JERUSALEM -- As jumbo jets packed with immigrant Soviet Jews land at a rate of three a day, a growing number of Israelis are saying their country stands at the onset of a new era that will bring enormous new strength to the Jewish state but force it to face long-intractable conflicts over its borders, national identity and place in the Middle East.
For most of the last decade, Israel has offered the world the specter of a country in a stalemate. Successive "unity" governments balancing the left and right have postponed crucial national decisions on how to handle the occupied territories, how to modernize the economy and political system, and how to balance secular and religious Jewish life. Economic growth has been flat. Immigration, the country's defining purpose, has been exceeded by emigration.
Now, as so often in the last century, an upheaval in Europe stands to dramatically alter the fate of the Zionist enterprise and, with it, the delicate balance of power and peoples in the Middle East. Although the influx has been mounting in strength for nine months, it has developed so quickly that both Israelis and their Arab neighbors are only beginning to come to terms with its potentially far-reaching implications.
Over the past year, the number of Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel has risen from a few hundred to more than 10,000 per month; beginning in July, according to officials of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, the number of arrivals could double again, to 20,000.
At that rate, Israel's Jewish population of 3.7 million would begin to increase by 1 percent every two months -- and officials believe the surge could be sustained for years. According to official figures, Israel already has received 423,000 requests for visas from Soviet Jewish families, representing a possible immigration over the next several years of 1.1 million people.
The influx is the most talent-rich Israel has ever known, top-heavy with scientists, engineers, doctors, musicians and other white-collar professionals. It is the most secularized, with most of the new arrivals having scant exposure to Judaism and little prior commitment to Zionism. And, as many Israelis see it, it is the most aptly timed, coming at a moment when the country seems sorely in need of physical and psychological renewal.
"It's not a secret that Israeli society today is beleaguered for a number of reasons," said Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency. "We have a political crisis, we don't have a government, we have an economic crisis, we have problems in the territories. And then comes something like a mass exodus, and all of a sudden the purpose of this society is renewed. People remember why we built this country, what it was all for. Suddenly we have a way to reach back to what is clear, what is right, what we are about."
Yet as Israelis are rapidly discovering, the latest and perhaps last great exodus of Jews from Europe has accentuated the crisis of the state that awaits them. The absence of any consensus on how to modernize the creaky economy and political system means that the government has been unable to implement even the most basic measures needed to provide housing and jobs for the new arrivals.
On Monday, a new right-wing government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is expected to take power, ending a three-month interregnum in which the country has had only a skeleton administration. However, critics say the new Shamir cabinet may be too weak to act more decisively than the centrist unity coalition it replaced.
At the same time, the inability of Israelis to agree on the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, or even on how to begin a peace process with the Palestinians living in the territories, has helped convert the immigration into a major new source of tension in the Middle East and revived long-standing conflicts between Israel and the United States.
Over the past six months, U.S.-Israeli relations have sunk to their lowest level since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in part because of the settlement of Soviet Jews in Arab East Jerusalem and the occupied territories. Israeli-Arab belligerence has become so acute that even moderate leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are warning of the danger of a new Middle East war over Soviet Jewish immigration.
If Israel is unable to address these conflicts, leaders here say, the great immigration could be aborted. That danger was vividly underlined a week ago when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to curtail the flow of Jewish emigrants if Israel did not provide guarantees that the newcomers would not settle in the occupied territories.
"Everything depends on how we react to this immigration," said Arie Eliav, a Labor Party legislator and veteran of past immigration projects. "If we don't miss the chance it offers us, it could be a very great blessing. If we miss it, though, it could boomerang on Israel and its raison d'e~tre."
For now, even the meaning of the immigration continues to be a source of dispute within Israel. Fund-raisers and Jewish Agency officials say the planeloads of Soviets have stirred considerable popular enthusiasm here. In April, when the Jewish Agency asked for volunteers to host newcomers at Passover Seders, the feast commemorating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, it ended up with far more places at Seders than immigrants to fill them.
Organizers closely involved with the immigration speak euphorically about its implications. "I really believe that this is one of those great moments in history," said David Clayman, the director in Israel of the American Jewish Congress. "I think that the immigration is going to change Israel from the bottom up. And I think that first of all, a lot of the self-doubts that have been welling up since 1973, in this sort of adolescent stage of the country, are going to be worked out."
The idea of Israel as a refuge for Jews around the world is one of the country's psychological touchstones. Under the Law of Return, all Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel at any time and are entitled to immediate citizenship rights.
Still, some Israeli intellectuals, particularly on the left, continue to doubt the significance of the new influx as a force of national renewal. "There is a lot of image-making and PR here. The facts we don't know," said Amos Elon, a writer and journalist.
"The political system is paralyzed. The peace process is frozen. There is no public debate. The country is in a very deep crisis," Elon said. "And you don't cover it up with fund-raisers' slogans about exodus. The energies of this great immigration, even if it comes, will be exhausted by its own needs."
The only point on which most Israelis seem to agree is that the Soviets offer the country a potentially awesome supply of new talent. Surveys carried out by the Jewish Agency and census bureau show that the Soviets who have arrived so far and those who intend to immigrate come overwhelmingly from the elite strata of Soviet society. There has not been such an infusion of professionals here, experts say, since an exodus of German Jews to the region in the 1930s.
Of the immigrants who came in the first quarter of this year, census figures show, 36 percent have scientific or other academic professions, while another 23 percent are engineers. About 300 physicians are arriving in the country every month. An entire symphony orchestra has already been constituted from among new immigrants.
