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Some Happy 55th: Pessimism, A Strike and Same-Old Terror

JERUSALEM — On the eve of the country’s 55th Independence Day, most Israelis are in a somber and pessimistic mood, shackled by what they perceive as unbreakable military, political and economic chains.

According to the newest polls, the public supports the American-sponsored “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as the recent appointment of Abu Mazen to the post of Palestinian prime minister. But the suicide bombing just outside the American embassy in Tel Aviv, which came only a few hours after Abu Mazen’s Cabinet was formally approved, confirmed the widespread apprehension that the more things change, the more they will remain the same, especially as far as Palestinian terrorism is concerned.

Adding to the general despondency was the all-out general strike declared by the Histadrut Labor Federation this week, which brought all public services, including airports, government services and the entire education system, to a complete halt.

According to a poll published this week in the daily Ma’ariv, an overwhelming majority of the public opposes the strike, but at the same time rejects the Treasury’s new economic program, against which the strike was called.

In both the economic and security arena, the public feels utterly caught in a bind. The Ma’ariv poll showed significant support for the appointment of Abu Mazen, with 50% in favor compared to only 20% against, but nonetheless most Israelis, by the exact same margins, do not believe that Abu Mazen’s new Palestinian Cabinet will do any better in fighting terrorism.

The poll also showed widespread support for most of the moves demanded of Israel in the road map, including a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian towns, a total freeze on settlements in the territories and the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state. But all of these concessions require an earnest Palestinian fight against terrorism, as well as significant internal reforms, and most Israelis are highly skeptical that such changes will take place any time in the near future.

Prime Minister Sharon, for reasons yet to be completely deciphered, appears to be reflecting the public’s gloom, and the press is rife with reports of his angst. Sharon’s only public appearances in recent weeks have been in carefully controlled arenas and public ceremonies where he has delivered speeches prepared well in advance. On the burning issues of the day, such as Abu Mazen and the all-out strike, Sharon’s comments have been noticeably absent.

According to some well-placed sources in the police and judicial system, Sharon is keenly aware of an approaching legal storm that may engulf and potentially doom his tenure. The State Comptroller delivered a stinging rap on Sharon’s knuckles this week, accusing him of a conflict of interests and inappropriate involvement in decisions from which he and his family benefited directly. More ominously, according to the sources, the police have uncovered evidence directly implicating Sharon in the allegations of bribery and campaign finance fraud that figured prominently in the recent election campaign, but which ultimately failed to dent Sharon’s popularity. The proverbial wheels of justice have kept on turning, the sources say, regardless of Sharon’s overwhelming victory in the elections, and the charges raised in the campaign will soon come back to haunt the prime minister.

Sharon’s dreads the return of his legal problems, for they may hamper his ability to deal with the imminent diplomatic and military decisions required in the aftermath of Abu Mazen’s appointment. According to a report presented this week to Sharon by the army’s military intelligence, the approval of Abu Mazen’s Cabinet is likely to resuscitate the Palestinians’ international stature — without forcing them to carry out significant steps to combat Palestinian terrorist groups.

Sharon will also need to walk a fine line in his relations with Washington, which has given the green light to the publication of the road map while Yasser Arafat, the eternal nemesis, continues to wield effective power over the Palestinian Authority.

Just like the public itself, the government has reacted coolly to Abu Mazen’s confirmation. Abu Mazen’s strong condemnation of violence, in his address to the Palestinian Legislative Council, was dubbed “a step in the right direction” by Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom, but Israel’s political and military leaders believe that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Sharon and the generals have decided that Israel will make no gestures toward the Palestinians, nor will it ease the relentless fight against terrorists, until Abu Mazen and his new security chief, Mohammad Dahlan, take significant steps to curb terrorism.

The prospects for such moves are dim, according the latest intelligence analysis. Abu Mazen, the experts say, has failed to secure an effective hold over the entire Palestinian security apparatus, and in any case does not appear to be showing the kind of determination necessary to openly tackle the belligerent Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah-Tanzim militants. At best, as one cynical military officer told Ha’aretz this week, “he will tell the terrorists to refrain from attacks between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.” At worst, as many military officers fear, Abu Mazen’s confirmation will actually usher in a new and ferocious campaign of terrorism, as the militant groups vie to prove to the new Palestinian prime minister that is they who continue to call the violent shots.

Similarly skeptical of positive change, the government and the public also greeted with marked indifference the new messages of conciliation from Damascus, delivered to Jerusalem this week by a visiting American congressman, Tom Lantos. Lantos told Israelis that Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed his willingness to launch a new dialogue with Sharon. The prime minister and his advisers believe, however, that the Syrian president is being disingenuous, seeking to repair Syria’s strained relations with Washington in the wake of the war in Iraq. Sharon, in any case, has frequently indicated his preference for the Palestinian track over the Syrian channel, as well as his adamant refusal to countenance acceptance of the Syrian precondition for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Prospects on the economic front are no better than on the diplomatic and military fronts. The prospect of continued diplomatic and security paralysis bodes ill for the government’s attempts to extricate Israel from its economic morass. In submitting his controversial economic plan to the Knesset this week, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that the new measures will bring about a dramatic turnaround in the country’s economic fortunes, but most experts, including the governor of the Bank of Israel, David Klein, believe that without at least a glimmer of hope on the diplomatic horizon, the Israeli economy will continue to deteriorate, from bad to worse to awful.

The new economic plan, with its drastic cuts for social subsidies and government handouts, threatens to further impoverish Israel’s growing legions of poor and unemployed, and to dramatically widen the gaps between rich and poor, at least in the short run. Thus, in addition to the widespread feeling that external forces have forced Israel into a corner, there is also a growing sentiment of basic unfairness on the home front, and increasing protest at the gradual disappearance of Israel’s hitherto benevolent welfare state.

The strike is likely to end by early next week, at least temporarily, in honor of the somber Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers, which is immediately followed by the traditionally festive Day of Independence. The jubilation this year, however, will probably be unusually restrained, as Israelis ponder their current predicament and strive to remember the cause for celebration.

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