Skepticism about peace mixes with festive atmosphere as Israelis usher in Jewish new year

By Diaa Hadid, AP
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pessimistic about peace, Israelis greet new year

JERUSALEM — Israelis usher in the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashana, at sundown Wednesday with a widespread sense of pessimism that a new round of U.S.-sponsored Mideast talks can achieve peace.

President Barack Obama wants a deal within a year, but Israelis are deeply skeptical after decades of failed efforts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the widespread doubts.

“There are many obstacles, many skeptics, and many reasons for skepticism,” he said in a holiday address. He called the talks “an important step in an attempt to reach” peace, but said it “is an attempt because there is no certainty of success.”

Still some took heart from the simple fact that the Israelis and Palestinians are talking again after negotiations broke down over the Gaza war nearly two years ago.

“The Middle East swamp becomes even more toxic, even more dangerous, when the water stands still,” commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. “But even those who fear, as I do, that no agreement will come of these ceremonies, has to be glad that something is moving.”

Obama wished Israelis a happy new year in a greeting published in Yediot Ahronot, and expressed hope the new peace talks would succeed. A second round is slated for next week in Egypt.

Across Israel, Jews were far more excited about Rosh Hashana than renewed peace talks. They cleaned frantically, rushed to crowded marketplaces, cooked and clogged the highways en route to family dinners to mark the start of the two-day new year’s festival that begins at sundown.

Israel’s military closed crossing points into the West Bank until the end of the holiday out of concern that militants could carry out attacks.

Rosh Hashana this year coincides with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — both religions rely on the lunar calendar.

For Jews, the holiday begins a 10-day period of soul-searching solemnity leading up to the fast day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Muslims are preparing to celebrate the end of Ramadan and its daytime fasts with a three-day festival called Eid al-Fitr, which will begin Friday.

In Jewish west Jerusalem, the outdoor market of Mahane Yehuda was teeming with shoppers closely examining fruits and vegetables, piping-hot breads and sticky honey-glazed cakes. Sales in two popular holiday items — honey and pomegranates — were brisk.

Observant Jews prepared for long hours in synagogues over the holiday. Highlights of the ritual include the sounding of the shofar, a trumpet made of a ram’s horn, and dipping an apple in honey to symbolize a sweet new year.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of secular Israelis were taking advantage of a rare four-day weekend. With the seasonal heat wave in full swing, beaches on the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee were expected to be full.

In Arab areas of Jerusalem’s Old City, where key Muslim and Jewish holy sites are located just yards (meters) apart, walls were strung with gleaming lights and women haggled over the price of new clothes as children bounced in tow, in preparation for Eid al-Fitr.

A constant stream of Muslim worshippers flowed through the cobblestone streets, heading for the Al-Aqsa compound where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews rubbing shoulders — even as they avoided each others eyes — inspired at least some of the residents of this densely packed, tense cobblestone district.

“Between people, I think there can be coexistence,” said Othman Ibrahim, a smiling 70-year-old Palestinian man.

A few steps away, 25-year-old Chaya Cherkis sat in front of her home in the Jewish quarter.

“From my rooftop, you can see the Kotel and the Al-Aqsa mosque,” Cherkis said, referring to the Hebrew name of the Western Wall. “You can see thousands of people bowing in prayer — it’s amazing and inspirational.”

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