Few Israelis are in the mood for an all-out celebration

The almost cruel juxtaposition between Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen and yesterday's Independence Day — Remembrance Day comes the day before Independence Day — automatically ensures a somber mood in Israel in the run up to the country's birthday celebrations.

For 24 hours before the party begins, Israel's media are full of stories of heroic sacrifice and interviews with grieving parents, reminiscing over sons who will remain forever young in the country's all too full military cemeteries.

There are many who have argued that Remembrance Day should be moved to another date so as not to spoil the carnival atmosphere of Independence Day. The holiday is traditionally marked in the evening by fireworks, folk dancing and youngsters spraying foam from a can on innocent passersby on the street, as well as barbecues and picnics in the countryside on the day itself.

This year, the argument has hardly been raised, as there are few Israelis in the mood for an all-out celebration. A Jerusalem Post Internet poll, for example, found that one in three people said they did not feel like celebrating. A radio program this week went a step further and phoned government ministers, asking them if they thought it was safe for Israelis to go out and celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (Hebrew for Independence Day) and whether they would let their children go out alone to Independence Day events. Interestingly, not one of the ministers I heard castigated the interviewer for asking such a question and fanning the public's fears, which would have been the typical reaction just a decade or so ago.

And even though all the ministers said "of course it's safe to go out and celebrate," it's clear that Israel's 53rd Independence Day has been ineradicably marked by the events of the past seven months and the sad realization that the keys to a better future lie in Yasser Arafat's hands. It was the Palestinian Authority leader who set in motion the violence of the past half-year. The term intifada should definitely not be used, as this present round of violence is far from a spontaneous popular uprising, and it is within his power to bring an end to the current wave of suicide bombs, shooting incidents and mortar attacks.

It's not that Israel is powerless, but as the events of the past couple of weeks have shown, there is a self-perceived limit to Israel's military prowess. The Israel Defense Force's incursion last week into the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip lasted less than 24 hours, and the army left Gaza with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's angry condemnation of Israel's "excessive and disproportionate force" ringing in its ears.

As the newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, there is more than a casual irony here. When Powell was still in uniform, he formulated the Powell Doctrine, under which the key to success in any military conflict is the use of overwhelming force. Yet when Israel put this doctrine into effect, Powell was the one to decry Israel's disproportionateness and undermined the IDF's response to an unprovoked mortar attack on the Israeli town of Sderot.

So what to do? Despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hawkish reputation, there have not been any major military initiatives, aside from that short-lived recent entrance into the Gaza Strip. The IDF is not seeking to retake Palestinian territory and clamp down on terror by forced occupation, due to concerns that an escalation of the fighting with the Palestinians could lead, despite it not being in Egypt's or Jordan's interests, to a wider conflict with Israel's Arab neighbors.

Moreover, the IDF is also acutely aware that the longer the struggle continues, the greater the statistical chance of a stray IDF bomb or shell missing its target and harming scores of innocent civilians. The lesson of Kana, during the IDF's 1996 Grapes of Wrath campaign in Lebanon, when an errant shell killed 102 civilians and brought about an abrupt end to the operation, has not been forgotten. Such an event in the present context would simply bring about the internationalization of the conflict, which has been Arafat's aim since last September.

And so, for the short-run, Israel is hoping that a refusal to play Arafat's game of escalating the conflict will eventually cause him to call off the terror and return to the negotiating table. Such tactics demand fortitude and strong nerves on Israel's part, qualities that the Israeli public has, but which do not put them in a party mood.