant doping scandals. But Armstrong's acknowledgement, after all this time, is a reminder of how deeply France's race was tainted.

Interestingly, the clearest sense of vindication does not come from normal French people or even riding fans; it comes from the French media, who have been doggedly pursuing the story for years, producing books with titles like L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong and The Great Imposter: One Tour Too Many.

French journalists on the Armstrong beat faced relentless attacks from Armstrong, his teammates, and his PR reps. They were asked: What sort of an asshole suggests that a guy recovering from cancer would put his body at further risk by doping just to win a bicycle race? Other French reporters were told, during Armstrong's "miracle" race of 1999, that their suspicions about the American were the "jealousies of old Europe." (See Armstrong's good friend Robin Williams breaking out his best Pépé le Pew accent to mock suspicious French fans in this 2002 interview with Jon Stewart.)

The headlines in recent days have been merciless. A Jan. 17 article in Libération, which has relentlessly pursued the story for years, ran under the title: "Armstrong: Me, doped? Never!" Accompanying articles highlight how the Texan would bring up his cancer to defend himself, not to mention his efforts to humiliate or destroy the credibility of those who accused him, whether other cyclists, race officials, or reporters.

The "Me, doped? Never!" article goes on to note that while Americans seems to relish public confessions of wrongdoing, Armstrong's lies may have lasted too long and gone too far to allow him back into society's good graces. As a reader, it is easy to get the impression that the journalist is rooting for just that result. But the French, like Baal, have largely moved on, and they have largely viewed the confession with a troubled fascination that they apply to the notably American ritual of televised confessions for public figures caught in wrongdoing.

People here are full of questions: Will Americans forgive their deceiver? Could Armstrong go to prison, whether for obstructing justice or lying under oath? How many millions will the fallen hero have to pay to those who he has wronged (like sponsors and those he has sued in the past)? But it is the story of human betrayal that likely fascinates people here most: Will a man who long succeeded thanks to a team of people dedicated to protecting his epic deception now turn on his own helpers?

French communications expert Olivier Cimelière offered a French perspective on the Texan's rehabilitation effort to Francetvinfo.fr: "Lance Armstrong no longer had a choice. This was his last shot, to limit the damage, by betting on redemption, which is very strong in American culture." But Cimelière believes there is hope for Armstrong. "When I worked for Nestlé Waters, we did polling before sponsoring the Tour de France," Cimelière said. "We realized that the majority of people didn't care about doping scandals. It is the show that interests them. Those people will easily forgive Armstrong."

Interestingly, that analysis may also apply to some prominent figures in France's political class. The very conservative former minister of the interior, Claude Guéant -- who was, until May, France's austere top cop -- told a journalist on the Canal Plus television channel recently that "despite the doping, I cannot keep myself from admiring him, because cycling is an extremely hard, demanding sport."

Guéant's former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, may well feel the same way. Sarkozy, a cycling aficionado himself, repeatedly lauded Armstrong's drive and effort, and the two men also shared a personal friendship. Then-President Sarkozy even quipped during a 2009 lunch with Armstrong at the Elysée presidential palace that "even Asterix takes a magic potion" -- a kind of weirdly prescient apology for the American cycling star. (Armstrong also gave the French president a $7,000 racing bike. Sarkozy has often been filmed proudly riding alongside his bodyguards, family, and celebrity friends.)

The former head of state has not entirely escaped the Armstrong fallout. In an article published in September 2012, Le Nouvel Observateur reported that Armstrong had told Pierre Bordry, when he was the head of the French Agency for the Battle Against Doping, that he could call his "personal friend" -- then-President Sarkozy -- to get Bordry fired for harassing him. The anti-doping official sought clarification from the presidential palace and got no response. He later resigned. Armstrong's confession is likely to bring more attention to the role of many enablers, including an array of powerful friends.

In the meantime, in something of a quirk, the hashtag #jeudiconfession (Jeudi means Thursday) trended throughout France in the run up to the Oprah broadcast. Most were cute admissions that had nothing to do with the Tour de France, along the lines of "I'm in love with my phone," or "I wish today were Friday." Some were only slightly more serious: "I have a hard time projecting myself into the future, and that makes girls run away."

Armstrong hadn't yet tweeted any confessions. But here in France, a few people have begun to tweet them in his name, or about him. One, by someone using the handle "Quelqu'un," involved a plausible prediction: "Forget about it, tomorrow this hashtag is reserved for @LanceArmstrong."

George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images