The sun is setting on the walls of the Old City, which reminds me why this city is called “Jerusalem of Gold”. In the days since I last posted, our group of journalists traveling with the AIEF has moved at a rapid clip. We visited Tel Aviv, Tiberias, the borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. I’ll write more when I get a chance to catch my breath. But here are some early impressions:
• The Israeli Spirit – Israelis appear more confident than during my last visit. Back in 1998, the country’s 50th anniversary, I found people distraught over the relatively recent assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the spate of terrorist bombings in March, 1996. A key factor appears to be the thriving economy, which actually picked up speed as the Second Lebanon War waged last summer.
• Security – Driving down King David Street, I noticed crowded street markets and asked whether this was safe. The consensus answer is that it is. The prevailing rationale for this improved situation is the security fence. Since the construction of the fence – and most of it is a fence, not a wall as is the perception in America – terrorist attacks have been dramatically reduced. Some attribute the decline by a decision by Hamas to hold off on a suicide bombing campaign. Human rights advocates complain about the ramifications of this fence on the Palestinians, a fact with which Israel is currently grappling. So far, it’s hard to deny the efficacy of this measure. While I always err on the side of caution and you never know what’s going to happen in this part of the world, I can report a widespread Israeli consensus that the fence works.
• The Political Scene – The buzzword of the moment is “paradox”. We have heard it from two-thirds of the people with whom we have met. In the political terms, the paradox is a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, whose popularity lies below that of President Bush’s in America, yet commands the most solid political coalition in the history of this country, where the average tenure of a p.m. is one and a half years. Polls suggest Benjamin Netanyahu is popular, but under Israel’s parliamentary system elections will not be held for another two and a half years.
• The Palestinians – Sources on all sides say the scene in the P.A. is one of chaos. Three factions – Hamas in Syria, Hamas in the P.A., and Fatah (Arafat’s old group) – vie for control under the umbrella of a Saudi-orchestrated national unity agreement. The word out of Gaza is that there is a Wild West-like environment with armed gangs and gunmen battling it out. Also present is the presence of foreign and foreign-backed elements, such as those affiliated with Iran, Hezbollah and possibly al Qaeda.
• Iran – Iran is the big looming threat, and nobody has a good answer of where to go. I’ll have more on this later.
• Saudi Arabia – I’m hearing a lot of “moderate Arabs” talk. A school of diplomatic thought believes the Saudis will be willing to move in Israel’s direction given the joint-threat of Iran. While I’m skeptical about the motivations of the Al Saud family, it is true that the Saudis gave Israel space to carry out its fight against Lebanon last summer at the beginning of the conflict.