The lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh was buzzing with dark-suited officials, press and security personnel from the U.S. State Department, Egypt and Israel, mingling with swim-suited tourists from Finland and Abu Dhabi.
So when the reporter from a major Arabic TV Channel, whom I know and respect and who was there for the international peace conference, earnestly asked me whether Israelis really want peace the question seemed as bizarre as the setting.
Of course, it came in the wake of two major U.S. publications descending on Israel to take the pulse of the people and solemnly diagnosing a terminal case of national hedonism.
I could have told the reporter about my good friends Jeffrey and Irit, a successful couple living in one of Israel’s most exclusive neighborhoods who believed passionately in the Oslo peace process of the 1990’s and then watched as Arafat chose terror over agreement.
Jeffrey and I stood together at Kissufim Junction in the Gaza Strip dusk on 15 August 2005 as the barrier between Israel and Gaza came down, symbolizing Israel’s disengagement. In the following days, every Israeli man, woman and child, citizen and soldier withdrew from Gaza, taking with them the bodies exhumed from the Jewish cemeteries for reburial in Israel.
Some three years later, Jeffrey and Irit’s son Michael was sent into Gaza with his paratroop battalion to put an end to the thousands of deadly rocket attacks fired at Israelis by Iran-backed Jihadi terrorists who were more occupied by how many Israelis they could kill than building a civil society.
Michael returned, but not before watching his sergeant die in battle. Their second of three children is now being drafted into the IDF. Jeffrey reflects on his blog about what will induce Hamas to ever accept the right of him and his family to live in peace.
I could tell the reporter of fearing something as banal as visiting the local shopping mall in my home town of Netanya, frequently blown up by terrorists from the West Bank, a nine-mile drive away. Or of comforting a friend who was in Tel Aviv as the Number 5 bus was blown up in front of her on Dizengoff Street.
All are singular experiences but part of the national psyche: Israelis defending themselves from wars of aggression for the first three decades of the State’s existence. The tension of regular terror outrages that brought unbearable carnage to Israel’s streets and unspeakable pain to so many Israeli families. An unprovoked barrage of Saddam’s scuds, Nasrallah’s katyushas, Haniah’s Kassams and now the threat of Ahmadinedjad’s nuclear warheads barreling their way towards us.
And yet, for anyone who took the time to check, over the last many years, a majority of Israelis have consistently polled in favor of a two-state solution.
Quite remarkable, really.
The Israel Project has polled in the U.S., Europe, Russia and China and the top concern of respondents, every time, in every group, in every country, is the economy. TIP polled Muslims in Paris who are said to be roiling about the situation of Muslims in the Middle East. Their major concerns were jobs and education - they barely mentioned Palestine. TIP has just polled in Ramallah and unsurprisingly, it was the economy. The major, overriding concern of West Bankers is jobs.
There is something ugly about insisting that Israelis must behave differently to the rest of humanity.
In delegitimizing Israel, it is Israelis and not just the Israeli government that is under attack. Israelis are branded as unmoved by peace and motivated only by money. Mr. Karel De Gucht is still the European Commissioner for Trade, despite commenting that most Jews believe they are always right and questioning the point of talking to them at all. The head of Amnesty International in Finland believes Israel is a scum state.
Of course, this embarrasses and infuriates the Israeli government but it is Middle Israelis who are on the firing line. And it is easier to boycott Israeli academics, musicians, directors, tennis players, farmers and concert goers if they can be singled out as people uniquely deserving of opprobrium – in fact, a nation of warmongering, selfish Fagins.
So, why do Israelis teach about peace in schools and despite constant setbacks, send government after government to negotiate? Because, as Jeffrey insists, peace is about our existence. Surrounded by enemies, there is no life for us without it and no alternative to achieving it.
Look beyond golden beaches, designer shirts and Tel Aviv apartment prices made famous by magazine copy. There are millions of Israelis who have not given up.
Marcus Sheff is the Executive Director of The Israel Project’s Israel Office.