Yom Kippur II

I first met Maurice Singer on the far bank of the Suez Canal during the second week of the Yom Kippur War, soon after Israel had counter-attacked across the waterway. The British-born, 28-year-old machine-gunner was grimy and sweating on his clanking, dust-encrusted half-track, the forerunner of today’s armored personnel carrier. Like all his comrades, he scribbled a phone number and asked our group of reporters to let his family know he was okay.

We talked again last Sunday, just before Kol Nidrei. The echoes of 27 years ago were ringing for every Israeli old enough to remember the surprise attack, launched simultaneously by Egypt and Syria on Oct. 6, 1973. You heard it on the streets, you saw it on national television, you read it in the newspapers.

Israel feels as if it is on the brink of war. If this is another intifada, it is an intifada with guns. The distinction between riot and battle becomes blurred, if not irrelevant. When an enemy comes not just to protest, but to kill, maim and destroy, you don’t give him the first shot.

Singer, now the 55-year-old manager of a job recruitment agency, was called to the reserves after rushing home from synagogue on that earlier Yom Kippur. “They told me to bring a change of underwear and a pair of spare socks,” he recalled ruefully from his suburban apartment in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv. “They thought it would be all over in six days, like the 1967 war.” In fact, 180 days passed before he returned to his young wife, Renee.

On this fateful anniversary, he didn’t relish the prospect of his two sons, Rafi and Mike, reservists aged 25 and 29 respectively, following him on to a battlefield. He frets about his 17-year-old daughter, Sharon, who will be drafted next summer. But, like most of his countrymen of every political persuasion, he is sustained by a conviction that this war, if it comes, will be one Israel has to fight.

The old slogan, “Ein breira” (“No alternative”), reigns again. “Yom Kippur 2000, is one link in a chain that is connected to Yom Kippur 1973,” lamented the dovish columnist Nahum Barnea in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot. “It seems as if the circle of Arab hostility was never broken.”

Singer was doubly disturbed by the resort to violence of Israel’s Arab citizens, by the realization that he could no longer drive through Jaffa, now a predominantly Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, without the risk of being stoned.

“It makes me feel we’ve been covering up the real problems for 50 years,” he said. “The main problem remains that there are two sets of people on one piece of land. We’ve been kidding ourselves that by education, by prosperity, by bringing people into the twenty-first century, you can solve the problem. That’s where we’ve been kidding ourselves. Now we can see it’s not going to work.”

Nor, he argued, had concessions – to the Lebanese or the Palestinians. “The Arab policy is let’s take an inch, then grab a mile. It turned out that the pullout from Lebanon was not the end of hostilities. What we see is that every time the Arabs have a minor victory, it becomes a major victory for them. It just spurs them on.”

Singer knows what it is like having sons on the front line. Rafi served in Gaza during the intifada; Mike spent two and a half years as a conscript in Hebron.

“I wouldn’t want my sons or anybody else’s sons to go off and fight a war, to kill and risk being killed, as we had to do,” Singer agreed. “But we don’t have a choice. If we don’t defend ourselves, we won’t be here any more. Of course, I’d like to sleep at night. But if I sleep at night by giving in to the Arabs, what then? I’d rather have sleepless nights than no nights.”

Singer is not alone. If the mayhem of the past two weeks degenerates into another Yom Kippur war, Israelis will face it with greater solidarity than they mustered during either the intifada or the 18-year war of attrition they hoped had ended with the evacuation of South Lebanon five months ago. The mood is uncertain, but stoic.

On the left there is despair that the dream of peace is hemorrhaging with every gunshot and Molotov cocktail, every tear-gas grenade and every rock hurled in anger. On the right, there is the barely suppressed jubilation of “We told you so.”

While opinion polls show a decline in confidence that the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is up to his job, Israeli frustration is focusing more and more on Yasser Arafat and the Arab world. Many people blame the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, for provoking the Muslims with a demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount. But most of them, including peace campaigners like Amos Oz, believe (with the benefit of hindsight) that the Palestinian leader was only waiting for a pretext. Like Barak, they now doubt whether Israel has a partner for peace.

The Israeli human rights watchdog, B’tselem, endorsed the international complaint that Israeli troops were using “disproportionate” force against Palestinian mobs. But so far B’tselem is in the minority. Restraint didn’t work last Friday, when Israeli policemen pulled back from the Temple Mount during Muslim prayers, and it didn’t help when the army evacuated Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus a day later.

Most Israelis agree with the cabinet secretary, Yitzhak Herzog, who told foreign correspondents: “We have a duty to protect our people and a duty to protect our army. If the Palestinians don’t open fire, there will not be a response.” But, if they do, Israelis feel their soldiers and police have a right to use all necessary force.