At Tel Aviv cafe, it’s still 1993

A handful of mostly middle-aged patrons sip their coffee below a portrait of Yitzhak Rabin, his face — stern with the hint of a smile — overlaid with the Hebrew word yizkor: remember. On a table below is this morning’s copy of Israel Yahom, the free, right-wing newspaper that is now the most widely read in the country, its top headline mourning an Israel soldier kidnapped and killed the day before by a Palestinian in the West Bank city of Qalqilya.

The juxtaposition reflects the tension that fills Cafe Tamar, a small coffeehouse founded in 1941 that was once a popular meeting place for Tel Aviv activists. The Stern family, which runs the cafe, has been close to the Rabin family for decades, and the late prime minister’s daughter Leah stops in from time to time, according to a waitress.

To walk into Tamar is to enter a forgotten world, the Israel of the 1990s, in which peace-minded liberal Zionism was ascendant. Judging from the propaganda covering its walls, peace with the Palestinians is not only possible but probable. The Labor Party, long the bulwark of Israel’s left, is a dynamic political power. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is an opponent of peace and Palestinian statehood, not the current prime minister pushing an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

The bumper stickers wallpapering the counter are a graveyard of Israeli leftist political campaigns. One reads “There is hope with Barak” — a reference to Ehud Barak, who led Labor to its last electoral victory in 1999 and who bet his premiership on a failed peace deal.

Another sticker calls for “peace with Syria and Lebanon.” A third declares: “The majority has decided: peace.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find mention of the Second Intifada that killed 1,000 Israelis and thousands of Palestinians a decade ago. Or any reference to the several failed attempts at an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. At Cafe Tamar, it almost seems as if the peace process that began 20 years ago this month with the signing of the Oslo Accords is still alive, uncorrupted by two decades of failure or by the skepticism that now defines Israel’s attitude toward its neighbors.

Culturally, the Tel Aviv of Cafe Tamar also remains as it was in the 1990s — before the city became a global tourist hot-spot filled with international brands and chain stores. At Tamar, a waitress greets a local kid and examines his muscles then turns around and scolds a customer for letting his coffee grow cold.

The cafe’s warmth, though, can’t compete with the sense of loss that accompanies its stickers and posters. Try as it might, Tamar can’t escape from the Israel of 2013, where an Op-Ed in Israel Hayom declares that “Suspicion outweighs trust” and where, despite ongoing negotiations, Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation feels a long way off.

“Clearly the state changed for the worse,” the waitress says. “There will never be leadership like there was.”

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.