Israel Hunkers Down to Life Without Peace

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Palestinian police officers gather at a damaged building at police headquarters With Ariel Sharon ratcheting up the military pressure on the Syrians and Palestinians, are there any signs of dissent from the Labor party members of his unity government?

Matt Rees: Not a peep. In the cabinet vote on hitting the Syrian radar stations, two members voted against — Shimon Peres and Ephraim Sneh, both of the Labor party. But neither was complaining about the principle of hitting the Syrians. They were concerned about the timing of the air strike, because it occurred during the visit to Israel of Jordan's foreign minister — the first Arab minister to visit here since the intifada began. And Peres and Sneh though this might not be the best moment to drop bombs on the Syrians. Even then, a number of other Labor party ministers voted for it.

What about the attacks in Gaza — are we moving into a situation of war on two fronts?

Despite what it looks like on TV, it's not quite as dramatic as that. Sharon sent his forces into Gaza last night, in response to mortar shells falling inside Israel. But provided he doesn't make a mistake and end up with a large number of Palestinian deaths, he can do that with impunity, at least domestically, anyway. It may cost him some diplomatic pressure, but not much. The international media certainly tires of it pretty quickly. Actions that a couple of weeks ago looked like a dramatic escalation now look commonplace. And that's part of the strategy.

Of course, the Syrian attack was fairly significant, particularly if it recurs. But the wild card is whether Syria wants to allow things to settle down in the West Bank and Gaza. Right now, it appears as though they don't. Israel had achieved a measure of success with Arafat in calming things down a little, and then there was suddenly the Hezbollah attack on the northern border over the weekend. Israelis believe the mortar attack on Sdarot inside Israel came from Arafat's people, as an expression of solidarity following the air strike in Lebanon, ahead of Arafat's visit to Syria next week. So you have a sequence of events that starts with a demonstration in Beirut against Syria's presence in Lebanon, which prompted a Syrian-mandated Hezbollah rocket attack on Israeli forces at Shebaa Farms — which they knew would provoke an Israeli response, in this case an air strike, that would justify Syria's presence. But the air strike prompted a Palestinian mortar attack that led to the bulldozing of a neighborhood in Gaza. That's the Middle East for you.

Are the Israelis at all concerned about putting Syria's young President Assad into a corner, where he's either forced to retaliate or else is weakened in the eyes of his country's hard-liners, neither scenario being good for Israel?

The Israelis have given up on reaching any deal over the Golan Heights, and Sharon has no interest in doing one even if he could. So the theater of conflict is once again Lebanon. The Israelis want to make the Lebanese fear the consequences in economic damage of Israel's striking back, hoping that the Lebanese will put pressure on Syria. The Lebanese government doesn't want Hezbollah to keep sniping at Israel in the Shebaa Farms area, which is not even part of Lebanon. The Israelis are also hoping to make the Syrians aware that their own considerable economic stake in Lebanon is in jeopardy if Hezbollah attacks continue. But right now, Syria has been slapped in the face, and they'll be feeling pressure to retaliate — probably via Hezbollah, although nobody knows where or when. So now Israelis are waiting for the backlash on all fronts.

What has this escalation of violence meant for the morale of Israelis? A few years ago, Yitzhak Rabin had inspired them with the possibility of living in peace, and now they're being told by Sharon, and by their own experience of the past six months, that peace is not possible. That has to take its toll on the national psyche.

Morale is very low. Israelis are living a constricted version of the lives they were living before. You can see it most clearly at large public events. Many Purim parades were canceled, and the mass Maimuna celebrations that mark the end of Passover in Jerusalem were very poorly attended. No one is under any illusion that Sharon has all the answers, but right now they're expecting less. They feel closed in, under siege. The allure of Rabin's peace plan for Israelis was the promise of being able to live in a normal country. The idea of normality made all the compromises of peace seem worthwhile. Now, many no longer believe Israel can be a normal country.