A few weeks back, while Israeli soldiers were blasting through the bleak urban neighborhoods of Rafah in search of Palestinian militants, and cabinet ministers were playing musical chairs over a proposal to disengage unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, an even more telling measure of Israel's perpetual state of siege quietly worked its way through the Knesset here.
For the 56th year in a row, lawmakers voted to renew the state of emergency that has been in effect since the Jewish state's birth in 1948. Fifty-six years is a long time for an emergency -- most babies born in extremis then are either long-cured or long-dead by now -- but for Israel, crisis has always been a natural state. And the latest renewal is not just a recognition of grim reality, but something of a triumph for those on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide who believe that crisis is their best friend, a state of affairs that allows them to define and dominate the struggle.
You can view the conflict through many complex and overlapping prisms -- Jew vs. Arab, soldier vs. militant, secularist vs. believer, dove vs. hawk, two-state proponent vs. territorial maximalist. But in many ways it has evolved into something very simple: those who strive for normality vs. those who thrive in the hyper-charged state of emergency. And despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's qualified triumph last Sunday in force-feeding his Gaza withdrawal plan to a reluctant cabinet, it seems to me that the latter remains in command, asserting the relentless power of blood, history and tradition, and suffocating at birth any and all attempts at normalcy.
Normalcy was what Israel originally was supposed to be about. Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists believed Jews needed a state of their own to take their rightful place as a nation among nations. David Ben-Gurion once quipped that Israel would be considered a success only when there were Jewish policemen and Jewish prostitutes. But a number of historical factors -- including the enduring hostility of Arabs to the idea of a Jewish homeland in their midst, five wars and the fevered messianic dreams of an influential minority of Israelis -- marred that original vision and transformed Israel into a besieged garrison state.
Still, the longing for a normal existence has remained a powerful undercurrent in Israeli society, and in the early 1990s it seemed tantalizingly close. The 1993 Oslo accords were the high-water mark. A majority of Israelis, exhausted by 45 years of struggle, had asserted control over their own destiny and defied history by calling a halt to the conflict, believing they had located a moderate Palestinian majority that felt the same way. When it all went wrong, both sides were sucked back into the whirlpool -- but the yearning for normalcy has never died. Despite the violence, Jerusalem is full of people riding buses, going to movies and dining at cafes. Most Israelis desperately crave a bourgeois, consumerist existence -- shopping malls and cineplexes, Japanese electronics, new cars and software -- even while in the grip of the siege. These ambitions are not territorial. That's a big reason why polls show that 70 to 80 percent of Israelis favor withdrawal from Gaza, and most of them also support a two-state solution to the conflict.
So why is it that those who are opposed to both seem to wield veto power? Partly it's because in any democracy those who care most passionately about a particular issue tend to wield influence far out of proportion to their numbers. And partly it's because most Israelis perceive there is no viable peace partner on the Palestinian side. But it's also because two of the main institutions that are supposed to keep Israel's democracy healthy and responsive to majority rule are themselves in crisis. The emergency, which was designed to protect these institutions, instead has worn them down to the bone.
Chief among them is Israel's citizen army. Because it is the ultimate people's army -- everyone serves two to three years, and virtually every male does two decades of reserve duty as well -- the Israel Defense Forces have long acted as a self-corrective mechanism, pulling the society back to the political center whenever it veered too far to the right or left. A prime example was during the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s when the army's growing disaffection with the role of muscle-bound riot cop meting out rubber bullets and beatings to rebellious Palestinian youths seeped back into Israeli society and ultimately led Israel's reluctant leaders toward the Oslo peace accords.
These days the army itself is dispirited and uncertain. Given the absence of a clear political program, Israel's generals fear they are being asked to undertake military initiatives to fill a vacuum left by their civilian masters. Those initiatives inevitably take on a political content and meaning that make many of the generals uncomfortable.
The recent offensive in Rafah, Gaza's poorest and most densely populated urban center, was a case in point. Sharon wants to pull out of Gaza, but he can't find an acceptable Palestinian partner to turn it over to. Four years of warfare have eliminated potential friend and foe alike, undercut the already dubious hold of the remnants of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and given Muslim extremists the upper hand. Moreover, Sharon wants to make a show of force before Israel pulls back. So the army was asked to "clean out" the area. Such operations inevitably produce widespread civilian casualties and hardship. The army found itself under attack from both ends of the political spectrum: Those on the right criticized it for not being aggressive enough in Rafah, while those on the left deplored the suffering inflicted on innocent civilians. Either way, the army's stature dropped another notch, and those who oppose the army's moderating influence, such as the settlers, benefit.
