Jerusalem — On the surface, Israelis are going about their business the way they always do. Stores are packed with shoppers, the movie theaters are full, and in many homes the housecleaning has already begun for Rosh HaShanah.
Dig a little deeper and it’s clear that people feel unusually weighed down these days by the news on their televisions.
The recent 1-2-3 punch — Turkey’s downgrading of ties with Israel; the Egyptian mob’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the Palestinians’ bid for recognition at the United Nations next week — “have definitely increased the strain,” according to Ya’acov Shamir, a professor at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, which polls Israeli and Palestinian attitudes three times a year.
For one thing, Shamir said, Israelis are “quite concerned” about possible Palestinian “security threats” that could ensue following the UN vote, or if, for whatever reason, there is no vote.
Just as worrying, he said, “Israel is facing a serious threat from Turkey to deploy combat ships in the Middle East to escort cargo ships to Gaza.”
This follows Israel’s refusal to apologize for killing nine Turkish activists last year aboard a pro-Palestinian protest boat that was attempting to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government is anxious as well. During a tour of Israel’s border with Egypt this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to erect a fence between the two countries within a year. While the goal is to prevent the entry of terrorists and Africans via the Sinai, it would also presumably minimize the number of clashes between Egyptian and Israeli troops stationed on either side of the border.
Five Egyptian security personnel were killed last month when they were apparently caught in the crossfire as Israeli troops chased gunmen suspected of carrying out coordinated terrorist attacks near the Israeli southern city of Eilat that killed eight.
That Hamas attack, coupled with the rockets fired into southern Israel from Gaza on an almost daily basis, are adding to the tension.
And then there is Syria.
Addressing the 11th Annual International Institute of Counter-Terrorism Conference this week, Yohanan Danino, general commissioner of the Israel Police, said the destabilization in Syria “is also potentially explosive’ and has implications for the “already delicate situation in the Middle East.”
“It’s not a happy situation we find ourselves in, but we’ve had similar periods in the past,” said Shmuel Sandler, a Bar-llan University political scientist.
Most Israelis were beyond upset in 1974 when the PLO, led by Yasir Arafat, was accepted to the UN with observer status, and when in 1975 the UN equated Zionism with racism, Sandler said.
“There were also such feelings during the first Lebanon War, so this isn’t something new,” he added.
If the players have changed over the decades, the finger pointing has not. Pundits on both the left and right of the political spectrum have penned scathing indictments against the government and each other.
Writing in Haaretz about Netanyahu’s refusal to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla killings, a columnist for the paper, Avner Shalev asks, “Why is it so hard to say sorry? Why is the government placing itself in danger of international isolation, the deterioration of security and economic damage amounting to billions, just so this two-syllable word won’t pass its lips?”
A state, Shalev continued, “is not a 4-year-old.”
Also this week, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick ridiculed the Israeli left wing for unconditionally supporting the Arab Spring protesters
Until the embassy attack last weekend, Glick wrote, Israel’s left “insisted there was a distinction between the lawless Sinai and the more orderly situation in Cairo. They argued that all that was needed to calm the situation in Sinai was for the military junta to assert its authority in Sinai as it does in the rest of Egypt.”
If nothing else, Israelis are generally more pragmatic than they were during previous periods, Sandler believes.
“The center is very big now, and that’s been the case for more than a decade,” Sandler said, pointing to the growing popularity of centrist political parties.
Sandler said most Israelis now acknowledge “that there is no escape from the partition of the Land of Israel, and at the same time that they cannot expect the dream of a full-fledged peace with the Arab world we had hoped for.”
Shedding these dreams — some would say illusions — may have made Israelis more pragmatic, but it has not led them to abandon their core beliefs.
“The government is f—–d up,” said Hanan Bodokov, a young merchant from Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, who was selling DVDs and videos at the Shuk Ramle, a working-class market that travels from city to city every week.
“Bibi,” Bodokov said, “is giving up too much. If he were more aggressive, Israel wouldn’t be pushed around so much” by Turkey, Egypt or the Palestinians.
“Let me ask you something,” Bodokov said. “If a rocket landed in New York, what would the government do? The government would have raised hell and started World War III.”
“Israel and Israelis have to remain strong,” said Sarah, a 36-year-old accountant. “While it’s tempting to believe that giving up Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians and apologizing to Turkey will magically bring peace, I fear the opposite will be true.”
Two right-wing Knesset members said they plan to press the Netanyahu government to annex part of the West Bank if the Palestinians carry out their bid for statehood at the UN next week.
One of them, Arieh Eldad of the National Union, pointed out that when Ehud Barak was prime minister in 2000 he threatened to annex the entire West Bank after the late Palestinian President Yasir Arafat threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state during peace talks with Barak and then-President Bill Clinton.
“That threat was the only thing that prevented him from doing it,” Eldad said, adding that President Barack Obama is “putting tremendous pressure on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu not to threaten annexation.”
The other Knesset member, Yariv Levin of the Likud Party, said he favors annexing two West Bank settlements, Ariel and Maale Adumim, in response to the Palestinians’ unilateral UN action.
“They are crucial to our security and the vast majority of Israelis would support it,” Levin said.
Eldad said he believes limited annexation has a better chance of winning Netanyahu’s support than a total annexation of the West Bank. He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is going ahead with the UN move because “he is persuaded Israel will do nothing” in response.
“I’m positive that behind the scenes Obama thinks there are positive sides to this [Palestinian] declaration, and that he will have more power over Netanyahu after this passes in the General Assembly,” he said.
Had the U.S. really wanted to get its allies to vote against the Palestinian move in the UN, Eldad said, it would have done more than simply sending them letters asking that they vote no.
Levin said the turmoil in Egypt demonstrates that future peace agreements must be ratified by the people on both sides in a referendum and not simply by their leaders.
“Two states for two peoples is not a solution,” he remarked in speaking about the Palestinian problem. “We give them, they take and then they start from the beginning. The only obligation they took upon themselves was not to take unilateral steps. So after this UN vote, how do we believe them?”
“People are starting to understand that the problem is not whether the border with the Palestinians should be in one area or another, rather it is the Palestinians’ acceptance of our very existence in this area,” Levin observed. “Unless they accept our mere existence, there is no chance of doing anything. If we continue to say that, more people will understand us better and our situation will improve.”
With national elections scheduled to be held in two years (though it could be sooner), Sarah plans to vote for “a party that will weigh every inch of the land of Israel before negotiating it away in a so-called ‘peace deal.’”
In Sheikh Jarrah, near the Old City in east Jerusalem, Ahmed Amal, an Arab plumber, said that if he ever met the Israeli prime minister, “I would beg him to give East Jerusalem to the Palestinians” as the capital of a Palestinian state.
But even if happened, Amal said he would want Jerusalem to stay undivided.
“A lot of my work is in West Jerusalem,” he explained.
In contrast, an Arab lawyer from east Jerusalem who asked that his name not be published for fear of being harassed, advised the Israeli government to “stand firm and not hand over East Jerusalem.”
“Having the Palestinians literally next door won’t be good for Israel,” he said, “and it won’t be good for east Jerusalemites, either.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.