What with Libya, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the East Coast earthquake, and the gyrations on Wall Street that sometimes feel like an earthquake, it’s been easy to forget what happened on August 18 in southern Israel. Flora Gez and Shulamit Karlinsky, two sisters from Kfar Saba, were travelling in a silvery painted car to a vacation in Eilat with their respective husbands, Moshe Gez and Dov Karlinsky. We don’t know who was driving. We only know that they were all killed as part of a coordinated terrorist attack that left four other Israelis dead and set off a wave of violent responses killing three Egyptians, six Gazans and nearly shattering the wobbly state of not-war, not-peace that has grown more troubled in recent months.
Suddenly, Eilat is a new addition to the list of places in which Israelis have died by terror. (Surely Palestinians have their list, too.) The question now is: Will it mean something more? It is, after all, firmly inside Israel proper, considered undisputed by anyone who believes that Israel has a right to exist. It is not on the West Bank or in another hotly contested area; it holds no particular historical or religious significance. It’s a busy port and a vacation spot, not a point of contention for negotiation.
The attack also marks the first violence of its kind against Israel since the Arab Spring unleashed a convulsion of popular protests around the region that, while largely directed at the autocratic rulers who have dominated Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria, have also introduced a frightening uncertainty into relations with Israel. After the Egyptian deaths were reported, but before Israel apologized for them, thousands of protestors surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo and tore down its blue-and-white flag. Yeah, scary stuff.
So what will Eilat represent? For those who believe that negotiating with Palestinians is a foolhardy and even deadly exercise, then Eilat is the latest exhibit of proof. Another round of funerals, another set of orphaned children, Israel’s sense of being under seige reinforced. Far be it for us, living half a world away in relative peace, to dispute that line of thinking and feeling.
But sometimes the view is clearer from a distance. There is little Israel can do to shape the flow of events in the Arab world right now — except to work harder to find a just solution for a viable Palestinian state. Eilat makes that more complicated, no doubt about it, reminding us that Hamas’s only foreign policy seems to be unrelenting terror and putting its partnership with the Palestinian Authority under further scrutiny.
Even so, what also should be remembered about the Eilat incident is what didn’t happen next. Both Israeli and Egyptian leaders stepped back from the pending abyss, toned down their rhetoric, and clearly realized what was at stake if their relationship was to further deteriorate. For Israel, the additional burden of stemming an open wound on yet another border would force the government to spend much more on the military than it can afford to right now, especially if the “social justice” protests will continue to highlight the country’s growing income inequality and domestic needs. Difficult though it is, Eilat can be a symbol of something other than terror.