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Cautiously, Israelis Begin to Hope As Cease-fire Brings on Fragile Calm

The sandbags stacked outside Tel Aviv’s Ta’am Caf about a year ago — part macabre joke and part security precaution — have been removed, as has the caf ‘s guard.

Asked about the changes, Lahav, one of the caf ‘s many bare-midriff waitresses, shrugged.

“We feel safer now,” she said.

Since Palestinian terrorist groups declared a temporary cease-fire late last month, many Israelis claim to see a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.

Israeli consumers seem to agree. Recent weeks have seen a rise in consumer activity in Israel, an uptick in travel both in Israel and abroad, an increase in employment demand and a small spike in real estate transactions, according to a report in the Yediot Achronot daily newspaper.

“People are eager to get the conflict behind them, they are clamoring to get Israel’s economy back on track,” Dori Shadmon, chairman of Israel’s leading polling group, Teleseker, told JTA.

But the rise is not only related to the cease-fire, he said.

“Consumer confidence — generally the best indication of how the ‘nation’ feels and thinks — has been climbing steadily since April,” Shadmon said.

Why? The U.S.-led war in Iraq removed a major threat from Israel, the government was able to pass a new economic austerity program and one of the most stable governments in years has pushed forward the “road map” peace plan with American backing, he noted.

These factors combine to make a potent psychological pill, a Prozac to lift the Israeli consumer out of his three-year depression, Shadmon said.

Though the malls and airports are packed, with consumers and travelers once again scuffling over places in line, “it should be noted that these same people don’t have anymore money in the bank than they did before,” Shadmon added.

But that may not be important: “The psychological influence is what lifts an economy from the doldrums,” he said.

Not everyone agrees.

“I don’t buy it,” said Rachel Elkins, sitting on the Ta’am Caf ‘s bougainvillea-draped patio.

Elkins, who until about a year ago worked for several Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, believes that the apparent progress toward peace in recent weeks “is nothing but a political ploy by the U.S. to get President Bush re-elected.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas is being propped up by Israel and the United States but has little chance of success, she said.

Like many other Israelis, Elkins said she has stopped following the news because it is “too depressing.”

“Of course there will be more bombings. This hudna feels false, it feels like it has no base,” she said, using the Arabic word for cease-fire. “I just don’t see it holding for very long.”

Had she listened to the news, which Israeli radio stations faithfully broadcast every half hour, Elkins would have known that Islamic Jihad struck again this week: A suicide bomber detonated himself Monday in a moshav in central Israel, killing Mazal Afari, a 65-year-old grandmother.

Muhammad Al Hindi, a spokesman for the group, said Islamic Jihad still is adhering to the cease-fire, blaming the bombing on a renegade local cell.

Oddly, the declaration last week by the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon — who said Israel has “won” the intifada — affected mostly hawks here.

In Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, a bastion of right-wing politics, vendors were cautiously optimistic.

“What does either side have to lose at this point?” asked Pini Pitzhadze, rearranging the nylon underwear and bras for sale in his stall Tuesday morning.

He reckons that Israel’s policy of assassinating terrorist leaders “broke” the groups.

“Everything changed after we almost took out Rantissi,” he said, referring to an assassination attempt last month on Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a top Hamas official. “They came running to the negotiating table hungry to make a deal.”

Pitzhadze, who faithfully does reserve duty once a year with his infantry unit, doubted that much will change for soldiers, despite Israel’s recent withdrawal from Bethlehem and most of the Gaza Strip.

“So what? We are out of a corner of Gaza and Bethlehem. What about Jenin and Nablus and Tulkarm?” he asked, mentioning West Bank cities. “I have no illusions about not returning to those places anytime soon.”

For vendors like Pitzhadze, consumer confidence is critical. Israelis afraid of terrorism stay as far away as possible from densely packed open-air markets like Carmel and Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda.

“That is why this has to work this time,” he added plaintively. “We really need shoppers.”

“To hell with all those groups,” he said. “This city depends on tourism, and now those murderers have destroyed everything.”

Fahoum had been a tour bus driver, chauffeuring pilgrims around Israel. Now he does little but sip weak tea at his friend Mahmoud’s restaurant.

Chatting and joking among themselves, Mahmoud, Fahoum and their friend Bader said neither Israelis nor Palestinians are “going anywhere,” so the time has come to take a big step and end the conflict it once and for all.

“This hudna business is a good start,” Fahoum said, “but what is necessary is a sulha,” or traditional Muslim reconciliation, “a real peace, not a cease-fire.”

Israel needs to do more to help the Palestinians, he said, chiefly by releasing Islamic Jihad and Hamas prisoners.

This is something most Israeli Jews reject, some vociferously. At a boisterous conference in Jerusalem recently, some 500 right-wing rabbis railed against the government for allegedly providing Israelis with false hope and described the road map as a mortal danger.

“Have we been dazzled? Have we been taken over by blindness?” Rabbi Haim Druckman asked at the conference. “The road map is worse than Oslo, and now after more than 1,000 dead and thousands of wounded and disabled, the eyes of the government have ceased to see.”

Maybe, in fact, desperation offers new vision.

“I want to be optimistic,” Pitzhadze says. “You cannot trust the Arabs, never could, but maybe both sides are ready to change themselves.”

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