Ethan Bronner
International Herald Tribune
June 23, 2008 - 2:53pm

After a year of painful violence - Hamas rockets flying into Israeli communities, soldiers killed and wounded on forays into Gaza - one might have expected the start of a six-month cease-fire with Hamas to be hailed here as good news. Yet what was the front page headline in the Maariv newspaper that day? "Fury and Fear."

That says a great deal about the mood in Israel, a widely shared gloom that this nation is facing alarming threats from both without and within. Seen from far away, last week must have offered some hope that the region was finally at, or near, a turning point: The truce with Hamas, negotiated by Egypt, started Thursday; other Palestinian-Israeli talks were taking place on numerous levels that both sides said were opening long-closed issues; there were also Turkish-mediated Israeli negotiations with Syria, and a new offer to yield territory to Lebanon along with a call for direct talks between Jerusalem and Beirut.

But it looked very different here. Most Israelis consider the truce with Hamas an admission of national failure, a victory for a radical group with a vicious ideology. As they look ahead, Israelis cannot decide which would be worse, for the truce to fall apart (as polls show most expect it to do), or for Hamas actually to make it last, thereby solidifying the movement's authority in Palestinian politics over the more secular Fatah.

Moreover, most think that Syria should not get back the Golan Heights - its ostensible aim in talking with Israel - and that the truces and negotiations amount to little without the return of captured Israeli soldiers held for the past two years.

Indeed, the "fury" in the headline of Maariv, a mass-selling center-right paper, was at the failure, in the Hamas deal, to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, still held by Hamas after being seized two years ago.

And the "fear" was about the fates of two other Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who had been captured by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. The militia seems to be on the verge of completing a prisoner swap with Israel, but almost everyone here fears that the two Israelis are dead, and the swap will involve only their remains.

The backdrop for all of this is the fear of Iran's growing power and the world's inability so far to stop it from working on atomic weaponry. But it is not only foreign relations that so depresses the Israeli public. It is also that their political system is in crisis, with the leaders under investigation and feuding among themselves.

"It is not 'the situation' that darkens the mood here in Israel," wrote Yossi Sarid, a longtime leftist politician, in an opinion article in the newspaper Haaretz. "It is the lack of exit from the situation. There is not really any hope for change. Who will rescue us from depression? Who will give us expectations?"

Sarid said Israelis envied those Americans who are pinning hopes on Barack Obama as representing a new generation of leaders; Israel, he said, is stuck with the same leaders who never go away.

Sasson Sara, a 57-year-old grocery store owner in Sderot, the town in southern Israel that should be happiest that the Hamas rockets have been stopped, seemed to confirm this contempt for the leadership when the truce with Hamas was announced. "To me, this is an agreement of surrender, like Chamberlain," he said, referring to British appeasement of Hitler in 1938.

Asked whether he was really comparing Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to Neville Chamberlain, Sara said: "Olmert is a bit younger. But he is tired. He acted to save himself. All this 'calm' agreement will take a heavy price from us in the future."

Sara's use of the word "calm" ("regiah" in Hebrew) was telling.

No one quite knows what to call the current accord. Many use the Arabic word "tahadiya," which is what Hamas has chosen; the word means not quite a truce, not quite a cease-fire, but some temporary cessation of hostilities.

The Israelis have chosen the word "calm," which Doron Rosenblum, a longstanding and offbeat Haaretz columnist, notes, "brings to mind the clichéd cinematic images of raging mental patients being brought into a hospital. Someone ran wild in the cuckoo's nest, was given a jolt of electricity or a tranquilizer, and is now blinking quietly in his padded cell."

One point many commentators made last week is that while there may be a state of "calm" with Hamas, there is still nothing resembling that between Olmert and his defense minister, Ehud Barak. They remain at war.

Meanwhile, Barak spent part of Friday in a meeting with the families of the missing soldiers, the topic that has most gripped the nation. Interviews with their relatives have dominated coverage in recent days because it was widely assumed that no self-respecting Israeli government would accede to a truce with Hamas without getting back Shalit.

The Israeli Army radio station has been punctuating nearly every hour's broadcast with an announcement of the need to "bring our sons home." This is not merely a turn of phrase suggesting a collective conceit; Israelis relate to one another like members of a large family, and the gnawing pain felt by Shalit's parents is widely shared in a country where the vast majority of young people serve in the military.

In fact, one of the most striking things about Israel's internal political conversation is how personal it is. This is a tiny country of seven million that often finds itself at the center of international debate. And while Israelis often complain about this - why aren't hundreds of journalists and human rights activists worried about North Korea or Uganda or Saudi Arabia? - they also take an odd pride in it, as if it were evidence of their secret suspicion that world history really does revolve around the fate of the Jews and their homeland.

The result is a public discourse that amounts to a bizarre mix of geopolitics and distinctly local news. It is not out of character for the morning radio broadcast to spend 10 minutes on whether Syria is building a nuclear weapon followed by 10 minutes on a young bride whose wedding was ruined when a sound system speaker fell on her foot. Since both are given equal weight, it can be hard to separate out the pain of one family from the strategic needs of the state.

Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, who has spent part of the past year as an international envoy to the Palestinians, said on Thursday that it could be very hard for everyone involved to gain a grasp on this conflict.

"The view of what is happening here tends to lurch between unjustified optimism - pretty rare, actually - to unnecessarily bleak pessimism, which is more common," he said in a conversation in his Jerusalem offices.

He added that, as he now understands it, what started in late 2000 when the second Palestinian uprising began and Israel counterattacked was "a complete breakdown in the credibility of peace."

Supplies earmarked for Gaza

Israel was set to increase the number of trucks bearing badly needed supplies into the Gaza Strip on Sunday as a truce with Hamas militants entered its fourth day, The Associated Press reported from Jerusalem, citing a military spokesman.

A total of 90 trucks would enter Gaza through the Sufa crossing during the day, up from between 60 and 70 before the truce went into effect, said the spokesman, Second Lieutenant Gil Karie.


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