- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

NETANYA, Israel It is a moonlit January evening warm enough for outdoor tables to be laid out in Netanya's Independence Square. But with no customers to serve, three cafe owners have assembled, lamenting their predicament and glumly sipping beer.
Each will take a different path in Israel's Jan. 28 election. One supports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, another the dovish Labor opposition. The host, Guy Golan, says he's so fed up, he won't vote at all.
But sitting in the light breeze coming in from the Mediterranean, they agree on many things as well: that the fighting with the Palestinians is an inescapable curse, that Israel's politicians are a bunch of crooks, that the country is falling apart and that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's job is safe because the opposition's moderate approach has been tried and found wanting.
A melancholy fatalism wells up from conversations with very different people throughout this fractured land an Argentine-born kibbutznik, a Russian-immigrant deli manager, a geography student, a Tel Aviv pickle vendor and a woman showing off a bullet hole in the mosquito screen of her Jerusalem apartment window.
It all bodes well for Mr. Sharon, if only because there is little of the clamor for change that might be expected after the trauma suffered by this nation of 6.6 million.
In the 28 months since the last peace effort collapsed, more than 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have died in violence.
Israel's economy has posted its worst showing since its early years of statehood, with plummeting living standards, unemployment surpassing 10 percent, thousands of bankruptcies and the central-bank governor warning that a major bank might collapse. European soccer teams and pop stars are staying away, eroding the feeling of normalcy that Israelis thought they had achieved when peace negotiations were in full swing in the 1990s.
Now, security guards at restaurants, banks and movie theaters have become a constant reminder of abnormality as they rifle through handbags for explosives and search children.
The cafe owners' angry voices echo throughout the square, which like many others stands empty, largely because of the fear of suicide attacks. Across the way rises the Park Hotel, where a bomber killed 29 persons in the spring as they gathered to celebrate Passover.
"This place was filled with tourists once," sighed Mr. Golan, a silver-maned 40-year-old who named his place the Scotsman to lend it European flair. "Now there's no one. There's no money to be made."
He scans the empty square. "We're just living day by day, surviving somehow," he said.
Perhaps Mr. Sharon is Israel's most remarkable survivor. The career hawk war hero to some, villain to others has proved a master politician. He has recast himself as a middle-of-the-road pragmatist President Bush has called him a "man of peace" even as he has dispatched troops to reoccupy West Bank towns, crush the Palestinian Authority's security services and humiliate its leader, Yasser Arafat.
Amram Mitzna, like Mr. Sharon a former general, who came out of nowhere last year to become the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister, says Israel must negotiate a deal on the West Bank and Gaza, which it occupied in the 1967 war, and that if it can't, it should simply walk away from most of those territories.
Mediators once spoke of "land for peace," but Mr. Mitzna seems to view it more as land for survival: Unless Israel unloads these areas, he says, it will sink as a Jewish state, because more than 3 million Palestinians, with Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens, will outnumber its roughly 5 million Jews in a matter of years.
On a gut level, Israelis seem to register this, but in a tough neighborhood, there is a visceral resistance to running away.
There is also incomprehension at the Palestinian leadership's rejection of far-reaching peace terms in 2000, rage at the Palestinian people's support for suicide bombings and little sympathy for their enormous suffering.
Many Israelis used to believe the Palestinians would settle for a state of their own, at peace with Israel. Now they see suicide bombings in their cities, hear outpourings of anti-Semitism from the Arab world and conclude that the Arabs will never accept a Jewish state in their midst.
"When the peace process fell apart, it exposed the Palestinians' real face," said Danny Sosnovich, 25, a geography student with long blond hair and a bookish manner. "So maybe we have to be tougher. But I'm undecided, because we need to finish this war quickly, and making the Palestinians desperate will also make them more extreme."
If Israelis have given up on Mr. Arafat, Palestinians see Mr. Sharon as equally impervious to their aspirations as he pursues his long-term goal of filling the West Bank with Jewish settlements.
He says he supports a Palestinian state in principle, but that with so many restrictions, on so little land and under such a leisurely time frame, that agreement seems far away.
Mr. Golan, the restaurateur, is a big man with a ready smile, but as he speaks his voice falters with despair. "I want peace and I wish the Palestinians had been willing to make peace. But it seems they're not. Once you've started to fight the Arabs, I think, the only way to go is to finish the job."
With such views dominant among Israelis, these are tough times to be a peacenik, but Reuven Hochman soldiers on.
Mr. Hochman was born in Buenos Aires and was among the socialist pioneers who founded Kibbutz Metzer in 1953, a few hundred yards from the West Bank, then part of Jordan. He remembers cross-border gunfire in the early days, and he remembers defending the kibbutz from the front lines during the 1967 war.
