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A cloud over Jerusalem

NICHOLAS GOLDBERG is editor of the Times' Op-Ed page and the Current section.

In the 1990s, when I lived in Jerusalem, Israelis were famous for a sort of stoic optimism in the face of trouble. Hamas suicide bombers would sneak into a cafe or a pizza parlor or step onto a bus and blow themselves up, leaving the ground littered with body parts and broken glass, sometimes a random baby carriage or the frame of a window. But within minutes of the blast, an extraordinarily well-disciplined, if macabre, cleanup process would begin.

No sooner were the victims’ bodies carted away than a uniformed crew would arrive on the scene to sweep up the glass and haul off the rubble, to retrieve the carcass of the burned-out bus or fit new plate glass into the window of a bombed-out shop. Working indefatigably through the night under eerily bright lights, they would stay until dawn if necessary so that, in the morning, life would appear at least on the surface to be back to normal. This was at the height of the Oslo peace process, and there was a seemingly unshakable sense of the inevitability of peace and a dogged willingness to believe that if you fought and struggled to make things seem normal, then eventually they would be.

When I returned several weeks ago for a visit, however, I found a deeply changed country, its confidence and unflappable optimism badly battered. Despite a strong economy and substantially less terrorism today than a few years ago, Israelis across the political spectrum are, by their own admission, depressed and anxious, unsure about the way forward.

“Something is happening in this country that I find deeply, deeply troubling,” said Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the centrist to right-wing Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of a highly regarded book about Israel’s glory days during the Six-Day War in 1967. “It’s an erosion at the core.”

In a Nov. 4 speech marking the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the liberal Israeli novelist David Grossman expressed similar sentiments. “Israel faces a profound crisis, much more profound than we imagined, in almost every part of our collective lives,” he said.

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The malaise is reflected in the newspapers virtually every day. There was, for instance, a story at the end of October reporting that olim -- Jews from the Diaspora who have chosen to move to and become citizens of Israel -- are leaving the country in such numbers that a Knesset committee had met to discuss the growing problem. Another article, in the newspaper Haaretz, reported on a poll in which 80% of Israelis said political corruption prevented them from “taking pride” in their state. And the October findings of a survey conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University showed that only 17% of Israelis believed that there would be peace between Israel and the Arabs in the coming years.

“There’s a sense of exhaustion,” acknowledged novelist Amos Oz.

There are several clear reasons for Israel’s current depression. At the top of the list is last summer’s war in Lebanon, an ill thoughtout fiasco that not only inflicted terrible damage on southern Lebanon’s civilian population but worsened (still further) Israel’s global standing and failed to destroy Hezbollah (as promised). Most horrifying to Israelis, the army appears to have sent Israeli soldiers into Lebanon without a clear mission, with insufficient supplies (including food and drinking water) and faulty equipment, a situation that prompted mass demonstrations and threatened to topple the government.

“Israel was shelled by 4,000 rockets and we didn’t have a response for it,” Oren said. “We started in a position of unprecedented international strength. But we were stunned by the gross incompetence of the decision-making process, the corruption that was revealed, the lack of imagination of the tactics, the fear that the government radiates and the failure to achieve our goals.”

In addition to the war, there are a series of unfolding political scandals that are feeding Israeli cynicism. Prosecutors, for instance, are weighing whether to file rape and sexual misconduct charges against Israeli President Moshe Katsav, as recommended by the police. (This just after former Justice Minister Haim Ramon went on trial on charges that he kissed a woman against her will and former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai stepped down after being convicted of sexual assault and harassment.) Other Israeli leaders -- including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- are facing inquiries into corruption, cronyism or misconduct in office.

As for the ongoing, long-standing conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis appear utterly baffled about what move to make next. Most people I spoke with believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Oslo peace process collapsed six years ago because of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s unwillingness to conclude a reasonable two-state deal. But the alternative strategy of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- who proposed simply disengaging unilaterally from parts of the occupied territories while building walls and fences to separate the two populations -- now appears to have failed as well.

The country continues to lash out at the Palestinians -- as in the case of Wednesday’s deadly raid that killed 18 people, mostly civilians, in Gaza -- but it does so with no apparent plan and with no strategy for building a long-term peace. Most Israelis seem to sincerely believe that a response is necessary to what they see as unprovoked cross-border rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in Gaza, but as Palestinian deaths continue to mount and the rockets continue to fall, they also express a sense of hopelessness about what they’re doing.

In an interview at his home in the desert city of Arad recently, Oz said that these explanations for the current national mood are in some sense just symbolic. “On the surface, it’s about Lebanon or the two-state solution,” he said. “But really it cuts deeper than that.”

The war, for instance, was about more than just the war. The truth is that last summer’s battle in Lebanon hit hard at one of the most time-honored mythologies of Israeli life. For nearly 60 years, the Israeli army has been viewed at home as virtually invincible, as a lean and intelligent fighting force that was incorruptible and merit-driven and that could defend the country against a hostile and often anti-Semitic world. That image, to say the least, was shaken in Lebanon last summer.

The political scandals, too, have a deeper meaning: They serve as a reminder that the great, larger-than-life leaders who bestrode the country for decades have disappeared. Israeli leaders such as David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Sharon, whatever one thought of them, were outsized figures who created, built and protected the country. The next generation -- including such increasingly unpopular figures as Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz -- seem to many Israelis to be intellectually and politically unprepared to take on the extraordinary challenges facing the country.

At the Rabin memorial, David Grossman -- who had opposed the Lebanon war and whose son was killed in the final days of fighting -- described Israeli leadership as “hollow.”

“The people who today lead Israel are unable to connect Israelis with their identity, and certainly not with the healthy, sustaining, inspiring parts of Jewish identity,” he said. “Today, Israel’s leadership fills the husk of its regime primarily with fears and intimidations, with the allure of power and the winks of the backroom deal, with haggling over all that is dear to us. In this sense, they are not real leaders. They are certainly not the leaders that a people in such a complicated, disoriented state need.”

For more than a decade now, Israel has been facing the collapse of its own founding mythologies. In the 1990s, a group of “new historians” emerged to challenge the traditional Zionist narrative, focusing less on the standard David-versus-Goliath view of Israel and the Arabs and more on a less heroic, but perhaps more historically accurate, version. In some ways, the current malaise is just a continuation of that process: Another moment in which Israel is being forced to look at itself clearly -- as normal and flawed -- rather than through the prism of its own fairy tales.

Amos Oz says that no country, except perhaps the United States, was ever built on the kind of monumental (and contradictory) aspirations that the Zionists had when they founded their country. Israel was to be a socialist paradise; at the same time it was to be a classic Western democracy. Some people wanted to re-create the kingdoms of David and Saul; others wanted an East European shtetl.

“The moment you try to carry out such monumental dreams, they carry the taste of disappointment,” Oz said. “Planting a garden or carrying out a sexual fantasy or writing a novel or building a nation -- the disappointment is the same. It’s what happens when you live out a dream. Everything is better as a theory.”


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