Dispatch From Tel Aviv

Why some Israelis believe recent developments may not be entirely bad for the Jews.

It’s a time-honored pastime from Brooklyn to Beersheva: the armchair evaluation of events by the simple test, “Is it bad for the Jews?” Sometimes—historically, lots of times—the answer is easy. But not always. Some things that may seem, on their face, to be bad for the Jews—say, overwhelming electoral success for a Palestinian group notoriously devoted to the destruction of Israel—have been met here in Tel Aviv with surprising calm.

Both last month’s election results and the riots over offensive Danish cartoons that have broken out in Gaza and throughout the Muslim world were largely greeted with a sort of grim acceptance on this side of the Green Line. “I don’t think we are worse off than before. At least the mask is off. Now everything is out in the open,” longtime Likud supporter Yoav Mizrahi told me in Shuk Ha-Carmel, Tel Aviv’s busiest open-air market, where even a late-afternoon winter rain couldn’t thin the crowds. Meanwhile, settler leadership has its own entry for the list of Israel-unfriendly entities. Yesterday, they brought thousands of supporters to Jerusalem for a mass rally warning of civil war under the slogan: “[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert is bad for the Jews.”

Certainly, Olmert’s ascendancy hasn’t been good for some Jews—the minority committed to holding onto every last inch of West Bank territory. The fierce clash between thousands of young soldiers and even younger protesters (most were between the ages of 12 and 20) in the illegal outpost of Amona a few days ago marked the first face-to-face confrontation since last August’s disengagement for a settler community still reeling from the speed with which the Israeli government was able to clear them from Gaza. This time, evicting authorities were met with fierce resistance from thousands of Jewish protesters who barricaded themselves on the roofs of the settlement’s buildings, hurling turpentine and chunks of concrete at Israeli forces; troops responded with water cannons and mass arrests. The melee was featured in wall-to-wall live coverage on the country’s major TV networks. In the days since the near-riot, which resulted in dozens of injuries to both police and protesters, the level of outrage among those present—and their right-wing supporters—has held steady at a slow boil. “They are treating people here like Arabs,” sputtered Arieh Eldad, a right-wing Knesset member injured at Amona, in an interview on Israel Radio.

In at least one sense, he’s right. In a reality check for organizers who may have assumed the government would adopt the same conciliatory approach used during last summer’s disengagement operation, the felony counts faced by the Jews arrested at Amona are the same as the charges usually filed against stone-throwing Palestinians.

Logically, the showdown shouldn’t have been this bloody. This wasn’t a zero-sum game, like the August evacuation of Gush Katif that ended the decades-long Jewish presence in Gaza: For now, at least, the land seized at Amona is staying in Israeli hands. Of course, the real issue wasn’t the nine makeshift buildings in the West Bank outpost, whose evacuation had been appealed all the way to the country’s highest court. Nobody believes Amona marks the high-water mark of internal conflict over disengagement. The showdown was just a dry run for larger battles that loom ahead.

For Olmert, the Amona face-off was his first major test since taking over the top spot, a chance to prove he’s as tough as his mentor, Ariel Sharon. Settlers may find themselves increasingly nostalgic for Sharon, the author of the Gaza disengagement plan; at least the former architect of the settlement policy lauded them as brave pioneers even as he ordered them out of their homes. Not Ehud Olmert, who has made bitter references to settler “outlaws” in the West Bank. But settler leaders were aching for a fight, too—if only to prove their relevance to a skeptical constituency still stinging from the events of last summer. Their official slogan leading up to Gaza withdrawal had been, “With love, we will win.” That sentiment is, by all accounts, obsolete. Now they warn gravely of even tougher fights to come.

In the wake of Amona, some settlers—in an eerie echo of divestment proponents on the left—have begun circulating e-mails asking Americans not to invest in Israeli bonds or donate to government-affiliated causes and to pressure Congress over Israel’s “anti-democratic policies.” Tactics on the ground have shifted as well. Last summer, evicted settlers mostly stuck to hurling harsh words and spoiled foodstuffs at approaching authorities. Last week, it was paint thinner and hefty bricks. Some officials publicly speculate it may be just a matter of time before bricks give way to bullets. “A line has clearly been crossed,” a grave Olmert told a Knesset committee in a headline-grabbing quote. “This is reaching a scope we haven’t seen before.”

The Amona showdown may have helped rally the hard-core settlement supporters. But it hasn’t had the same impact on the rest of the Israeli public. A poll taken by Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s leading daily, shortly after the showdown found those surveyed blame the protesters, not the police, for the melee by a margin of more than 3 to 1. And significant majorities still favor the unilateral disengagement policy initiated by Ariel Sharon and plan to vote for his Kadima Party. So far, it seems, the shocking outcome of the Palestinian elections has solidified, not reversed, this support. “We need to get out of there and be done with it,” said Irit Levy, an impeccably groomed 32-year-old shopping at the upscale Ramat Aviv Mall in north Tel Aviv, a favorite of the area’s upper-middle class. The Ra’anana housewife is a lifelong Labor supporter who voted for Sharon twice. Now she’s solidly behind Kadima. “They will live their lives, and we will live ours.”

Still, in this neighborhood, it isn’t so easy to ignore the trash-talking troublemaker just next door. And events have moved so rapidly since the year began—longtime realities overturned, safe assumptions shattered—it’s enough to give even a casual observer of the political scene here severe whiplash. A little more than a month ago, Ariel Sharon was still the undisputed master of Israeli political life. Less than two weeks ago, Fatah dominated the machinery of Palestinian leadership, as it had for decades. In just a few days, a Hamas-led Palestinian parliament will meet for the first time. Just a few weeks later, the Israeli public will have a chance to register their reaction to all this chaos at the polls. Yoav Mizrahi may be right. The earthquake that upended the Palestinian political landscape may not, in the long run, be entirely bad for the Jews. And the furor over Amona may not lead to lasting domestic damage. But, as even he conceded, it can’t be too good, either.