The Magazine

Waltzing Among the Rockets

War, dining out, a high stakes election: Israeli life is back to normal.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Tel Aviv

The cover of the January 15-22 issue of Time Out Tel Aviv--a free weekly rundown of culture, dining, and night life--offers a juxtaposition at once incongruous and in keeping with the nation's mood and the harsh logic of its situation.

Dominating the cover is a drawing of three combat-equipped soldiers, machine guns at the ready, illuminated by a fireball in the night sky, as they warily approach an ominous, seemingly deserted building. The drawing calls attention to the feature story, "Waltz with Hamas," an allusion to Waltz with Bashir, a Golden Globe-winning Israeli animated documentary that deals with the anxiety and trauma generated among soldiers by Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The magazine cover touts one other article: "The best soup in Tel Aviv, including recipes!"

And so it goes, throughout the country: War and affluence casually coexist. Even as serious threats loom, the pleasures of dining out and of preparing gourmet dishes at home beckon in this nation awash with books, music, film, theater, dance, painting, sculpture, professional sports, bars and restaurants, cafés and nightclubs.

What seems strangely subdued is discussion of the upcoming elections. Less than a week before the February 10 vote for a new parliament and prime minister, a wide variety of the Israelis I've talked to--from cab drivers to professors and lawyers, management consultants to dentists, journalists to national security officials, city residents to kibbutzniks--had not yet decided for whom they would vote and reported that many of their friends and acquaintances hadn't either.

Yet the race is close. The most recent polls indicate that opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud party will take 26 to 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset; foreign minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party will win 23 seats; a surging Israel Our Home, a fiercely nationalist party led by Knesset member and former Netanyahu chief of staff Avigdor Lieberman, will take a stunning 17 to 19 seats; and minister of defense and former prime minister Ehud Barak's left-liberal Labor party, buoyed by the success of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, is projected to win 15 to 17 seats.

Although, with only four days to go before the election, more than 15 percent of Israelis tell pollsters they are undecided, it remains likely that when the dust settles, the right-wing bloc, which includes Likud, Israel Our Home, and the religious parties, will have won a majority of seats. In Israel's parliamentary system, this means that even if Kadima were to edge out Likud in the voting, President Shimon Peres would still be obliged to invite Netanyahu, the head of the largest right-wing party, to form a government.

Whoever wins will inherit major challenges. Israel remains surrounded on three sides by enemies. To the north in Lebanon, Hezbollah, since the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, has rearmed and regrouped. To the northeast, Syria, which continues to support Hezbollah and Hamas, has deployed missiles that can reach Tel Aviv. To the east, in the West Bank, Hamas continues to plot terrorist attacks; were the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Security Agency to reduce their continuous operations beyond the Green Line, few doubt that Hamas rockets would soon rain down on Ben Gurion Airport and downtown Tel Aviv. To the southwest, in Gaza, Hamas is down but not destroyed; unless the flow of weapons through Egypt is cut off, the next substantial Israeli military operation in Gaza will occur sooner rather than later. And behind the scenes, on every front, Iran trains and finances Israel's enemies.

The economy, moreover, while in better shape than many, still has suffered a slowdown, and may be headed for recession. The system of public education has long been underfunded and poorly run. Tel Aviv University, Israel's largest, has been grappling with a severe financial crisis and a dispirited faculty. And Israel's Muslim-Arab minority, around 20 percent of the citizenry, lags behind in all indicators of social and economic well-being and is increasingly alienated from the state.