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Israelis' Responses Range From Rejection to Hope

May 26, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

JERUSALEM — As word of Israel's acceptance of a U.S.-backed peace plan buzzed across the airwaves Sunday, 48-year-old Philippe leaned back in his chair at a Jerusalem cafe and sipped a cappuccino with perfect equanimity.

"After 2 1/2 years of war, it's very difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to think about a new era," shrugged Philippe, a French Israeli who declined to give his last name. "It's not a marvelous plan, but we have to try."

Even before the Cabinet vote, Israeli support for the "road map" was lukewarm. In a poll published by the local Maariv newspaper two weeks ago, 29% of respondents said they opposed the road map, while 36% supported it. Thirty-five percent of those questioned were undecided.

Many ordinary Israelis greeted the news of the Cabinet's action Sunday with outright pessimism or feelings of deja vu, caused by disenchantment with past peace talks that disintegrated into cycles of violence. Israel is also still reeling from a spate of recent suicide bombings that threatened to scuttle the latest peace initiative.

"I think it's a mistake," Ester Journo, 19, said of the decision to endorse the peace timeline that would establish a Palestinian state by 2005. Pausing along a cobbled promenade where two violinists played classical music, she added briskly, "You give them a little and you have to give them more. I don't think there is a solution."

"There has to be clear borders," Dalit Sabah, 28, said as she emerged from a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. "We have to build a wall [between Israelis and Palestinians], and whoever tries to cross over should be shot in the head."

As Sabah spoke, green buses swooshed along Jaffa Street, a narrow road lined with bars and jewelry shops that has become one of the most frequent targets of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Hundreds of Israelis have died in more than 90 suicide attacks since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, while more than 2,000 Palestinians have perished in Israeli incursions and missile attacks.

Israeli resentment toward Palestinians surged last weekend when five suicide bombers, including a woman, slipped through tight military closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and blew themselves up, killing 12 Israelis. The blasts marred the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has vowed to neutralize Palestinian militants and nudge peace talks forward.

Besides Palestinian security guarantees, the road map calls for Israel to withdraw from the fringes of refugee camps in the Palestinian territories and to ease travel restrictions that have kept hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from work.

Critics say the plan ices over sticking points with vague wording, but most Israelis have welcomed intervention by the road map's most vocal advocate, the United States.

"I think the time has come" for peace, said Yaniv Maman, 25, his sunglasses pushed above his forehead, as he tied a ribbon around a bouquet of orange roses for a customer in a Jerusalem flower shop. "The United States understood that it had to press more from both sides for things to happen," he said.

The Israeli Cabinet's endorsement of the peace plan, by a 12-7 margin with four abstentions, was widely seen as a response to U.S. coercion. Others were cautiously optimistic that the plan would ease tensions over time and that a two-state solution would ultimately prevail. Sunday's vote marked the first time an Israeli government has ever endorsed Palestinian statehood, although the policy runs counter to the doctrine of right-wing parties in Sharon's hawkish coalition.

Sitting under an arch, Amit Even and his friend Eitan Hassid, both 18, thought back to their rare encounters with Palestinian or Arab Israeli peers. Most Palestinians are forbidden to enter Israel, except to fill day jobs, while the Israeli army strictly forbids Israelis from venturing into the West Bank and Gaza.

Hassid remembered playing soccer with Arab Israelis in his old neighborhood -- "but we weren't really friends," he said. Even said he had met a group of Palestinians during a filmmaking course.

"They are like us in every way," he said, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. "But even if we think of keeping in touch, we don't know if we should. We don't know what to do."

Back at the sidewalk cafe, Philippe said the two-state solution was the only way forward, but he dismissed the prospect of friendly ties between the two sides for now. "You have to think about not a warm peace, but a cold peace," he said. "Two states with a very cold relationship is better than war and terrorist attacks."

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