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Gadi Baltiansky, of the pro-peace Geneva Initiative that made the videos, argues that the moderate Palestinians in them will not be around much longer. Teddy Minashi, looking at wannasurf.com in his Ashdod law office ("Crowded by screamy locals," reads a comment about the Ashdod beach. "War keeps away foriners"), doesn't hear that. "We're not really that into the peace process," he says. "We are really, really into the water sports." Minashi and his friends organized to block a fishing port that would have undone the best break on the beach. "People here now concentrate on improving their lives, in the sense that they don't think too far ahead," he says. "Me, myself, I don't believe in this era we'll achieve peace with our neighbors. So now we concentrate on what we can do, how we can improve our lives." Ashdod, Minashi says, "is a very good example of that."
Involved, Like It or Not
And so it is. Dating from the 17th century B.C., the city is among the world's oldest. Its biblical history alone features the Ark of the Covenant, one plague of boils, another of mice, and an Ethiopian eunuch. But all that was deep beneath the dunes when a handful of Moroccan Jews were dropped here by Israel's government in the mid-1950s. Modern Ashdod would be a "development town," Israel's version of housing projects in an American city, down-market and all the grittier for its massive port.
"Some people, it's not the war," says Heli in the condo sales office, ready to defend his hometown. "They hear, Ashdod?" But they show up and find a city that is part resort, part microcosm for an immigrant nation turned inward. "It basically reflects the big picture in Israel," says Mayor Yechiel Lasry, who has remade the city with the help of Soviet immigrants, some 60,000 of whom settled in Ashdod. Educated and conservative, the Russians flexed their political muscles and accelerated the rightward political drift that had begun with the second intifadeh.
The Russians also made the good life better, and not just because of their technological skills. Their taste for high culture means Ashdod has a ballet, a music school, a museum and the Andalusian Orchestra, which specializes in compositions from Moorish Spain, where Muslims and Jews made beautiful music together. Perched above the beachfront promenade that runs 6 miles (10 km), a new performing-arts center evokes a baleen whale.
"It's a concept," says Lea Divan, scanning the immaculate seafront from a table at the Puzzle Café, her view framed by palm fronds. "It's a state of mind." It's not a Middle Eastern state of mind, though; the freeways and beaches, universities and start-ups bring to mind California, not Cairo. "That's kind of what they're going for," says a waitress, taking away the breakfast Divan shared with Carmela Balosher-Orovan, her friend of six decades a relationship that spans the lifetime of Israel. Divan was born on a kibbutz and was still nursing when it was attacked in the fighting Israelis call the War of Independence and that Palestinians know as the Catastrophe. "She suckled fear with the milk of her mother," says Balosher-Orovan, whose experience in Haifa was in its way no less unsettling. Jews and Palestinians got along well in the mixed city until 1947. Then Arabs attacked the local refinery. "It was a shock," she says. "These were my friends!"
Sixty-three years and eight wars later, Divan and Balosher-Orovan have seen enough to know that for all the surf breaks, the palms and the coffee, the conflict is never truly done, never far away; that it shadows the good life like the soldier in civilian clothes but with an M-16 slung across the back who trails schoolchildren chattering down the sidewalk on a field trip. When Divan moved to Ashdod eight months ago, her first question to prospective landlords was always, Does this apartment have a bomb shelter?
"I'm on vacation," says Balosher-Orovan with a determined look. "Part of my vacation is not to listen to the news every half-hour." But she knows as many Israelis affect not to know that the news matters. New talks? Experience offers small hope, the women say. But if the sides are talking, they're not fighting. And thinking of her old neighbors, Balosher-Orovan still believes that people will naturally get along if their leaders allow it. So they are paying close attention and insist that anyone who claims otherwise is telling a tale. "You have a son in the army, and your sister's son is in the army. You're involved!" Divan says. Ignore the peace talks? "It's impossible. You can't do it. You'd have to live in a bubble."