Heli and Eli sell condos on Exodus Street, a name that evokes a certain historical hardship in a neighborhood that suggests none at all, the ingathering of the Jews having entered a whole new realm here. The talk in the little office is of interest rates and panoramic sea views from handsomely appointed properties on the Ashdod waterfront selling for half what people are asked to pay in Tel Aviv, 18 miles (29 km) to the north. And sell they do, hand over fist never mind the rockets that fly out of Gaza, 14 miles (22.5 km) to the south. "Even when the Qassams fell, we continued to sell!" says Heli Itach, slapping a palm on the office desk. The skull on her designer shirt is made of sequins that spell out "Love Kills Slowly." "What the people see on the TV there is not true here. I sold, this week, 12 apartments. You're not client. I tell you the truth."
The truth? As three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at the White House to begin a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They're otherwise engaged; they're making money; they're enjoying the rays of late summer. A watching world may still see their country as being defined by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved on.
Now observing two and a half years without a single suicide bombing on their territory, with the economy robust and with souls a trifle weary of having to handle big elemental thoughts, the Israeli public prefers to explore such satisfactions as might be available from the private sphere, in a land first imagined as a utopia. "Listen to me," says Eli Bengozi, born in Soviet Georgia and for 40 years an Israeli. "Peace? Forget about it. They'll never have peace. Remember Clinton gave 99% to Arafat, and instead of them fighting for 1%, what? Intifadeh."
Another whack for the desk. "The people," Heli says, "don't believe." Eli searches for a word. "People in Israel are indifferent," he decides. "They don't care if there's going to be war. They don't care if there's going to be peace. They don't care. They live in the day."
The Good Life Is Real
And what a day it is. When it reaches the eastern Mediterranean, the sun strikes molecules at an angle that erases the possibility that anything can matter except this sky, that sea and the land between. In Ashdod the sensation travels on golden dunes that march up from the beach through a shimmering new city center and out to a crisp, clean perimeter marked by yet another row of splendid new high-rises, white towers that hold the light for an instant, then release it into the realm of general good feeling. Breakfast here is cucumbers, yogurt, honey, bread and crumbly white cheese. You never felt better.
"The good life in Israel is real, while all the rest is somehow blurred," says Ari Shavit, a good man, a serious man, who writes a regular column for Haaretz, the influential daily that has made hand-wringing a thing of frequent beauty since 1918. Still, a few years ago Shavit left his family home in Jerusalem, the capital, where more and more of life is so serious all that stone and settled in Tel Aviv, a beach city.
No place in Israel is more than 40 minutes from a stretch of sand, but only Tel Aviv is known as "the bubble." Its sidewalk cafés are a way of life. On a Saturday, when Jerusalem turns into a mausoleum in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, a driver wandering Tel Aviv passes kite surfers and bikinis but rarely a disapproving look from a man under a fedora, the headgear of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who, along with politically active religious nationalists, increasingly fill the space vacated by secular Israelis both in the physical city of Jerusalem and in the matters decided there.
"There was a time when people felt guilty about the Tel Aviv bubble," says Shavit. "Then it turned out the bubble was pretty strong. The bubble was resilient." Indeed, there are times when you can think most of the nation is within it. Polls are clear on the point. In a 2007 survey, 95% of Israeli Jews described themselves as happy, and a third said they were "very happy." The rich are happier than the poor, and the religious are happiest of all. But the broad thrust, so incongruous to people who know Israel only from headlines, suits a country whose quality of life is high and getting better.
But wait. Deep down (you can almost hear the outside world ask), don't Israelis know that finding peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee their happiness and prosperity? Well, not exactly. Asked in a March poll to name the "most urgent problem" facing Israel, just 8% of Israeli Jews cited the conflict with Palestinians, putting it fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty. Israeli Arabs placed peace first, but among Jews here, the issue that President Obama calls "critical for the world" just doesn't seem critical.