Is there normalcy in Israel ?
Cats. Not the musical, but the real thing, cats of all sizes and descriptions. They stalk the restaurants, prowl the plazas, and roam the grounds surrounding the expensive condos in Tel Aviv's northern suburbs. Everyone realizes that the cats are a problem, breeding prolifically, surviving precariously and dying badly, ripped apart by dogs, or run over by cars and trucks. There are obvious solutions to the infestation of cats but this is Israel and there is no agreement as to what that solution should be. On one side, the sterilize and euthanise protagonists, on the other, the "let them live freely and feed them…when and if you remember." This group does not acknowledge that the average life span of a 'free cat' is six months, most of it rather desperate struggle to survive. So while the cats breed and die the humans argue and refuse to compromise. The issue of the cats is in many ways a metaphor for Israel, where internecine political and sometimes violent warfare prevents any lasting negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and Syria.
I have recently returned from Israel. The tourists are back, Christians pray and sing as they walk the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, the hotels are flourishing, the beaches crowded. Even on the Shabbat in secular Tel Aviv the waterfront restaurants are packed.
The troubles that plagued this nation but a few years ago seem submerged in the national conscience. The Intifada, if not forgotten, is controlled, the terrorist attacks, contained, but not ended. A fragile tranquility has taken hold as the suicide bombings, rocket attacks and general mayhem along the borders has declined. It is the result of what is termed the 'tahadiyeh' the 'cooling off ' the deal made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Hamas in Gaza and between Ehud Barak and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The core of the 'cooling down' was an acceptance by Israel that Hamas was the de juries and de facto ruler of Gaza, and Hassan Nasrallah's Hezbollah had the ability to enforce quiet on the Lebanese side of the border. It was not a deal most Israelis wanted, but it many ways it was the 'only deal in town.'
I talked to many Israelis about the 'tahadiyeh' including IDF officers. They expressed the view held by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gabi Ashkenazi that, in his estimate, the calm in Gaza will be "fragile and short". He saw it as a victory for 'radical Islam,' who they claim won in Lebanon and have now won again in Gaza. To use an overworked cliché, both sides are like boxers who have gone fourteen rounds without a decision. Now bloody, bruised and exhausted they sit in their respective corners getting ready for the final round. But neither really wants to go that final round, at least not yet. For the Israelis the harsh fact is that the military is stretched thin; every border needs manning. One sign of this is the use of 20 private security companies in the West Bank. One of which was Group 4 Falck, the world's second largest security firm. (An expose by the Guardian newspaper about the behaviour of the securitry personnel led Falck to pull them out.) Undeterred, the Israelie government is turning more of the permanent check- points over to private contractors, who in the opinion of the Palestinans are worse than the army. Many will avoid the private check-points and go well out of their way to cross at an IDF manned one. One unstated reason for the 'privatization' of the check-points is the growing number of IDF personnel who become disillusioned with serving with an occupying force. Though reports of extensive draft dodging are 'somewhat exaggerated', it is a growing concern among the generals that it could escalate.
What is noticeable is a prevailing cynicism concerning the institutions of state and it's leaders including the senior officers of the IDF. More then once I was told of the all pervasive corruption that impacts on every facet of government, including the office of the Prime Minister. Israel does not have a tradition of accountability or transparency as the majority of its population came from countries where such things were never on the political agenda. (I recall that one of the first words I learned when I first visited Israel in '62 was 'protectcia' friends who could 'protect and help you.') But being Israel, there is a constant flow of articles and commentary about the undermining of traditional Zionist/ Israeli values (where have we heard that before) of the 'magiah' (what's due to me), and the unfortunate 'friarim' (`suckers') who have to pay the price. One of the joke-commentaries that is circulating in Israel follows: one third of the population fights the wars, one third pays the taxes and one third does the work. Trouble is, it's the same third! Anti-corruption groups are springing up and the politicians are pledging to do better.
