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Year in Review Feature (3): 5755 in the Middle East; the Year of the Red Thread

“Hut hashani,” a Biblical metaphor used in modern Hebrew to mean a theme, literally means a red thread. For the past year, the “hur hashani” running through Israeli society has been an all too literal red thread: a blood-soaked motif of terror attacks that left dozens of arbitrary victims dead or maimed. these incidents, mostly occurring in the heart of Israel, caused repeated hemorrhages of public support for the Rabin government’s peace policy.

But despite the terrorism, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has continued to push ahead with grim determination to implement the 1993 accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization – the agreement that earned Rabin, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

It was expected that an agreement on the next phase of Palestinian self-rule would be signed in September, setting the stage for Israeli forces to redeploy out of most major West Bank Palestinian cities, and for the Palestinians to hold elections in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

As the Israeli-Palestinian talks proceeded, Arafat, who in July has marked one year of Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, had slowly come to understand the gravity of the terrorist threat to himself as well as to Rabin. He sought with increasing success to strike at the Islamic fundamentalist movements that spawned the suicide bombers. But the PLO leader walked a fine line, anxious not to alienate his domestic constituency in the teeming streets and refugee camps of Gaza.

On other political fronts, Syria’s President Hafer Assad resumed talks with Israel, but, defying all the pundits, continued to reject generous land-for- peace terms from Rabin.

The greatest movement toward peace came from King Hussein of Jordan, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in October, and has since moved boldly towards full neighborly normalization with the Jewish state.

Progress with the Palestinians and with Jordan led to the establishment of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and a record number of states, including several Arab countries. But there is still caution and reluctance on the Arab side, and Israeli businessmen are having to learn the skills of Eastern patience.

Amid the turbulence surrounding the peace process, Israelis had much good news. The economy continued to flourish, showing a solid growth rate, a substantial fall unemployment and, in recent months, a sharp drop in the rate of inflation. nonetheless, pockets of poverty and tens of thousands of struggling families indicate that some of Israel’s deep social problems remain unsolved.

Israel continued to be the beacon for Jews emigrating from lands around the world. Tens of thousands of Jews made aliyah during the past year, mainly from the former Soviet Union. For more than 50 Jews from war-torn Chechnya and others from beleaguered Bosnia, Israel was a welcoming haven.

But domestic economic and social issues took a back seat to the nation’s focus on the peace process and the concomitant terrorism.

The worst act of terrorist violence came in October, just days before the festive signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in the Arava, with President Clinton in attendance.

The suicide bomber chose Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street – perhaps the best known and certainly one of the busiest streets in Israel – as the site of his dastardly attack on the No. 5 bus, taking 23 innocent passengers with him to their deaths.

Many Israelis were haunted throughout the year by the pictures of bearded `hevra kadisha’ (burial society) volunteers scraping human flesh and blood from the sidewalk with trowels. They were horrific scenes that were to be repeated several times more as the year passed.

In March 1995, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded bus stop at Beit Lid, near Netanya, killing 21 people, most of them soldiers. The following month another seven soldiers and a young American college student, Alisa Flatow, died in a similar attack on a road used by Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Terrorists struck again in July, killing six on and urban bus in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

And, in August five died, including Joan Davenny, an American Jewish day school teacher, and more than 100 were injured when a suicide bomber triggered an explosive device during rush hour on a bus traveling to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.

In addition to these bombings, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Nachshon Waxman, by Hamas members gripped the entire nation for a week in October, made more tragic by his death during a failed rescue attempt.

After each dreadful incident, demonstrators gathered to shout obscenities at government ministers. Their emotional and sometimes frenzied protests led to a campaign of `civil disobedience’ as Jewish settlers sought to win popular support for their opposition to efforts to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

Led by the mainly Orthodox activists of the settler movement Gush Emunim, residents at Efrat and other settlements initiated a series of demonstrative acts of camping out at hilltop sites throughout the West Bank. The scenes of soldiers and police dragging the settlers and their children into paddy-wagons made media headlines during the summer months, but the effect of the settlers’ actions on public opinion was unclear.

