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In shadow of war, Israel starts to return to normal

The fraught mood that characterized Israeli society since the abduction of the three teens and throughout this war seems to be dying down, with Jews returning to the Arab towns and social media interactions becoming more moderate again.

What kind of Israeli society will we find once the war is over? What will it look like? Will it be as tough and intolerant as it appeared during the long weeks of fighting? Will the freedom to criticize government policies go back to what it was before the war? Or maybe society will adopt the new codes that emerged during the campaign, when the public was expected to bite its tongue as long as fighting was going on. And what will the political constellation look like on “the day after”? Will the right manage to turn the support it received during the war into an electoral sweep in the next elections? And then there’s the left. Will it manage to rouse itself from its wartime hibernation?

While the war may still be going on, a certain calm that has begun to permeate the public mood is already noticeable. Even though the cease-fire has already collapsed, and rocket fire from Gaza has started again, there is a feeling that life is returning to normal. The aggressive mood has died down, the waves of racism have begun to dissipate and unrestrained responses on social media have already become more moderate. All in all, the dialogue has calmed down, and the ideological debate between right and left is almost back on track again.

In the early days of the fighting in Gaza, it seemed as if Israeli society had reached a situation like nothing it had probably ever seen before. There certainly had been wars in the past. They were also portrayed as existential. Tens of thousands of reservists were also called up at the time, and also then there was a deep sense of identification with the casualties and their families. Still, it seems like the current war in Gaza released a safety valve of sorts, resulting in various social phenomena unlike anything we had ever seen before. Many people felt that whoever veered from the wartime consensus could pay a steep price for this.

Many of the past wars were stopped because of protests by their opponents. The two wars in Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006, sparked enormous demonstrations, which ultimately brought both wars to an end. The public showed considerable understanding to these protests, regarding them as an integral part of the culture of open debate. During both wars the leadership was forced to pay a steep public price, and many politicians were even forced to resign in the wars’ wake.

The latest war in Gaza empowered the political extremes at the expense of the majority of people, who lie in the center of the political map. Supporters of the war got swept up in the kind of extremism that threatened to tear apart the delicate fabric of Israeli politics. Anyone who dared to express another opinion ended up seeing himself starring on a list of enemies of the state. Anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the war was boycotted. Singers were silenced, and academics were forced into hiding until the rage passed. At the same time, there was unprecedented radicalization from opponents of the war, especially among politicians from the Arab sector, who threatened to set the delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs ablaze.

In fact, both extremes threatened to light a fire that would ignite the political center as well. Unlike in previous wars, this time it was the thundering silence of Israel’s intellectuals that screamed out to heaven. After all, they had always served as warning signals, whenever the country started its descent down a slippery slope. This time, however, there was only David Grossman, who cried out as an author and a bereaved father. He expressed his concern about the resilience of Israeli society. He was almost the only one. In an interview with Haaretz on Aug. 13, professor Zeev Sternhell determined, “What we’ve seen here in the past few weeks is absolute conformism on the part of most of Israel’s intellectuals. They’ve just followed the herd. … The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total. It’s not easy to go against the herd, you can easily be trampled. … Democracy crumbles when the intellectuals, the educated classes, toe the line of the thugs or look at them with a smile.”

One obvious indication that things are going back to normal is the relative calm these days in relations between Jews and Arabs. During the month of the war, Jews avoided visiting Arab towns in an attempt to boycott them and harm commercial life there. The convoys of Israelis that made their way to those towns to shop on Saturdays just about disappeared. Over the past few days, however, as the dialogue about the war has taken on a calmer tone, there has also been some evidence of Jews returning to Arab towns. “It was crazy,” Sagi, who manages the commerce in the Jaffa port, said. He told Al-Monitor, “I can’t remember seeing this kind of paralysis for years. But Israelis are starting to come back, thank God. They’re still angry about the way Arabs behaved during the war, but they also realize that a boycott is not the answer.”

The war in Gaza gave birth to all sorts of demons, which brought extremists the kind of youthfulness they do not usually have in normal times. The social networks turned out to be a veritable paradise for hotheads. People could say whatever they wanted, without anyone challenging them. Anyone who wanted to instill fear in his opponents found a welcoming atmosphere to carry out his deed. Over the past few days though, ever since the cease-fire was announced, the signs of normalcy as we know it have returned. Even though one cease-fire after another fell apart, it seems as if the passionate have lost some of their fervor. The council heads of the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, led an aggressive campaign for a full-fledged assault inside the Gaza Strip as a precondition for a return to normalcy. They have since started to tone down the rhetoric, and so have the threats that the school year would not start in September.

It will be interesting to see what the political system that emerges from the war in Gaza actually looks like. There are some stubborn assertions that the next Knesset elections will be moved up to next summer, and that they will even be fought over the legacy of Operation Protective Edge. If that happens, will the Israeli public throw its support behind the extremist parties, or will it choose the middle-of-the-road parties instead? Will the war bring about the breakup of the Likud, currently the ruling party?

There are growing indications that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and break with his mother party to establish a new centrist political force. He threw out a huge hint at a news conference on the evening of Aug. 20, when he said that he plans on making the peace process the focus of his future political activity. “[A]chieving a new diplomatic horizon for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said, is part of the mission set up for the future. And that statement alone was enough to send shockwaves throughout the political system.

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