"Israel now has 12,000 people with a so-called 'fourth degree,' a professorship or expertise in advanced technology," Clayman said. "The estimate now is that the immigration will bring 40,000 more. In other words, it will more than triple the talent we have in advanced technology within a few years."
Some experts say this top-heavy concentration of professional workers will be a curse as well as a blessing, making it impossible to integrate the Soviet immigrants into the Israeli economy and prompting the exodus of many to other countries. But others say it could give Israel the chance to find the secure niche in world trade that it has not yet obtained, becoming a small but high-tech service center for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
"On the one hand, Israel cannot absorb all these scientists, but on the other hand, it gives Israel a unique opportunity to become a world center for science and technology," said Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik, who now heads the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an independent advocacy group. "We can become a world center for software. We can become a medical center for many parts of the world."
To achieve this transformation, however, Israel will have to undertake reforms of its domestic economy that its coalition governments have been postponing for years. Most economists here agree that Israel, whose economy was originally built along quasi-socialist lines, desperately needs to reduce the state's heavy intervention in industry, banking and finance and to open markets to local and international entrepreneurs. Yet while they often use the rhetoric of reform, political leaders have long avoided such steps, partly because of opposition from powerful special interests.
A similar, surprisingly pervasive inertia has gripped the government's preparations for the immigrants' arrival. Despite months of repeated emergency appeals by Jewish Agency leaders and other non-government immigration specialists, cabinets under Shamir have failed to take decisive steps to prepare housing, education or other services for the new population. Despite repeated promises, the government has failed even to streamline bureaucratic obstacles that are choking the construction of new housing for the Soviets.
To some advocates for the immigrants, the paralysis is evidence that, behind the facade of patriotic rhetoric, many politicians are ambivalent about the immigration wave. "The majority of the politicians are looking at this through their own political prisms, trying to figure out what it will mean for their narrow interests," said Sharansky. "They are incapable of seeing it in broader terms."
The politicians are puzzled because no one is sure how the Soviets will influence the long-standing stalemate in Israel between a nationalist right and dovish left. Right-wing spokesmen claim that the Soviets, by their sheer numbers, will make Israel's annexation of the occupied territories inevitable, a logic that Shamir summed up in January with the now notorious statement that "a big immigration needs a big Israel."
Leftists, however, counter that as secular, educated, non-ideological professionals fleeing oppression, the Soviets are more likely to support the "peace camp," favoring the exchange of the territories for peace with the Palestinians.
Other parties in Israel's perpetual internal conflict among special interests see the immigrants as a potentially serious threat. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have gained increasing power in the country through their schools and political parties, are alarmed by the idea that hundreds of thousands of immigrants with no strong attachment to traditional Judaism could strengthen the secular culture that this religious group bitterly opposes.
In an incipient sign of antagonism, some officials in the government's Interior Ministry, which is run by an Orthodox religious party, tried to demand earlier this year that the immigrating Soviets either provide proof that they were Jewish or undergo Orthodox conversions. Others have demanded that more government funds be spent on "spiritual absorption" of the immigrants.
Some politicians from Israel's Sephardic, or Oriental, community also have expressed open resentment of the immigrants. Their perception is that, as white Europeans, the Soviets will be granted massive support by the government at the expense of existing, disadvantaged communities with African and Asian backgrounds. While sometimes echoing this concern, some Israelis from the Ashkenazi Jewish community, of European origin, quietly express satisfaction that the incipient ascendancy of Oriental culture in Israel may now be arrested and even reversed.
With no real data to go on, each side in the various rifts dividing the country quietly fears that the dreams of their rivals may be realized with the help of the Soviets. As a result, Israeli politics is already beginning to shift from the inertia of the 1980s, in which a succession of unity coalition governments of the right and left postponed decisions on key issues in favor of an uncomfortable but stable national status quo.
If Shamir succeeds in a parliamentary vote of confidence for his new government Monday, it will be the first time since 1984 that Israel will have a government with an unambiguous stand on the future of the occupied territories, and an opposition with a clearly contrary view. That will allow left and right to openly dispute their new battleground: the allegiance of Soviet immigrants, who by the next election could constitute 10 or even 20 percent of the Israeli electorate.
This prospect of a revived national debate over the future of the country makes some Israeli observers as wary as they are joyful about the coming immigration. "People who see this as a panacea do not have a clue to what it means to shape a nation and the conflicts that are involved," said Jewish philosopher David Hartman. "We don't know how to build a nation. We don't know how to forge a consensus, because of the very deep divisions between groups in this country."
Hartman pointed out that the massive immigration of African and Asian Jews to Israel in the 1950s had the effect, 20 years later, of breaking up the nation's consensus around the socialist Zionist vision of Israel's European founders. The effect was to shift Israeli politics toward the right and its ideology of a "greater Israel" including the occupied territories. Because of its sheer numbers, the Soviet immigration should similarly shift national politics.
Unlike the Sephardic Jews, however, "this is an immigration of people without a historical identity," Hartman said. "After 70 years of living under Soviet Communist rule, they have no Jewish roots. So it's an open ballgame. They can go right, they can go left, they can become fanatical or apathetic. The question is, how will they build their Jewish identity here? Who will tell them the story, mediate the memory, the right or the left? The Zionists or the ultra-Orthodox?
"What story they believe could be decisive for the future of the country. But if we don't make it meaningful, they won't stay."