Uneasy Mood Marks New Year in Israel

Israelis marked the Jewish New Year Friday shaken by the inconclusive war in Lebanon, angry at their leaders and coping with growing gaps between rich and poor.

The uneasy mood was easy to gauge at Jerusalem's open air Mahane Yehuda market, where shoppers stocked up on food ahead of the two-day holiday when Jews are to take stock of their lives.

At Gideon Cohen's fruit and vegetable stand, the most popular merchandise was the pomegranate, traditionally consumed on the Rosh Hashana holiday because its many seeds evoke the numerous virtues those who eat it hope to embody in the coming year.

Cohen said he could measure the country's prosperity by his pomegranate sales and the numbers weren't good.

A year ago, Rosh Hashana pomegranates went for about 90 cents a pound, he said, but this year he had to cut the price in half, and sales were still down. Terror attack warnings were keeping some people away, but the economic situation was mostly to blame, he said. "People just don't have money right now," Cohen said.

Government statistics released before the holiday showed that despite a general improvement in the economy in 2005, one-fourth of all Israelis live below the poverty line.

Gideon On, a 48-year-old butcher, was selling sheep heads, consumed by Jews of Middle Eastern origin to symbolize the Rosh Hashana wish that the Jewish people "be the head, and not the tail" — leaders, not followers. The wish is also tied to the holiday's name, which translates literally as "the head of the year."

On said he had sold dozens of heads this week at $11.50 apiece.

On's two sons fought in Lebanon in the monthlong war against Hezbollah guerrillas that claimed the lives of 120 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians this summer. His sons, like many other reservists, came back angry because their impression was that the army was unprepared and the political leadership was confused.

"They took our kids to the army, and they dropped like flies," On said. "We have a good army, but it doesn't have the leaders it deserves."

That sentiment appears to be widely shared. Early in the war, polls gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a favorable rating of about 70 percent. One poll published Thursday saw that sink to 22 percent while Defense Minister Amir Peretz mustered just 14 percent. Another survey showed only 7 percent of Israelis think Olmert is fit for the country's top post.

The malaise extended to dismay over a series of scandals that have tarred top leaders, including Olmert.

Yitzhak Cohen, a vendor of honey — traditionally paired with apples to symbolize a sweet new year — said he couldn't remember a time when "every one of our leaders had a criminal file."

The state comptroller's office, a government watchdog, is looking into possible irregularities in Olmert's purchase of a Jerusalem home. Eight women have accused President Moshe Katsav of sexually harassing them. And an Olmert ally, Haim Ramon, recently resigned as justice minister to face trial on sexual misconduct charges.

"These are good people," Cohen said, waving at the shoppers passing outside his store. "Don't they deserve better?"

Despite the vendors' glum assessments, a poll of 499 people by the Dahaf Research Institute published Friday showed that 88 percent of Israelis think their country is a good place to live. The margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.

Ahead of the holiday, the army imposed a security closure on the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the travel ban, several thousand medical workers, clergy, farm laborers and teachers will be able to enter Israel, the army said.