Israel Votes in the Eye of a Storm

Israel, a week before elections, felt like it was in the eye of a hurricane. There was a strange calm, as if all the yelling at each other on TV and in living rooms had exhausted the nerves of this nervy, aggressive, spirited nation.

And although Israel is the most democratic nation in the region - from Pakistan to Morocco - this was a moment when I felt I had to tip toe around the most controversial topics when speaking with Israelis, including what to do about:

-- Four million Palestinians - revive peace talks and give them an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza or leave them under occupation.

-- Ultra-orthodox Jews - about 10 percent of the 8 million Israelis but holding enough political clout to keep their sons and daughters out of the army, and bar from Jewish marriage or burial those they feel are less than kosher.

-- Iran's nuclear bomb-Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called for the destruction of Israel.

-- Deteriorating relations between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barak Obama after the Israeli's March speech urging the U.S. Congress to reject a "soft" deal with Iran.

This is only a short list of the most divisive issues splintering this incredibly beautiful and productive nation into tribes and parties and cults.

For example, artist Yair Garbuz, speaking at a rally of the leftist Zionist Union, warned against turning the country over to "amulet kissers" meaning Sephardic Jews whose families came from Moslem countries and who venerate holy men and kiss amulets blessed by senior rabbis.

To the liberal Jews of Tel Aviv, reading their flagship daily newspaper Haaretz while they sip lattes on leafy boulevards, kissing amulets is superstition. But making fun of this practice cut deeply into the feelings of Sephardic Jews, who have long suffered slights from the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who founded and largely dominated the development of Israel.

In fact, the Likud Party won the March 17 election by capturing Sephardic voters who told reporters they could never vote against the party of Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu.

So I drove south out of Tel Aviv and found neighborhoods where Sephardic Jews live in treeless, dusty, crumbling immigrant housing. It was another world from the European-style streets of Tel Aviv..

This is what Israelis call tribalism - you vote for the political party that represents your ethnic background.

Sephardic Jews tend to be much more skeptical of the peace processes than the Ashkenazi. But both tribes believe Israel is under threat and must show the region it is strong enough to send all its enemies packing. "We pulled out of Southern Lebanon and we got Hizbollah," they say. "We pulled out of Gaza and they gave us Hamas" which launched thousands of rockets on Israel last summer leading to a 50-day war that killed nearly 100 Israelis and 2,000 Palestinians.

But Israel has been playing hardball with the Palestinians since 1948 and the sentiment of Europe and the rest of the world has changed. The plucky David who fought off the goliath of millions of Arabs in 1948 and 1967 is now seen as the Goliath who crushed poor Palestinians. This pity for the underdog sparked a movement to boycott Israeli products and led leftists and Muslims in Europe and U.S. colleges to taunt Jews in public.

Above all, Israelis are concerned about their security. An indication of this came at the annual Washington meeting of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) in early March. Czech President Milos Zeman reminded the 17,000 delegates that his country witnessed how appeasement at Munich in 1938 opened the door to the slaughter of Jews. "Never again we shall go, we shall march, like sheep to the slaughter," he said. These days it is the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Russia negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran. And like in Munich, the Czechs and Israelis had no a seat at the table when their fate was being decided.

Liberal Ari Shavit, author of "My Promised Land", wrote that in the election campaign the liberal camp "didn't market the utopian peace because no one in this country will buy it. Instead they sold ignoring the occupation ..."

I cannot help but dream that one day Israelis will end occupation of the Palestinians and let them have their own promised land. Such a move would mirror the surprising and wonderful peace that has held with Egypt since 1982 and with Jordan since 1994.

In fact, Israel has remained remarkably peaceful in the eye of the hurricane hitting Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and other neighbors since the Arab Spring erupted.

Thousands of Israelis used their election-day holiday to trek with their children into hills covered with yellow and blue wildflowers. The wheat fields of kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley were lush and dark green despite a run of cold weather. Young Israeli conscripts sat at cafes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem without their weapons - in the past they always had the weapons in their hands.

Security guards poked without much ado through backpacks and handbags at the shopping malls. The country seemed very much at peace with itself.

Even the Mediterranean beaches which once saw Arab terrorists come ashore to kill Israelis lacked any ominous shadows. The week of the election it was still too cold for swimmers. But hundreds of surfers in wet suits rode the waves as if in a peaceful invasion from the sea.