Israel's New Normalcy

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Israel was just about the safest place in the Middle East last week. There was a car bombing in Damascus. Jordan was still shaky from the news that an al-Qaeda cell had been caught planning a chemical attack in Amman. Saudi Arabia faced a wave of terrorist shoot-outs and bombings, and you already know about Iraq. In Israel, however, tens of thousands gathered confidently in public places for Independence Day celebrations. The cafes, nightclubs and restaurants were busy. There was even a surge of non-Jewish tourists—basketball fans attending the Euroleague championship in Tel Aviv.

As of May 1, there had been no significant retaliation from Hamas after the assassinations of its leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi. And some Israelis were beginning to wonder aloud if maybe, perhaps, there had been a "positive change" in Israel's war on terrorism, as Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cautiously told me. "It has been very difficult for Hamas to respond because the security measures we take are very effective," he explained.

Privately, some Israelis were more effusive. "This is a major victory," a prominent Likud member told me. "The tactics that we used to roll up the terrorist networks in the West Bank will be taught at West Point. Which is not to say there won't be more attacks, but there won't be the waves of bombers there were two years ago." Indeed, as we talked, a car-bomb attempt at a Gaza settlement was foiled by the military.

Israel was staggered in March 2002, when terrorists killed 130 people, including 30 murdered in the memorable Passover massacre in Netanya. That spring, the Israeli army stormed into the West Bank, fought pitched battles with armed and not-so-armed Palestinians, and imposed draconian security measures—in effect, turning the Palestinian areas into a vast prison camp. "We also began to rebuild our intelligence networks in the West Bank," a retired intelligence officer told me. "You know how that works—money, money and more money. You buy collaborators. And cell by cell, we rolled up most of the West Bank terrorist networks. This may not be victory—victory is when the enemy no longer has the will to fight—but we are beginning to approach normalcy."

It is a "normalcy" that would be difficult to sell in the U.S. It requires unremitting toughness and constant wariness. It is almost as tedious to pass through security at a shopping mall or a restaurant in Israel as it is to board a plane in America. There is also the moral burden of the casual brutalities that are an inevitable part of the West Bank occupation—and the social burden of being perceived as a rogue state by much of the world.

This besieged burlesque of normality is the context for the strange political goings-on in Israel of late. In a monumental change of heart, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the ultrahawk, has proposed withdrawing the extremely tenuous Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, where an estimated 7,500 Jews are surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians. In return for that, he won President Bush's support for some settlements to remain permanently in the West Bank. That led, in turn, to (grudging) endorsements from most leaders of Sharon's Likud Party, including the Prime Minister's main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. The assassinations of Yassin and Rantisi were probably part of Sharon's campaign as well—they demonstrated the difference between a strategic withdrawal and a retreat.

With those pieces in place, Sharon earned support for his plan from three-quarters of the general Israeli public, according to polls—even though the idea remained very controversial among the rank and file of the Likud. No doubt some Likudniks reacted to the current lull by thinking, Things are going so well—why give the Palestinians anything? Others believed that any concession would be a sign of weakness (68% of Palestinians attributed Sharon's Gaza plan to the "success" of their intifadeh, according to a recent poll).

The trouble was, Ariel Sharon was trying to make a rational argument after years of disdaining rationality as softness. He had nurtured Israel's distinctive culture of toughness—but while strength may be a short-term solution, it can be a long-term addiction.

Of course, civilized folks living in civilized places—people like me—can make high-minded arguments about strength with impunity: Unremitting toughness is barbaric. The occupation is creating a new generation of terrorists. The only way Palestinians will live alongside Israelis in peace is if you give them a real state. But the world looks very different from a Jerusalem cafe. Here immediate safety is all that matters; anything long-term is a distraction. And watching Fallujah from Jerusalem last week, I found myself thinking as an Israeli might: Why on earth should we let Saddam's generals "disarm" the terrorists? How can we trust them? Why aren't the Marines cleaning up that place for real?