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With the World Spotlights Off, Israelis Avoid the Enemy Within

July 24, 1988|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus , editor of the Middle East Policy Survey , recently returned from Israel

WASHINGTON — Until last week's violence, an eerie, unreal quiet had descended on Israel. The international spotlight is off. The hundreds of special foreign correspondents have gone home. Even U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz has folded his peacemaking tent. And for the inveterate Middle East news jockey, there is always the Persian Gulf.

Most Israelis were relieved to find their problems with the Palestinian uprising, or intifada , were no longer on Page 1 and, especially, off evening news telecasts.

Officials realized there was some residual damage to the country's image, particularly in Europe. But they said that in the United States--more important than the rest of the world combined--the violence of last winter and spring was fading into memory.

With the United States, in effect, looking the other way, it has been relatively easy for many Israelis to act as if nothing momentous has occurred, nothing dramatic had changed. As one senior adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said, "The so-called intifada is merely a security problem to be dealt with in the same manner as other threats to our security over the past 40 years. This is only a continuation of the same story of years of (Arab-Israeli) violence."

This tendency to see the Palestinian uprising in security terms is not the exclusive preserve of the right wing. Israeli public-opinion polls show Shamir's hard-line Likud Bloc to be the increasing preference of middle-of-the-road Israeli voters, who apparently respond to its tough rhetoric about the unrest. And the more moderate Labor Alignment leaders, such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, take every opportunity to emphasize their commitment to law and order--supporting such measures as deportation of recalcitrant Palestinians and destruction of houses sheltering Palestinians suspected of involvement in violent acts.

Even the Israeli military, whose budget and training schedules have been disrupted by the intifada , seem more interested in talking about external security threats than the enemy within. For example, briefings by key military leaders now focus on the new threat offered by Arab deployment of medium-range ballistic missiles.

Yet if you ask an Israeli soldier about Saudi Arabia's missiles or Iraq's missiles and chemical weapons, there is scant reaction. Ask about the uprising and you will get an earful about his unpleasant experiences in the West Bank or Gaza. The annual reserve duty of an average Israeli soldier has now been doubled from 30 to 60 days because of the intifada . Yet extended reserve duty is only the first of many significant changes in Israeli daily life wrought by the Palestinian uprising.

Beginning in 1967, successive Israeli governments sought to establish Jewish settlements across the "Green Line" that separates pre-1967 Israel from Palestinian-occupied territory. Subsidized housing on the West Bank attracted many Israelis, particularly from the expensive urban centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As these bedroom suburbs sprouted, the Green Line all but disappeared. It took just a few weeks of sustained Palestinian rioting during last December and early January to restore it.

Now Israeli commuters who come to work across the Green Line are often armed with M-16 rifles. Israeli drivers, who found it quicker to travel from one Israeli town to another via the West Bank, are taking the older, slower routes.

Those Israeli officials with an ideological commitment to what they call Judea and Samaria point out that Israelis who now avoid Arab areas never spent much time in them to begin with. That may be so. But these reluctant Israelis now don't even come close. One Israeli related how the parents in his child's elementary school successfully protested against the administrators' decision to hold the annual school picnic close to the Green Line.

There is one city with a significant Arab population that never gave even the most squeamish Israeli second thoughts--Jerusalem. Jerusalem, East and West, is regarded by almost all Israelis as the indivisible capital of the Jewish state. And while that has been true--on paper--since June, 1967, for the past six months on the ground it has not been. As one U.S. official said, "You may not see the barbed wire but there are two cities out there, East and West Jerusalem."

Arab East Jerusalem is now off-limits for most Israeli excursions. Restricted store hours and intermittent general strikes have curtailed shopping. Moreover, a vague sense of unease caused by silent but palpable Arab hostility has made Israelis--not to mention a dwindling number of foreign tourists--feel wholly unwelcome in Arab parts of Jerusalem.

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