Joel Mowbray reports from Israel, part 1

Joel Mowbray is filing dispatches from Israel with us this week. Tonight he writes from Tel Aviv:

TEL AVIV–As I sit in a cafe while writing this, I am one of the few in Israel under age 40 not glued to the TV. World Cup mania has reached a fever pitch, and young Israelis have turned out en masse to watch Italy and France fight for global bragging rights.

Tomorrow morning, Israelis will return to their daily grind, while their government inches closer to war with Hamas. It’s been two weeks since 19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted from inside Israel proper, and Israeli tanks have rolled through much of northern Gaza, largely because Palestinian terrorists have used those villages to launch incessant missile strikes into populated Israeli cities. Hamas is demanding that the Jewish state release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and the nascent Ehud Olmert regime is–for the moment at least–sticking to its pledge not to negotiate with terrorists.

What’s remarkable is how little the fate of young Shalit is being discussed by ordinary Israelis. Those around his age–all of whom are subject to mandatory military service–could easily see themselves in his position, and worse, Israeli parents must worry that their own children could be held hostage by Islamic terrorists bent on the elimination of all Jews. Yet the battle fatigue that has set into this tiny nation under constant attack for six years now has rendered Israel incapable of devoting too much emotion to any single tragedy.

Prime Minister Olmert is holding a press conference tomorrow at 10am local time (3am EST), and most likely, he will reiterate his position of no negotiations with terrorists. But various other Israeli officials have signaled that the Jewish state will do as it has done before and release an obscene number of prisoners as ransom.

Olmert’s next move will no doubt be scrutinized by Western and Arab leaders. If he caves and offers the “exchange” (think 1,000 thugs and terrorists for one young Israeli), he will be seen as weak and vulnerable. If the Gaza incursion continues and Shalit is rescued, then Hamas will be emasculated in the eyes of its own constituents and most of the Arab world.

If Shalit lives, it is fairly safe to assume that most Israelis will look for no deeper meaning in the tactics Olmert uses. Even if he dies, Israelis will mourn, but then just as quickly, they will attempt to achieve the normalcy that always manages to escape them.

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