TEL-AVIV — “It’s not just the Palestinians. It’s Syria, it’s Lebanon, it’s Iran, it’s Saudi Arabia.” The old Israeli man had wanted to know what an American thought about “this whole thing,” by which I gathered he meant the peace process — and this is the response I got when I tried to give some banal answer about Palestinians and Israelis maybe finding some room for “compromise.”
Although it isn’t instantly apparent, most Israelis seem to be keenly aware that the struggle most Americans view as an Israeli-Palestinian issue is, in fact, much larger. Israelis with whom I’ve spoken in the past few days, in both Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, realize that they are wanted dead by a massive portion of the world — almost all of which surrounds their tiny country. President Bush’s visit to the region this week has done little to infuse ordinary Israelis with a sense of optimism.
In the residential streets of Jerusalem Thursday afternoon, and in the business district of Tel-Aviv the night before, I found the kind of atmosphere you might expect 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, suggesting an openness that belies the residual anxiety many Israelis feel.
One Israeli, a light, olive-skinned woman in her mid 20s whose family emigrated here from Yemen, told me the look of it can be deceiving. “Israelis are nervous, but we are allowed to be,” she explains. “I used to live right over there” — she pointed 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 we talked is Mike’s Place, the site of a suicide bombing just a month ago that killed four.
Walking past Mike’s Place now, an observer would see no clues 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, four-foot-tall sign. The bar, which is a popular hangout for U.S. embassy staff (who work in the building just behind it), was rebuilt within one week of the April 30 attack. That is common here in Israel. More than anything else, it is a statement of perseverance — of the Israelis’ determination to stand strong in the face of evil.
To an American on his first visit, 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 20 years ago, “is that they know, deep down, this is never going to stop.” The man, who is a high-ranking official in the Jerusalem police force, added: “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.
At a meeting with several Sharon advisers Thursday, there were platitudes about how maybe peace might actually happen this time. Palestinian Authority prime minister Mahmoud Abbas arrived at prime minister Sharon’s office building just minutes after I left; perhaps that kind of face-to-face contact — which is simply not possible with Arafat — was what spurred the cautious optimism of some of the advisers. When asked if Arafat was still calling the shots — a reasonable question, given that Arafat loyalists still dominate the PA power structure — one adviser responded, “He is not a puppet. Give him time,” he added, “and he might control things and do what Arafat could not.” But the Sharon aides who seemed more honest — though all would only speak on the condition of anonymity — were resigned to yet another process that will produce little more than false hope.
Right on the beachfront, just minutes from my hotel, is the Dolphinarium, which used to be a popular nightclub for the city’s teenagers. Just before midnight on June 1, 2001, a young Palestinian was standing in line, talking to the young girls waiting to get inside for a party. Without warning, he squeezed the trigger inside his hand — and the lives of 17 people were ended. Four more people died at the hospital. These victims were children. Mostly recent immigrants from Russia, they were almost all young girls ranging in age from 14 to 21. Only three of those murdered would have been old enough to buy a beer in America.
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 five-year-old son a cell phone in an effort to soothe his own nerves. “Sometimes, if my son hasn’t called after he should have arrived at school, I call him up, just to hear his voice.”
At the two-year anniversary ceremony Sunday night, more than 100 people crowded around the memorial, with lit candles and mourning mothers expressing emotions that in many ways might be as raw as two years ago. With the boarded-up building in the background, the obvious anguish wasn’t the only reminder of the devastation wrought by a single murderer. As hard as Israelis try to carry on with everyday life, the still-closed Dolphinarium is a tacit acknowledgement that not everything can go back to the way it was.
Skepticism is the norm on the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. Almost no one really believes peace is imminent. They’ve been teased too many times before with the promise of a truly normal life. Israelis are, if anything, less amenable to compromise because of having been willing to give up so much in the past. Younger Israelis are slightly more sanguine — but it seems superficial, dissipating once the conversation progresses beyond casual chatting. When asked if Bush’s visit next week will accomplish anything, a 23-year-old Israeli woman who works at a hotel near the beachfront said, “I hope so.” But after a few minutes she expressed the same sentiment I’ve heard from many others here: “Can peace really come? I doubt it.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.