TEL AVIV (Reuters) - It takes just 45 minutes to drive from the clogged freeways and gleaming office towers of Tel Aviv to the roadblocks and watchtowers of the West Bank.
The humid metropolis of the coast, where most Israelis prefer to live, seems a world away from the dry air of Jerusalem and tensions of the occupied Palestinian territory, where the inescapable choices facing the nation await resolution.
The travel guide Lonely Planet this month rated Tel Aviv 3rd in the Top 10 world cities worth visiting, after New York and Tangier. LP praised its relaxed liberalism, hedonistic beach culture and international flavour.
The breezy, secular life in what Israelis call “The Bubble” by the Mediterranean Sea is so far divorced from the windswept outposts of armed settlers who have planted themselves among the Palestinians that the country’s soul seems split in two.
On the coast, there are gays walking pedigree dogs, clubs throbbing on the Sabbath, leggy girls in skimpy minis, old guys with pony tails, high-toned places and greasy little joints.
In Jerusalem, ultra-religious Jews with antiquated black dress and a ready hostility to Sabbath violators are a more common sight. Out in the stony hills of what religious Jews call “Judea and Samaria,” guards watch at fences and steel gates.
But Israel can’t have two futures. If it wants peace, it has to give up the land. If it keeps the land, peace will not come. Whatever the choice, all Israelis will share its consequences.
With an economy growing faster than Germany, a burgeoning high-tech sector and wage levels that put it this year into the OECD club of Western market democracies, Israel is a wealthy little country with strong, knowledge-based economic prospects.
For a majority, it seems, the Jewish homeland is a healthy success and though threats persist, it offers a good future.
For a minority, however, the homeland will not be complete until the Biblical lands are Israel’s as well. The Palestinians must either accept it and be absorbed, or move out.
A March poll by Hebrew University in Jerusalem showed 71 percent of Israelis supported a 2-state solution and 60 percent backed dismantling most settlements under such a deal. Among settlers, however, 52 percent opposed a 2-state treaty and 69 percent opposed dismantling settlements.
Mixed with religious imperatives is an ultranationalist sentiment, driven by the Israel Our Home party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who does not consider making peace with the Palestinians to be Israel’s most pressing issue.
He recently persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to endorse the idea of a “loyalty oath to the Jewish state,” which has fanned the simmering resentment of the Arab Israelis who make up 20 percent of the population of some 7.5 million.
Its “love-it-or-leave-it” message seems plain enough.
This month, rabbis in the city of Safed urged Jews not to rent flats to Arab Israeli students. A Safed Holocaust survivor who dared to do so was vilified. A court ruling this month permitted an apartment block to be built in Jaffa exclusively for religious Israeli Jews, where Arabs would be unwelcome.
Meanwhile, privileges for the ultra-religious, whose small parties can make or break Israeli coalitions, provoked street protests by students opposed to giving grants to Torah students who may never work for a living -- a prospect Israeli economists consider alarming, as their numbers grow.
Stripped of its many nuances, Israel seems to face a choice between a future as a secular democracy building a stable place in a tough neighborhood, or a nationalist quasi-theocracy betting on territorial expansion, with God on its side.
Security is a dominating fact of Israeli life, even in The Bubble. More helicopters and transports fly along the Tel Aviv coast daily than in Apocalypse Now. In Jerusalem, soldiers carry assault rifles in the malls. It’s startling to foreign visitors but ignored by Israelis familiar with the risks and the rules.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that a highway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem via West Bank land must be opened to Palestinians. It was, but only partly. A sign now warns of the “Last Exit to Palestinian Vehicles,” which leaves the road well before an army checkpoint guarding entry to the holy city.
In New Orleans this month Netanyahu was heckled by Jewish peace activists who say continuing military occupation of Palestinian lands and its implications distort Jewish values.
“The loyalty oath betrays Jewish values,” they shouted at him during a speech to an American Jewish convention. “The settlements betray Jewish values.”
Some Israelis dismiss such critics as “self-hating Jews.” But Netanyahu hit back, warning it was a victory for detractors trying to delegitimize Israel whenever “Jews themselves start to believe” that “Israel is guilty until proven guilty.”
Some U.S. analysts not identifiably hostile to Israel feel Netanyahu wants immunity from criticism for Israel.
“U.S. support for Israel could shatter like Humpty Dumpty - and it could get ugly,” Thomas Friedman of the New York Times was quoted as telling Israelis recently. “You are losing the American people who, believe me, are fed up with the Mideast in general. But they’re also fed up with Israel.”
Franklin Lamb in Foreign Policy Journal sees a “growing perception” that Israel is an aggressor. Mark Perry in Foreign Policy Magazine wonders what Israel is doing in the Middle East to help its U.S. ally face a militant Islamism globally.
“The question is not whether we are committed to Israel’s security, but whether they’re committed to ours,” he wrote.
Netanyahu’s main domestic opponent, Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, says the prime minister is turning Israel into “a weak, frightened, insular, self-conflicted country, which is losing its only friend in the world.”
Whether left or right wing, religious or secular, Israelis have never chosen a pacifist leader. For reasons much of the world probably understands they prefer those tempered by war who have earned the trust to also become peacemakers.
But the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious fanatic opposed to trading land for peace dispelled any illusion that peace and security are all that every Israeli wants most.
The left is shrinking. The right is ascendant, boosted by Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in the 2000-2005 Intifada.
Netanyahu says he wants a treaty that will establish a Palestinian state living in peace with his country. But some allies in his rightwing coalition are opposed, and no one but he knows how much he is ready to risk to achieve his declared aim.
A few veterans of the peace process, Israeli and Arab, think the real “last exit” is fast approaching; unless Netanyahu seizes the moment, the window for a two-state deal will close and Israel will become an “apartheid” state, with a fast-growing Arab population that must, inexorably, become the majority.
The prime minister’s official residence is in Jerusalem. His private home is by the coast. Lieberman lives in a settlement.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul