Bethlehem is one of the last places in the territories where Palestinians and Israelis deal with each other in a relatively relaxed fashion. Most Israelis avoid traveling into the heart of the West Bank to Nablus and Hebron, where Palestinian nationalism runs deep and Jews are likely to be met with hostile looks, a stone, or occasionally, a knife in the ribs.
Now the only Jews who spend a great deal of time on the West Bank are soldiers, and settlers - many of whom believe they were sent there by the word of God.
But Bethlehem is a different story. Its outskirts are only a 10-minute drive from southern Jerusalem. On weekends, the main road from Jerusalem is thick with carloads of Israelis heading for their favorite supermarket, fruit stand, or restaurant.
Business is booming at Fuad Canavati's El Mundo restaurant. Mr. Canavati, a Palestinian, serves Jews and Arabs, tourists and Israeli soldiers from an eclectic menu that features Argentine, Italian, Arab, and Jewish cuisine. The menu is written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The Palestinian waiters are as likely to speak Hebrew as Arabic.
Canavati's first chief cook was an Argentine Jew. The new chief cook, Paolo Alvarez, is an Argentine Catholic married to an Israeli Jew of Iraqi origin. Canavati helped Mr. Alvarez find an apartment in a nearby Jewish settlement so that he could be close to work.
``I think here in Bethlehem is a point where Jews and Palestinians can start to cooperate,'' Canavati says. What brings them together, he suggests, is a common goal - making money from the booming tourist traffic that rolls through this city by the busload year round.
Even in Bethlehem, few Israeli visitors venture alone beyond the main commercial strip that has been developed by enterprising Palestinian merchants in the past five years. There are three refugee camps and a Palestinian university in the heart of Bethlehem. Israelis avoid those places as potential danger spots.
``In 1967, you don't believe how much the Israelis came across the green line [into the occupied lands]. They were everywhere,'' Canavati recalls. ``But today, there are certain areas they come to, mostly along this strip. Here it is an open place and they feel safe.''
Canavati acknowledges that, even by Bethlehem's standard of tolerance, El Mundo is an oddity. It is rare for Jews to work for Palestinian owners, or for Jews and Arabs to frequent the same establishment.
Canavati's explanation for why El Mundo works is simple. ``The Jews and Arabs who come here are enlightened. Until now, thanks be to God, there has been no problem. The Jews who come here are nice people. They want to have a nice life. They want to have a drink, a lunch. We don't talk politics.''
Even one of the refugee camps in Bethlehem has opened shops along the main strip. Bethlehemite Najib Nasser credits his father with starting the trend 10 years ago when he opened the Family Supermarket.
``When my father came here and opened our store, there was nothing out here,'' Mr. Nasser says. ``People said that he was crazy, that nobody would come.'' Now, Nasser adds, business is excellent. ``Most of our customers on weekends are Jews from Argentina and Russia.''
``They shop here because the Israeli stores don't have pork, because we have plenty of parking, because we carry all the foreign products. We sell bottled sauce and meat for barbecues that are very popular with the Argentines. These South Americans or Russians who come here are not fanatic or religious.... They come because of the bad economic situation in their former countries.''
Canavati and Nasser both explain Bethlehem's relatively good relations with Israel as the result of a combination of factors, but chief among them is Bethlehem's history as a predominantly Christian town used to dealing with the outside world.
They cite the facts that no Jewish settlers have tried to move into Bethlehem and that no land has been confiscated by the Israelis in the city. Further, the world closely watches Israel's treatment of the town revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus.
And, in the words of Canavati, ``we have a smart mayor.'' Elias Freij is a portly, well-to-do Palestinian businessman who treads carefully through the minefields of Palestinian and Israeli politics.
Elected in 1974, Mr. Freij has managed to survive even though other elected Palestinian mayors have been deposed and sometimes deported by Israeli authorities, sometimes maimed by Israeli extremists, and sometimes assassinated by fellow Palestinians. He also has watched his city flourish as others have withered during the 20 years of Israeli rule.
His critics among Palestinian nationalists say Freij is a shining example of how Israelis reward those who cooperate with them. (Bethlehem is known as a quiet town that gives the Israelis little trouble.)
His supporters credit him with looking to the needs of his city and carefully building an international reputation that makes it hard for the Israelis to move against him ``without infuriating the whole Christian world,'' as one American diplomat puts it.
What is indisputable is that he has secured for his town amenities seldom found in other West Bank towns, that he manages to keep Bethlehem University open when other universities are shut down by the authorities, and, according to the diplomat, that he has achieved international name recognition - ``a distant second, but still second to Teddy Kollek [mayor of Jerusalem].''