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The Calm Between the Storms


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The spring forecast in Israel - utterly unpredictable. Cold, wind and rain one day, sunny and warm the next. Sun to thunderstorms to hail and even snow, all within hours. Oh, yeah, and possible war expected in coming months. PJM Tel Aviv Editor Allison Kaplan Sommer reports on the direction in which the winds are blowing in Israel

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March 21, 2007 - 1:59 am

I hadn’t seen Galia or any of her friends in a few weeks. Normally, I see these 19-year-old neighborhood girls each weekend, when they head home from their various army bases on Thursday night, and spend the next two days catching up on sleep, home-cooked meals, and heading for the beaches and nightclubs-magically transforming themselves for 48 hours from soldiers back into the fun-loving teenagers they were such a short time ago when they were in high school.

These neighborhood girls are like second daughters to me. For years, they babysat my kids while I worked, and when it’s possible to pull them away from their weekend festivities; I bribe them into watching my children for a few hours, to give my current high school sitters a break. After all, I joke, “how much safer can they be than if they’re being guarded by a soldier?”

Following their prolonged absence, I finally bumped into Galia (which, of course, is not her real name) and asked her what was going on. Where in the world had she been for the past month? Sick? New boyfriend?

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I wish. None of us were allowed off the base for the past three weeks. We had to participate in special exercises to get ready for the next war. They’re expecting it soon, you know.”

Being in soccer mom, not reporter mode, it took me a few minutes to pin her down to the crucial follow-up questions. “Umm, they’re expecting war, you say? In Lebanon or Gaza?”

“Oh, probably both.”

“REALLY. And when do they expect this war?”

“Well, of course nobody knows for sure when we’ll get attacked. But they think maybe in April and May.”

I nodded matter-of-factly in gratitude for the inside information as if I could then somehow adjust my schedule accordingly. But of course, I can’t.

After living in Israel for 14 years, I know that I have to deal with such news like severe weather warnings predicting a major storm. Prepared as you are for something bad to happen at any moment, but you can’t let it stop or throw off your life. What Galia told me didn’t come as a shock. From the day the war ended in the summer, the countdown began until the next one, and neither Hezbollah in the north or Hamas in Gaza is being very subtle about the fact that they are stockpiling their weapons smuggled in from Syria and Iran, getting ready for the big day they’ll start seriously hurling missiles our way, either according to plan or on a whim.

Yesterday, as I was in a business meeting, a siren began to wail. No one panicked-it had been well-publicized that the Israeli government was holding a nationwide emergency drill on Tuesday and Wednesday. Across the country, the papers informed us, would be the “massive drill simulating conventional and unconventional terror attacks across country, in order to implement lessons learned from war in Lebanon” and see how prepared we are for apartment buildings collapsing or a major hit on a power station or a community center. In Be’er Sheva, a drill will be held simulating a “mega-terror attack” with numerous casualties.

As part of that drill, sirens wailed at 2 PM throughout the center and southeast of the country will hear a siren. (They decided not to sound the siren in the north and in Gaza vicinity communities; worried that it will freak out people who may think it’s the real thing. They’ve been through enough.)

It all sounds very grim – and yet, we Israelis aren’t walking around wringing their hands. In my meeting, there was barely a pause, and it was business as usual.

This is our local weather, and we treat the situation the way a Gulf Coast resident treats hurricane season. No one is happy about it, but it is something we have to live with-and make the best of.

Well aware of what is going on around them, Israelis do their best to take advantage of the calm between the storms, they are experts at enjoying the moment, carpe diem, living in the enjoyable moment because no one knows how long that moment will last. Everyone makes the best of sudden changes. It snows, and folks head up to the Hermon mountain on the Golan Heights for skiing. When the early spring flowers bloom, as they have over the past few months, half a million Israelis piled into their car and went out to appreciate their beauty. It’s a time of carpe diem, seizing the day, living in the moment.

And the same philosophy rules in the periods between wars and conflict. It’s a good thing we know how to do this, because these days the security situation seems as impossible to control as whether it is snowing or sunny.

For a period of time, climaxing in the 1990′s, Israelis really believed that we could take actions as a nation that would navigate our fate. For years, the Israeli political scene was divided sharply into those who believed that if we only took the right steps of withdrawing from territory, we had a chance of convincing the Arab world to make peace-and those who believed that if we were aggressive and strong enough militarily we could intimidate it into making peace.

We tried both – neither worked.

So a new national consensus evolved – separation. Withdrawing from Lebanon, disengagement from Gaza, building a security fence and a vague hope that maybe if we left them alone, they would leave us alone.

The response: the election of Hamas and increasing resentment and hatred.
As the fierce and often violent Palestinian factional infighting continues, Israel despairs – if they can’t lay down their arms and make peace with one another, how can they ever be expected to do so with us?

And when they do get together, as they have in recent days, it appears that they are doing so because the only alternative to Hamas and Fatah waging war on each other is uniting to wage war on Israel. And most of the world appears to prefer the familiar latter choice over the former.

The good news is there’s a lot more unity among Israelis than there once was. The bad news is that people are united in their hopelessness.

Right, left, or center, the consensus sentiment among Israelis is that no matter what we do – withdraw, attack, or build fences a mile high, many if not most of the Palestinians, accompanied by the Arab world seem bent on working assiduously for Israel’s destruction, no matter what the cost. After several decades of ambiguity, our wars are once more, clearly existential.

The new consensus makes life simpler, but it also makes it a lot more depressing.

What makes it significantly worse is that until recently, Israelis essentially trusted their leaders who job it was to handle these things, were handling it with a degree of competence. And after the documented failures of the Lebanon war, compounded by scandal after scandal regarding corruption, sexual harassment, resulting in the resignations of both the Army chief of staff and the national chief of police, that trust, to the extent it existed, is gone.

In this context, in a perverse way, the disaster exercise Israelis are going through today and tommorow are somehow comforting – it’s a sign that someone out there, is doing their best to help us prepare for what lies ahead. There may be little we can do to prevent the incoming storm, but at least we can batten down the hatches.

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