JERUSALEM -- With yet another round of Middle East peace talks underway and on the heels of the first presidential visit by arguably the most pro-Israel American head of state ever, the natural assumption is that ordinary Israelis would be abuzz with discussion of politics and the "peace process." That was the scene almost a decade ago, when Bill Clinton came here. But that was a different era.
President Bush's visit obviously received significant local media coverage, but to most Jerusalem residents, it carried more meaning as a de facto holiday. Traffic was so chaotic due to increased security that many stayed home. And to people in western cities along the Mediterranean Sea, such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, Mr. Bush was the subject of little more than passing conversation.
No number of presidential promises could convince Israelis that there are legitimate prospects for a deal with Palestinians. Hope once abounded in the Jewish state, but reality has been sobering. It is not lost on Israelis that their Palestinian neighbors elected Hamas just two years ago and that most in the society treat suicide bombers as heroes.
Outside of the politicians in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition, in fact, it is hard to find any Israelis who feel that "peace" is even a possibility, or that this latest round of talks will produce anything tangible. Even among those politicians who tout talks with the Palestinians, few likely believe their own words.
Israeli society today is not marked by despair, but the disillusionment is palpable. Nowhere is this more evident than with Israelis in their 20s and 30s.
In this tiny nation, most under 40 know someone who was involved in often-hellacious warfare against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. "For what reason?" many of them ask. Mr. Olmert waited until the final days after the outlines of the cease-fire were already in place to order a major ground offensive.
On a recent cover of Ma'ariv, Israel's second-largest newspaper, were family members of the 33 Israelis killed during the ill-fated ground offensive. Their anger is squarely directed at Mr. Olmert, and the Israeli public is deeply sympathetic.
Within the next week, the Winograd Commission will be releasing its final report on the handling of the war. Sharp criticism of Mr. Olmert's conduct and mounting pressure from the grieving families could finally bring about his political demise.
But don't bet on it.
On paper, Mr. Olmert long ago should have been finished. His poll numbers cratered by the end of the war with Hezbollah and have never recovered. Worse, he has become the face of what many Israelis see as a hopelessly corrupt system. In a recent poll, a solid majority of Israelis voted Mr. Olmert the most crooked member of a notoriously shady political class -- which is akin to being the drunkest patron in an Irish pub.
Yet despite Mr. Olmert's depressed popularity, there isn't a real clamor for new elections. In no small part, it is an indictment of the political skills of Mr. Olmert's chief rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli security was robust during his tenure, and he later helped kickstart a sagging economy as finance minister, yet he lacks enthusiastic support.
While young Israelis are largely disenchanted by politics, they are not ambivalent. In a recent poll conducted by Kevoon for B'nai Brith International, the age group most opposed to carving up Jerusalem is 18-24 year-olds, with 78 percent believing that the holy city must remain the undivided capital of Israel. This compares to 68 percent of Israeli Jews overall who oppose handing the eastern half of Jerusalem over to a future Palestinian state.
Nor do Israelis have much faith in Palestinians. Asked in the same poll about how international aid will be used by the Palestinian Authority, just seven percent believe that funds will be used for humanitarian purposes. Fully 80 percent believe that the money will go "mostly for terrorist attacks against Israel." Given that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat pilfered billions in aid and funneled the rest into terrorism, Israeli skepticism is sadly warranted.
At least most Israelis no longer live in fear that a ride on the bus or a meal in a restaurant will end with a bombing. In the southern border town of Sderot, however, normality is a distant memory. Located less than a mile from Gaza, Sderot suffers from a constant barrage of Qassam rockets, with warning sirens going off throughout the day, every day.
Mr. Olmert paid a surprise visit to Sderot and surrounding communities almost two weeks ago, and three days later he told the legislature that he "heard fewer complaints" about his government.
To which an Israeli taxi driver remarked to me, "He obviously wasn't listening."