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Israeli Moderates Deal With Turmoil

January 19, 2006

JERUSALEM (AP) _ David Ehrlich was among the first Israeli soldiers into Lebanon in the 1982 invasion. Eighteen years later, Yuval Blankovsky was one of the last to leave.

Nowadays, the two friends spend time in Ehrlich’s restaurant, in what until recently was a different sort of battlefield. Of the 25 suicide bombings in Jerusalem between 2001 and 2004, five went off in the heart of the city not far from the restaurant.

The two conflicts have shaped Ehrlich and Blankovsky in ways that tell much about the doubts, confusion and death of old certainties among Israelis such as these _ leftist moderates who see rights and wrongs on both sides.

Ehrlich’s restaurant is tucked in the gentrified alleys off Zion Square. It’s a relaxed place with walls of stone slabs, offering fine cuisine to Israel’s burgeoning middle class. It has bookshelves lined with poetry, theater magazines and Hebrew translations of Shakespeare. Its name, Tmol Shilshom, is an archaic phrase roughly meaning ``Just Yesterday,″ which appeals to an Israeli nostalgia for older, simpler times.

The bombing onslaught has died down, but not the political upheaval unleashed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and by the stroke that knocked him out of politics less than three months before national elections.

There is a gathering sense among Israelis that sooner or later they will face a fateful decision about whether to give up large parts of the West Bank. The masked Jewish squatters who this week fought Israeli soldiers sent to evict them from their illegal West Bank enclave may be a foretaste of the difficulties ahead.

The political picture is hard to read. Sharon shattered it in 2005, first by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, then by quitting his right-wing Likud Party and forming Kadima, a centrist group that is leading the opinion polls even after his stroke.

Meanwhile, the violence goes on. On Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up 40 miles away in Tel Aviv, wounding 20 people.

``It makes real how fragile the Israeli reality is,″ says Blankovsky. Had the bombing taken Israeli lives, it could have set off another round of reprisal and counter-reprisal, ``and everything could become unbalanced,″ he said.

Ehrlich is 46, a mild-mannered man who writes fiction when he isn’t running his restaurant, and who knows how to tell a story. Speaking to Jewish audiences in the United States a few years ago, he was fond of relating the story of a young couple who had just sat down in his restaurant when a bomb went off down the road.

Panic and chaos broke out, and Ehrlich did his best to calm his frightened customers. When the turmoil finally subsided, he was surprised to see the couple still seated, engrossed in each other as though nothing had happened. The man then began calmly questioning Ehrlich about the kosher standards of various items on the menu, which rabbi had approved them, what ingredients they contained. ``And I’m wondering: There’s just been a bombing and this guy is on my case about kosher rules?″

Then Ehrlich understood. They were orthodox Jews being set up for marriage, and they had been given this one opportunity to be alone together and decide whether they were compatible enough to raise a family. Nothing _ not even a bomb _ could be allowed to disrupt the moment.

Flashback to June 1982: Ehrlich was close to finishing his military service when his artillery unit was sent into Lebanon.

The then prime minister, Menachem Begin, and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, billed it as a limited operation to push a strengthened Palestine Liberation Organization out of southern Lebanon. But as Israeli troops penetrated deeper, eventually reaching Beirut, it became clear that Sharon and Begin had bigger ideas _ to run PLO leader Yasser Arafat out of Lebanon and install a friendly government.

``At first I was convinced we were doing the right thing,″ Ehrlich recalls. ``I think the PLO was ready to go to war and it had to be fought. ... But when I realized Sharon was dragging us farther than what was supposed to happen, I was very upset.″

Lebanon left a deep scar in Israeli minds. Some called it their Vietnam. Peace efforts went into a deep freeze. The first Palestinian uprising broke out and would last six years.

And then, at last, some hope: In 1993 Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, named for their Norwegian mediators, and Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, at the White House.

Ehrlich, who had long believed Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and let it become a Palestinian state, thought deliverance was at hand. But after seven years of tough negotiation, the two sides found themselves far apart on the fundamentals, and in 2000 the second Palestinian uprising erupted, this time accompanied by a wave of suicide bombings.

``Once I felt there was a chance, that Oslo would bring us to something we could live with. Now we don’t see it,″ Ehrlich says.

Arafat is dead, replaced by the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas. But now the Islamic militants of Hamas, a group whose stated goal is Israel’s destruction, are poised for big gains in the Palestinian election Wednesday. The ``new Middle East″ that was supposed to emerge from the Oslo accords turns out to be little different from the old Middle East.

``Even the most moderate forces in Israel still cannot find common ground with the most moderate forces in Palestinian politics,″ Ehrlich says. He would still give the Palestinians the whole West Bank, he says. ``But I know that no matter how far I go, they would still want more than we can give.″

Many Israelis see a solution in what Sharon did, which was essentially to stop talking and act unilaterally to start disentangling them from the Palestinians by quitting the Gaza Strip. Ehrlich is no longer sure where the solution lies. ``Maybe there’s a solution and I just don’t see it.″

Ehrlich’s friend, Blankovsky, says his experience has taught him to keep his hopes down.

A medic, he served in southern Lebanon during the last year of Israel’s occupation of that zone, never venturing out of his bunker except in flak jacket and a helmet.

The war, which ended in 2000 with a hasty overnight withdrawal from Lebanon, ``was my most important lesson in the limits of force,″ he says.

Hezbollah fighters killed 15 of his comrades in a year. ``We were shelled three times a week.″ Yet now Israelis and Hezbollah men face each other across the border fence, at close quarters, and hold their fire. The lesson he draws: ``It’s all about keeping a balance of power.″

Few in Israel were more hostile to Sharon than the left, but today Blankovsky acknowledges his courage in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. ``He surprised his voters and he surprised those who voted against him.″

Sitting by his laptop in Tmol Shilshom, where he is collaborating with Ehrlich on a book about the restaurant, he says he and his generation have concluded that ``the solutions of the left and the right don’t work.″

Handshakes at the White House no longer excite him and his friends, he says. ``We’ve been to that party. Now what we want to see is small, practical steps.″

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