This picture is of an Israeli car yesterday in Tel Aviv. While the vast majority of the Israelis fly the Israeli flag on Independence Day, there has always been a strange trend in Israel of people, not necessarily American citizens, who fly the USA flag along with the Israeli flag. I believe it is because Israelis in general love America, feel close to it, and want to feel part of the bigger world.
Today is Memorial Day in Israel, a day when we collectively mourn and remember all of Israel's fallen soldiers. At 11:00 a.m., a state-wide alarm sounds and for two minutes all of Israel comes to a stop -- cars pull over on the freeway, work stops in offices, in stores, and at construction sites -- and we stand together in silence, remembering and thinking about those who did not live to see this day. It is one of Israel's most solemn and heartfelt days. Incongruously, at dusk tonight begins one of Israel's most joyous celebrations - Yom Ha-Atzmaut or Independence Day, celebrated with Israeli flags flying from every window, fireworks, and street parties late into the night. While today is spent in quiet contemplation of what we have lost, tomorrow is a day of happily looking forward to what we hope will be.
This is always a time of interesting conflict and contradiction in Israel, with these two quite opposite emotions as the focus of these two back-to-back holidays. And contradiction has been much on my mind lately, in the wake of Vice President Biden's visit to Israel last month and all of the controversy raised by the Netanyahu government's strangely-timed announcement of new housing units to be built in disputed East Jerusalem. As most people will recall, that announcement by the Regional Planning Committee set off a deep crisis in American-Israeli relations, which continued into the Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington. But just as surely as today's sadness and reflection here will yield to a more hopeful day tomorrow, I think that the current tensions between the US and Israel will lead us all to a better place.
For many years, Israelis have been able to push the issue of East Jerusalem out of their minds and bury it in the back of their collective mental closet. Jerusalem was kept as a myth, as Israel's "eternal-united-capital," and it was tacitly understood that its status should never be challenged or even discussed. Even Eli Weisel found himself signing a right-wing call saying that "Jerusalem is above politics."
But things are changing now. The Obama administration made clear from the beginning that it would expect some clear answers to some difficult questions from Prime Minister Netanyahu. And the future of East Jerusalem is probably the thorniest sticking point for both Israelis and Palestinians. Vice President Biden's visit and President Obama's priorities have put a lot of pressure on Israel to finally confront this issue and have shone a spotlight on what for years has existed quietly under the radar.
There is a wide gap between the political rhetoric and the common understanding in Israel. Over the past few years, I have guided thousands of Israelis on tours through Jerusalem. I always start my tour with a question: What do you think when you hear the word Jerusalem? The answers are always: The Holy Places, The Old City, The Wailing Wall (sometime I get from youngsters the name of the soccer stadium or a famous Jerusalem discotheque). On this mythic symbolic Jerusalem most Israelis are not ready to give up and it is this myth that the political rhetoric so often captures and describes.
But there is a reality that conflicts with the politicians' rhetoric. And when we go and see that on the ground, this undivided-eternal-united-capital of ours is actually about 28 Palestinian neighborhoods, with a population of some 270,00 Palestinians that most Israelis are unaware of, then peoples' reactions to the idea of a compromise in Jerusalem usually changes.
Obama is forcing Israelis to confront the fact that we cannot escape the issue of Jerusalem anymore. If we are serious about a Two-State Solution, we cannot continue to close our eyes and think that Jerusalem is just about the a holy places of the Jews. In my mind, America's firm stand on the issue of Jerusalem is a great turn of events and a great opportunity for Israel that I am certain will move us in the right direction.
The Netanyahu Government has proved that although it is the most right-wing government we have had in years, it is still relatively easily pressured. After all, it was this government that declared the most wide-reaching freeze of settlement development in forty years. It is not enough and it has its flaws, but it happened. The Israeli public largely supports it, and the Netanyahu's coalition government is as stable as it was before the freeze.
As I was driving between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem yesterday, and saw the car proudly displaying both American and Israeli flags, it brought a smile to my face. It reminded me of what I already knew -- there is a deep and lasting connection between our two countries, a fact about which most Israelis are very proud. The Israeli public is ready to move forward in the right direction -- 67% of Israelis recently polled support a negotiated two-state solution including a compromise in Jerusalem. What I wish for my country at its 62nd anniversary is that our best friend, the US, will keep up the firm standing and high expectation from the Israelis, and help us confront the hard core issues, for the sake of the State of Israel.