"What troubles the military is when there is no clear-cut political consensus on what is legitimate," a senior security official told me. "The military fears being used and abused. We feel like we're in the crossfire."
The generals fear the army is losing its iconic status and will soon be perceived as just another grubby, politicized institution. More and more reservists and pilots are rebelling against the missions they are asked to undertake in the West Bank and Gaza. More and more young people express sympathy with conscientious objectors -- both those opposed to serving in the occupied territories and those who would refuse an order to evict Jewish settlers from their homes. And no one wants to be the last soldier to die in Gaza before a pullout.
The state of emergency has also ground down Israel's fractious political system. The two major blocs that have dominated since the founding of the state are crumbling, yet their elderly leaders -- the Likud Party's Sharon, 76, and the Labor Party's Shimon Peres, 80 -- are fighting off challenges from younger opponents. The two men may form a national unity coalition later this summer that would perpetuate their grip and keep younger, possibly fresher rivals at bay even longer. Their critics will tell you that both men have lost their main constituencies. Both have come back from the political dead. Sharon was publicly humiliated by receiving a minor cabinet post in 1996 when fellow Likudnik Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister, while Peres was betrayed by his own allies and denied the ceremonial post of president a few years later. But every time a crisis recurs, Israelis instinctively turn to these wily veterans for answers. Unable to end the conflict, the two leaders have ended up being sustained by it.
Netanyahu, 54, is Sharon's main rival and heir apparent. He has spent the last year as finance minister carrying out painful economic reforms and establishing a reputation as a modernizer. But the tug of war over the Gaza withdrawal has thrust him back into the heart of the conflict, propelled him toward the camp of those to the right of Sharon and damaged his newfound stature.
Every few years, a centrist party comes along that seeks to break the stagnant duopoly by offering a vision that is not tied to the siege. None of those parties has survived. The latest to try is Shinui, which finished a surprisingly strong third in last year's election just behind Labor and joined Sharon's governing coalition. Shinui imagines a modern, middle-class, pluralistic Israel with less centralization and more individual choice. It also wants to strip the ultra-orthodox religious establishment of its powers. Yet critics contend that Shinui's impact on social and economic issues while in office has been minimal.
The party's leader, Yosef Lapid, a former journalist and TV talk-show host, has found himself in the incongruous position of mediating between Sharon and right-wingers in the cabinet who oppose the Gaza withdrawal. (Lapid is deputy prime minister and justice minister.) Lapid's own utterances have stirred the pot -- he said televised images of an elderly Palestinian woman searching for her medications in the rubble of her Rafah home reminded him of his grandmother's suffering during the Holocaust.
Shinui wants to focus on modern Israeli concerns. But the siege keeps interfering with the party's real agenda, draining its energy and deflecting attention from socioeconomic issues back toward the main event.
Optimists here will tell you that the political stalemate is beginning to crack. Both Likud and Labor now agree that a two-state solution -- Israel and Palestine living side by side in separate nations, with a high wall between -- is the only way to prevent the Jewish state from being overwhelmed demographically. Sharon may hope to hang onto large portions of the West Bank. But his withdrawal scheme could set in motion a process he can't control that would inevitably lead to Israel's departure from most of the West Bank. Like the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev or South Africa under F.W. de Klerk, momentum will take over. "The status quo has stopped being an option," declares Dan Meridor, a former justice minister and Likudnik who says that many of his fellow former party members have come around to this view.
Perhaps he's right. But I recall how the Oslo peace process wore a similar air of inevitability in 1993. Peace, prosperity and normalcy were fated to follow.
Only they didn't. From this vantage point, Oslo looks more like a temporary blip in the 100-year war between Arab and Jew than a turning point. In May, 111 Palestinians were killed, the highest monthly Palestinian death toll in two years. Nineteen Israelis -- 14 soldiers and five civilians -- also died. Each of the dead had a family and friends, and each death is another reason for enmity and revenge. The conflict never sleeps. The state of emergency continues.