Jerusalem — Israel’s malls were packed this week with Jewish and Arab shoppers gearing up for Rosh HaShanah and Eid al Fitr, the culmination of Ramadan. Parents tried their best to rein in boisterous kids while shopping for new clothes, traditional holiday foods and heaping gift baskets.
Gazing at the frenetic scene, one would think that Israelis had nothing more to worry about than whether to cook a lamb or a brisket.
In reality, people here have a great deal to worry about, but many are making a conscious effort this holiday season to dwell more on what’s good in their lives and less on the renewed peace negotiations or the Hebron terror attacks.
“Things could be better, but they could be worse, too,” said an Arab Jerusalemite named Rana who was trying to cajole her children into trying on holiday outfits at the Malcha Mall. “The wall separates us from our family in the West Bank and I doubt whether we’ll ever really have peace. But Jerusalem is safer than it’s been in a long time, so we’re trying to focus on our family and the feast.”
Masters at compartmentalizing, Israelis are at once optimistic about their economy, which is continuing to grow despite some recessionary signs, and the relatively secure security situation. Still living in the afterglow of summer vacation, and with the holidays upon them, many people have been too busy, or just plain reluctant, to spoil the mood by tuning into the news.
While a March 2010 opinion poll showed that peace with the Palestinians is the top priority for Arab citizens of Israel, only 8 percent of the Jews polled had similar sentiments. Most Jews said they were more concerned with the state of the nation’s education system, crime, national security and poverty. The Palestinians came in fifth place.
An article entitled “Why Israelis Don’t Care About Peace” in the Sept. 2 edition of Time magazine quoted the aforementioned poll as proof that Israelis no longer share the Obama administration’s preoccupation with a two-state solution, partly because they’re too busy living the good life.
“In the week that three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at the White House to begin a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer,” the article said.
Time’s reporter came to this conclusion by hanging out on an Israeli beach. Monitoring Israeli Facebook accounts would have revealed a more complex picture.
While countless Israelis have been sharing a flash mob dance clip from — where else — the beach on their Facebook pages, many more entries have been devoted to the pros and cons of the Netanyahu/Abbas meeting in Washington, and to the eight children orphaned by the terror attack timed just before the peace summit.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA center at Bar Ilan University, insists that Israelis care deeply about peace but, based on past experience, have little faith in the current round of negotiations.
“Yes, we live a good life because we’re a successful society, despite not having peace. That’s the greatness of Israeli society and Israeli resilience,” Inbar said.
At the same time, Inbar said, “there is very deep disappointment with what the Arab world has offered us. So many years after the peace agreement with Egypt, it’s a cold peace, and there has been a similar development in Jordan. Israelis really do not feel welcome in these places. They realize peace isn’t around the corner, especially with the Palestinians.”
In a Dahaf poll conducted for the Knesset Channel just prior to the summit, only 36 percent of Jewish Israelis said they believe that there is a chance to obtain “a comprehensive peace in the next few years. Sixty percent said there is no chance, while 4 percent didn’t voice an opinion.
In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, acknowledges Israeli fears, even among those who are willing to trade land for peace.
“’How can Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas be our partner for peace if he doesn’t control Gaza and Hamas is so powerful?’ and ‘What is the purpose of reaching an agreement with Abbas only regarding the West Bank — are we now talking about three states for two peoples?’”
“These [are] the question[s] people ask me every time I assert that peace is possible and that an agreement is within reach,” Baskin writes. The answer, he says, is to give Palestinians “a clear choice between the end of the occupation and the creation of a state in the West Bank as opposed to the continued repressive regime and no hope offered by Hamas.”
Baskin and others on the political left are convinced that the Palestinian public will reject Hamas only after Israel removes many more roadblocks, extends the building freeze, provides Palestinians with greater authority over additional land and uproots a significant number of settlers.
Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Argov Center at Bar Ilan University, thinks Netanyahu might be able to deliver some of these demands without endangering his coalition if he can convince the public that security will not be compromised.
“The settlements aren’t the big issue for most Israelis. The future of Jerusalem and refugees are,” Rynhold asserted. “There’s a difference between dismantling settlements and retaining security control over the Jordan Valley and maintaining the [security] barrier.”
Perhaps, but even many politically moderate Israelis and Palestinians can’t seem to envision a scenario that will bring true peace.
“I don’t think there will ever be peace,” said 24-year-old Mohammed Salima from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, taking a break from planting trees in a new park in West Jerusalem. “The authorities check our IDs all the time, there are roadblocks, and they don’t give us building permits. They knocked down our three-story house, and now we’re 15 people in 80 meters [800 sq. feet].”
“There won’t be peace,” agreed Tami Zarfati, a mother of five who lives in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, finishing up a meal in the food court of the local mall. “Terrorists killed four people, including a pregnant woman,” Zarfati said of the drive-by shooting near Hebron. “It’s not just the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” Zarfati said. “To Islamic fundamentalists everywhere in Israel is a settlement.”
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