TEL-AVIV – Although it isn’t instantly apparent, most Israelis seem to be keenly aware that the struggle Americans view as an Israeli-Palestinian issue is, in fact, much larger—which President Bush acknowledged by visiting Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau before the latest “peace summit.”
Talking with a wide range of Israelis in the week immediately preceding Bush’s Middle East visit has proven revealing about the perceived prospects for peace. Israelis with whom I spoke in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv the past few days realize that they are wanted dead by a massive portion of the world—almost all of which surrounds their tiny country. President Bush’s journey to the region has done little to inject ordinary Israelis with a sense of optimism.
Walking down the residential streets of Jerusalem Thursday afternoon and through the business district of Tel Aviv the night before, the atmosphere is one that could be found in Los Angeles or New York. Sitting outside restaurants and nightclubs, people are walking, flirting, laughing. Most of the Tel Aviv delis (or convenience stores, as some Americans would call them) have no fourth wall, conveying an openness that belies the residual anxiety many Israelis feel.
One Israeli, a light, olive-skinned woman in her mid-20’s whose family emigrated here from Yemen, told me that if you are here long enough, you see that not everything is actually copasetic. “Israelis are nervous, but we are allowed to be,” she explains. “I used to live right over there (pointing to an apartment building near the U.S. Embassy, about two blocks in from the Mediterranean Sea). There were three bombings right nearby in the year I lived there.” Just one block from where that conversation occurred is Mike’s Place, the site of a suicide bombing just a month earlier that killed four.
Walking past Mike’s Place now, an observer would see no signs that an attack had taken place—except for the small, makeshift memorial about 15 feet from the entrance. Photos of the victims adorn a small sign that stands about four feet tall. The bar, which is a popular hangout for U.S. Embassy staff (who work next week), was re-built within one week of the April 30 attack. That is common here in Israel. More than anything else, it is a statement of perseverance, a determination that Israel will stand strong in the face of evil.
To an American on his first visit here, Israelis can seem unflappable. But talk to anyone long enough, and emotions ranging from apprehension to angst come to the fore. “What most Jews don’t want to verbalize,” notes an Israeli man who emigrated from the U.S. over twenty years ago, “is that they know, deep down, this is never going to stop.” The high-ranking official in the Jerusalem police force continued, “This has been going on for thousands of years.” At a jazz nightclub in Tel Aviv Thursday night, an American Jew on his fourth visit here said, “The Holocaust was not of a different kind, but of a different degree.” The two Israelis at the table with us nodded solemnly in agreement.
In the United States, parents’ greatest fear for their children is a senseless car accident. Here it is senseless and savagely brutal mass murder. One Israeli father told me told me that he gave his 5-year-old son a cell phone as a way to soothe his nerves. “Sometimes, if my son hasn’t called after he should have arrived at school, I call him up, just to hear his voice.”
Skepticism is the norm on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Almost no one really believes peace is imminent. They’ve been teased with the promise of a truly normal life too many times before. Israelis are, if anything, less amenable to compromise after having been willing to give up so much in the past. Younger Israelis are slightly more sanguine, but it seems superficial, dissipating if the conversation progresses beyond casual chatting. When asked if Bush’s visit would accomplish anything, a 23-year-old Israeli woman who works at a beachfront hotel answered, “I hope so.” After a few minutes, though, she expressed the same sentiment as many others: “Can peace really come? I doubt it.”