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Jewish Journal

Israelis Identify With U.S.

"Terror can follow you anywhere."

by Larry Derfner

September 13, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The contrast between the Palestinian and Israeli reaction couldn't have been more stark -- while crowds of Palestinians were celebrating in the streets of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel was observing an official national day of mourning, with flags flying at half-mast, and blood banks and solidarity Web sites opening up.

Ben-Gurion Airport was all but silent --incoming foreign flights had been canceled. Land entry points from Egypt and Jordan were also closed. The country wasn't exactly on a war footing, but it was close. There was heavy tension in the air; the radio played sad but soothing songs, just as after a major terror attack. Israelis knew they were in the same boat as Americans, that they were "Little Satan" to America's "Great Satan" in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his devotees.

Israel looks to America as its protector, its only dependable ally in the world, and culturally and economically, is everything it wants to be. At the same time, though, Israelis see the United States as naive in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, and timid in its even-handed criticisms of both the Israeli and Palestinian sides in the now nearly yearlong intifada.

In the wake of the assaults in New York and Washington, Israelis' hearts were with America, but the word going forth from Zion was: "We told you so." A professor in Jerusalem, an erstwhile peacenik, said sarcastically, "After America bombs the sh -- out of somebody, Israel should put out a statement calling for 'both sides to show restraint, to end the cycle of violence.'"

Israel's version of the Pentagon and World Trade Center stand two blocks from each other on Tel Aviv's downtown Kaplan Street -- the Defense Ministry's "Kiriyah" compound, and the Azrieli Center glass-and-concrete twin towers, at 46 and 49 stories, the tallest buildings in Israel. Security guards were checking the trunks of cars coming into the parking lot, but this is standard procedure during the last year at shopping malls across the country.

In the lobby of the Azrieli Center, Miri Nachmias, 48, an accountant, said that only a week ago she discussed with her family a topic that many Israelis have been talking about during this year of terror: the option of leaving the country. "We were saying how maybe we should move to the States or to Canada, because it's safer there than here." But she's finished with such talk now. "This goes to show that terror can follow you anywhere." Shopping in the tallest skyscraper in Israel the day after the U.S. attacks didn't scare her, Nachmias said. "I feel safe inside here. The security and intelligence are better than in New York."

In all, though, she feels "absolutely horrible."

"With us, a bus blows up, and 14 people are killed, and we think it's a catastrophe, but this? Nothing like this has ever happened to us."

The undercurrent of exasperation with America for being too lax about the Islamic threat was expressed in extreme terms by Environment Minister Tsahi Hanegbi, a longtime hawk. "We are not alone," he intoned on Israel Television, saying it was an "illusion" to think America would match harsh words with harsh deeds against Islamic terrorism. "America is a fat, slumbering giant," Hanegbi said. "America is not the same country it was after Pearl Harbor."

Otniel Schneller, a veteran West Bank settler leader, noted that there are thousands of Americans, including many New Yorkers, living in the settlements, so the level of identification with the American victims is high. With so many Americans in the settlements, "We don't think of America as just another country," he said. After the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Americans would realize that "terrorism is, first of all, a human issue, and only secondly a political one." He added: "I was happy -- yes, happy -- to see that the pictures of Palestinians waving flags and clapping their hands in Ramallah and Nablus were broadcast around the world. There could be no better public relations work for Israel than this."

For Israelis, the bombings globalized the intifada. On one hand, they feared that they might be subject to wider attacks, that they might be drawn into a broader, bloodier conflict, but on the other hand, they felt they were sitting at the right hand of America and the West, that they were sailing close behind the flagship of democracy; and that the world finally understood what Israel was up against, which gave this Western-oriented outpost in the Middle East a feeling of enhanced security.

At the entrance to the Kiriyah compound, a desk sergeant carrying a bottle of orange soda back to the office said the U.S. attacks were "the only thing anybody's talking about. There's a lot of tension inside. People don't know if this is World War III or what." Asked what he thought would happen, the sergeant replied, "If it's Arabs who did this, then there's going to be a war." And who would win? "America and Israel," he said, smiling. "We're partners."

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