Traveling through the West Bank two weeks ago, I drove from Hebron to Bethlehem, through Ramallah and up to Nablus. What you see is a region racked by soaring unemployment among Palestinian youths and an economy sapped by the security measures imposed by Israel and Yasser Arafat. What you see are growing Israeli settlements around Jerusalem and new Israeli roads dissecting the West Bank more than ever. What you see is a grim picture - and I couldn't be more optimistic.
That's right. Because if you look at the surface conditions in the West Bank today you could only conclude that all the ingredients are there for an explosion. But it's not exploding. In fact, in an odd way it's sort of quiet. There's a story in that quiet.One explanation is that while the West Bank is still a complicated, sometimes messy weave of Israeli and Palestinian police, roads and areas of control, the fact that Palestinian institutions are now increasingly running Palestinian lives is a real calming factor. I was driving out of Bethlehem the other day with a Palestinian journalist, Khaled Abu Aker, and we went the wrong way down a one-way street. A uniformed Palestinian policeman stopped us. Khaled jumped out of his car and started shouting back at the policeman, saying that he was in a hurry and needed to go the wrong way. That was not a discussion he would have ever had with Israeli soldiers. In the end, the Palestinian policeman calmly prevailed and we turned around. But Khaled almost seemed to enjoy the encounter. Palestinians have never really had the luxury of shouting at their own policemen.
Another explanation for the relative calm is that the peace process has worked. It has forged a Palestinian silent majority that believes the peace negotiations, with all their shortcomings, are generally moving in the right direction and deserve a little patience. Save for the extremist fringe, Palestinians in the West Bank are deliberately being quiet now to help Shimon Peres get re-elected - cooperation that would have been unthinkable five years ago.