On a late Sunday night in November, a Palestinian slipped into Metzer and went on a shooting spree, killing five persons, including two little boys and their mother.
After Israel won the 1967 war, Mr. Hochman said, "We thought we could stop worrying for our children. And here we are, 35 years later, worrying for our grandchildren."
At 72, the peacenik carries a gun for the first time. His political position is unchanged, though: He'll vote for the dovish Meretz Party, which supports Mr. Mitzna for prime minister.
The government plans a fence for the kibbutz that would run inside the West Bank. The kibbutz wants the fence but opposes its placement because it separates Palestinian villagers from their olive groves.
"It's not a matter of loving the Arabs," Mr. Hochman said. "This will not be a loving relationship. But why take away their olives, their livelihood? Don't they already hate us enough?"
There are other Arabs nearby. Where Metzer ends begins Miser, a small town whose people are Israeli because when the guns fell silent in Israel's 1948-49 war for independence, they were on Israel's side of the cease-fire line.
They and other Israeli Arabs are more than a sixth of Israel's population.
They can vote, but many of them seem disinclined to do so.
"I really don't care what happens in this election. There is a bad, tense situation, and it cannot be fixed," said Ibrahim Abu Abed, 29, an unemployed Muslim on his way to evening prayers.
The election isn't entirely about war and peace, Arabs and Jews.
Mr. Sharon has been hurt by a police investigation of accusations of vote-buying and underworld involvement in his party's primary, and by revelations of a $1.5 million loan that helped him repay improper contributions from a previous election.
These scandals may well plague him for some time, but it appears they will not bring him down in the election.
The other issues are simply too big and voting patterns too entrenched.
"Who cares about corruption when I have people shooting at my apartment?" said Ifat Haftsadi, 33, a civil-defense volunteer. She lives in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in a part of Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Across a valley lies the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla, from where gunmen fired nightly at Gilo for months, one bullet penetrating Miss Hafstadi's mosquito screen.
"My father began shouting, 'Lie down on the ground,'" Miss Haftsadi recalls.
Bulletproof windows and a cement wall were installed, but the shooting went on until early this year, when Israel reoccupied Beit Jalla.
For Miss Haftsadi, staring at the hilltop houses of Beit Jala, the lesson is clear: "How can they even think of giving land back to the Arabs?"
But who, in the bewildering ethnic, religious and political diversity of modern Israel, is "they"?
As many as 15 parties will make it into the 120-member Knesset. There are parties not just for the left, right and center, but also for religious Jews of Middle Eastern descent and religious Jews of European descent, for opponents of the religious, for the working class, for Russian immigrants and for marijuana lovers, and for Arab Islamists, nationalists and communists.
The new prime minister will be whoever can assemble a majority coalition.
Polls predict that Mr. Sharon will have an advantage, but an upset by Mr. Mitzna is possible. Only instability, it seems, is guaranteed. And although Mr. Mitzna flatly rules it out, past experience has shown that one result could be a coalition of Likud and Labor.
In his small office in the Knesset building, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, an Orthodox Jewish legislator, is drinking coffee in a philosophical frame of mind. Israel must disengage from the Palestinians, he says, or else it will not be a Jewish state and never know peace.
That's Mr. Mitzna's view as well, but the religious can't support him, Mr. Ravitz says, because the left "wants to change society and weaken the forces of tradition."
Forty miles west of Jerusalem, in the port city of Ashdod, is Svetlana's, a decidedly non-kosher deli. The manager, Oleg Radinowski, comes from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East and is one of a million Jews who have poured into Israel from the former Soviet Union in the past 12 years.
He, too, yearns for peace as he dispenses pork sausages and pungent cheeses. "What good is all this fighting? The most important thing is peace. We should give the Palestinians what they want and get on with our lives."
So will he vote for Labor?
"No, no," he said, laughing. Avigdor Lieberman, a fellow Russian-speaking immigrant, is his man. Mr. Lieberman belongs to an ultranationalist bloc that favors an iron fist against the Palestinians. But for Mr. Radinowski, it's Russianness that decides.
At the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, pickle vendor Guy Ratzabi is much the same.
"I say give the Palestinians the damned territories. Get rid of the settlers, too," he said, referring to more than 200,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
So will he vote for Labor?
No, because he, like many Jewish Israelis of Middle East descent, says he believes Labor is the party of the more-affluent Europeans. "So I'm voting for Likud."
Back in Netanya, Bernard Gabai, one of Mr. Golan's underemployed colleagues, puts it this way: "Everyone wants peace, and most are willing to part with the territories to get it. But of course they're also angry with the Arabs. They're so furious they've become confused. They're not thinking logically anymore."


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