They have to do more then just pledge—85% of Israelis think government is corrupt. And it is fact that Israel now ranks 34th in the world's corruption and transparency scale, down from 10th a decade ago (where
1 is the position to achieve).
It would make an interesting study to determine how much of the present corruption within the agencies of government and the corporate sector derives from the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There hundreds of bureaucrats and settlers lorded over a subject population who were forced to navigate a labyrinth of arbitrary rules and regulations; bureaucrats who were never responsible to those they governed. Surely they took those attitudes back to Israel, the arrogance, disdain, self-aggrandizement. How many of those same bureaucrats of all ranks and offices were open to bribes from Palestinians trying to obtain a business license, export farm products, build a house can only be surmised, but it is curious that the decline in public and private honesty started as the occupation continued
Whatever the cause, the self doubts, the questioning, or the cynicism has led to a cottage industry of books and articles dealing with the
1967 War. More and more the miscalculations, hubris and stupidity are revealed particularly in respect to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israelis are now beginning to understand how they got to the Occupation, but no one seems to know how to get out.
And regardless of 'deals made' or brokered, hostages exchanged, the blood-letting goes on, witness the killing of three soldiers of the elite Givati Brigade near the Gaza and the wounding of three others this last month. My wife and I had a glimpse of the 'new reality.' A tour bus we were on was stopped by a military road block on the road to En Geddi . A military roadblock backed up traffic for miles.
Armored jeeps with the tough green bereted Border police, hummers with infantry were strung along the road. A massive bush fire raged a hundred meters from the road. Eventually we were allowed through, passing a profusion of IDF personnel and vehicles. Later we were told that two infiltrators from Jordan had tried to get across the border.
The fire as the result of an IDF flare. At the En Geddi Kibbutz, groups of Israeli kids were on a tour of the nature reserve with it's world famous water springs. With them, as always, was an armed escort.
Within Israel the old divisions remain. Sephardic Jew against Ashkenazim, secular vs. the ultra-orthodox, the religious Zionists, identified by the wool woven yarmulkes they wear, (kippas) and who are now the backbone of the elite army formations, the Paratroopers, the Sayeret, the Golani and Givati Brigades. Dedicated, committed to the land of Israel they are also believers in a greater Israel, which includes the Occupied territories. And adding to this Macbeth brew is the growing discrepancy between the rich and poor, the growth of what Galbraith termed 'public squalo'r and private affluence squalor. The educational system is starved for money, as are the universities. The health system is equally deprived. And while prosperity flourishes in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv and the expensive café and restaurants are full, too many can barely make ends meet within a tattered social safety net.
Some time ago the PM Olmert exclaimed that 'we have become tired of fighting, tired of being arrogant, tired of winning, tired of defeating our enemies. Many bitterly criticized him for those remarks, but I think they missed the point. Israel could resort to force, it could disdain all chances for a settlement and it could defeat it's enemies. But at what cost and to what end. Victory in war had not meant victory with peace. It was time to try something new. The negations with Hamas were the 'new.' But Hamas and Hezbollah should keep in mind that the Israeli military has learned some painful lessons. Armored units are being disbanded for more infantry, new tactical doctrines are being developed. "Next time", as one officer told me, "we will be ready, and we will not be inhibited by concerns over civilian causalities. Next time we will meet them on our terms".
As I listened to my Colonel friend, I thought of the book, Beaufort by Ron Leshem. It is the story of an Israeli infantry manning the Beaufort Castle in Lebanon. It is a reminder of who shoulders the cost of war in Israel: high school kids on the cusp of living.
There is a song I heard when I was in Israel two years ago on an army base. It is titled. "A Million Stars" . I do not who wrote it, except that it was a young soldier who I was told died in Lebanon:
I wanted to sing
You picked up your guitar,
An angel is playing an instrument for me now So with you I'll sing A million stars in the sky Reflect the color of your eyes, I wanted to sing to you, I wanted just one second to say goodbye Give me one last second To wish you goodbye