On the political level, the opposition, led by the Likud party, cited the terror attacks as palpable evidence that the peace process with the Palestinians was not working. It was plainly not affording Israeli citizens that most basic of all right: personal security.

At first, the prime minister, in his public utterances, tended to confirm these sentiments. Rabin faulted Arafat and the Palestinian Authority for laxness in dealing with the Fundamentalist terror that posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two extremist groups prominent in the Gaza Strip.

But during the summer Rabin’s tone changed radically. Following the Tel Aviv blast in July, he spoke of Arafat’s efforts to combat terror, and after the Jerusalem attack in August he called on Israelis to distinguish between Palestinians who sought to wreck the chances of peace and those who, like Israel, were victims.

While public support for the government’s policies dropped after each suicide bombing, the periods of quiet brought a rise in Rabin’s popularity. To academic experts the import of this opinion survey finding was clear. The next election, scheduled for November 1996, would focus above all else on the issue of personal security.

The Labor Party, which is expected to run behind the 73-year-old Rabin again, will have to convince swing-voters that the government’s policy holds out the long-term promise of security as well as peace – despite the toll in lives that has been incurred.

In this heavily charged political atmosphere, some observers suggested that Rabin was fortunate to encounter outright intransigence in Damascus. These observers maintain that the Rabin government, weakened by the defection of the Sephardi religious party, Shas, lacks the political strength to simultaneously push through two `traumatic’ pace deals – one with the Palestinians and the other with Syria – both involving major territorial concessions.

Rabin did not have to confront that double challenge this year. Despite numerous shuttling efforts by the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his Mideast peace team, the Syrian ruler continued to play hard ball. Rabin and Peres signals unmistakably that they were ready for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, executed in phases over a period of three years.

Assad balked at a deal that would require full normalization of relations between the two countries, including diplomatic and commercial ties, open tourism and transportation. Only such provisions would enable Rabin to gain the support of the Israeli public, though even that was by no means a foregone conclusion. Assad has shown no inclination to comprehend the concerns of the Israeli public. He refused to meet with Rabin, prohibited his foreign minister from conferring with Peres, and only grudgingly allowed his military chief of staff to meet, twice, with his Israeli counterpart. As the Jewish year drew to a close, the Israeli-Syrian talks were effectively suspended.

Among those cheered by the lack of progress on the Syrian track, and also calling for a halt to the Palestinian negotiations, were a growing number of Diaspora Jews, with the most vociferous protests coming from Orthodox circles. Indeed, the domestic political strife within Israel spilled over this year, as never before, to the Jewish Diaspora. This ominous development was dramatically highlighted at an Israel Independence Day breakfast in New York, when Shulamit Aloni, Israel’s culture minister, was struck by an anti-peace activist.

Capitol Hill became the locus of a new readiness by ardent Israel supporters abroad to strike out on their own, in defiance of the democratically elected government in Jerusalem. Congressional initiatives to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem angered the Rabin government, which frantically signaled to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other American Jewish organizations supporting the legislation that such a move at this time would be deleterious to the peace process. By year’s end, the status of the embassy legislation was nuclear, though its chief sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan), stressed that it could come forward at any time.

The Rabin government also had to do battle with American Jewish opponents of the peace process over the issue of continuing U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. While Rabin worked energetically to help secure financial assistance for Palestinian economic and social development in the territories, some of the more vocal American Jewish opponents asserted in effect that they could do a better job of monitoring PLO compliance than the Israeli government.

These incidents served to awaken thoughtful people on both sides of the Israel- Diaspora divide to the dangerous course that relations between them were taking. As Israeli and Diaspora Jews prepared for the High Holy Day period of personal and national introspection, there was some serious, even somber thinking in both communities regarding the resilience of Jewish unity and solidarity in the face of momentous, controversial and profoundly divisive events.

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