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  •   ISRAELI JUBILEE : The Continuing Struggle
    A Victim of Its Own Success?

    Fireworks light up the sky over Jerusalem on April 30 as the Dome of the Rock mosque glows in the foreground. (AFP Photo)

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     Parties, Gore Help Mark Anniversary

    By Glenn Frankel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, May 1, 1998; Page A27

    Fifty is the age of maturity, a time when nations, like people, expect to have a firm grip on their identity and feel comfortable within their own skin. But Israel turned 50 years old yesterday ensnared in a web of contradiction. It has never been more prosperous and more secure, yet at the same time more divided and uncertain about its fate.

    The problem goes beyond the relentless push and pull of Israel's struggle with its Arab neighbors. That conflict still haunts – as the renewed threat of Iraqi Scud missiles made agonizingly clear recently – although its central hold on Israel's character and imagination has begun to wane. But it has been joined by deeper and even more wrenching conflicts between Jews and other Jews – between hard-liners and doves, secular and religious, modernists and traditionalists, new immigrants and old-timers, and American Jews and their Israeli brethren.

    For years these disputes were papered over because of the overriding importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now they have surfaced with a vengeance and vehemence that has surprised and frightened many Israelis and raised questions about what, if anything, they really have in common.

    "Looking back from the perspective of 50 years, we can see it was a delusion to believe that Israel had finished going through its formative stages," says the political scientist Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University and the Israeli Democracy Institute. "Its future is wide open, its borders are still unfixed, the direction of its leadership is still not clear and the conflict between left and right is like a seesaw."

    Israeli Jews do not agree on the size or nature of their state or on what to do about the Palestinians who live within its present borders or their Jewish brethren who live without. They cannot even agree on who is entitled to be called a Jew. And the argument still lingers over the very purpose of having a state: Is it a vehicle for Jews to enter the community of nations as a normal people with allies, economic ties and diplomatic relations? Or is it a fortress with high walls and bristling armaments designed to protect Jews by sealing them off from a hostile world?

    In a sense, Israel has become a victim of its own success. The country has enjoyed a remarkable, decade-long run of economic growth and reduced inflation rivaling that of the most successful of Asia's little tigers. Israel has successfully absorbed nearly 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Late-model Japanese vehicles choke the narrow streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and personal computers stuffed with domestically produced software occupy space in most homes.

    Perhaps no society other than the United States has adapted more quickly and profitably to the age of cyberspace. The triple-tower Shalom Project rising self-confidently high above central Tel Aviv, the tallest buildings ever constructed in the Middle East, is a tribute to an emerging economic power where per capita income is approaching that of Britain.

    But for all their visible prosperity, Israelis still view their existence as a nation as precarious. This is partly a hangover from the pre-state days of Holocaust and persecution, and partly a recognition that Israel remains in a twilight zone between peace and war. None of its immediate Arab neighbors has attacked since the traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973, yet Iraq rained Scud missiles on Tel Aviv and environs in 1991, and the Israeli army is still pinned down in a brutish war of attrition with guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Even the landmark peace pacts with Egypt and Jordan are cold affairs, treaties signed by Arab leaders that have never been embraced by their people.

    At the same time, Israel is going through an internal transformation. Israeli Jews have lost faith in many of the old Zionist institutions associated with the founding of the state, but have yet to come up with functional replacements. A new Israel is emerging that is at once more bourgeois, democratic, pluralistic, stratified and divided. The deadened grip of a centralized economy has loosened, but so has a sense of egalitarianism and collective identity that Israelis once shared.

    Israel's birth on May 14, 1948 – 50 years ago yesterday by the Hebrew calendar – was far from auspicious. As Conor Cruise O'Brien recalls in "The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism," five Arab armies attacked the new state, Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv and founding father David Ben-Gurion's first broadcast as prime minister was made from an air raid shelter. But Ben-Gurion was a master of keeping the nation's eyes focused on the dream even as he led it through the dismal task of surviving as a small, beleaguered but determined power.

    Ben-Gurion Compromises

    With national survival his first imperative, Ben-Gurion made many compromises that still bedevil the modern state. Early on he agreed to grant the Orthodox rabbinical establishment monopoly control over religious affairs, including civil matters such as marriage, divorce and qualification for automatic citizenship, under the mistaken assumption that the rabbis and their followers were a doomed remnant of the East European ghetto who would gradually disappear. Today, Orthodoxy refuses to ease its grip, provoking bitter clashes with immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewishness is in dispute and with American Jews who are members of the Reform and Conservative movements that the rabbinate considers a threat to traditional Judaism and to its own power.

    Ben-Gurion also agreed to a factionalized political system in which virtually all groups, no matter how small, have some stake in the process. As a result, political parties today remain odd collections of tribal identities, personal interests and patchwork coalitions, manipulating a system that rewards factionalism and strife, not unity and consensus. In such a system, majorities are so thin and fragile that political unrest is a constant. Winners never feel secure and losers never surrender. Labor and Likud, the two large political coalitions, have steadily lost clout to their smaller, more radical and more cantankerous rivals on both right and left. The electoral reform that grafted a presidential-style prime minister onto a chaotic parliamentary system has only given Israelis the worst of both worlds.

    Unpopular Zionism

    Zionism, the nationalist ideology that underpinned the new-born state, has become something of a dirty word among a younger generation that has lost faith in national institutions. Even the Israel Defense Forces, the much-vaunted citizen army that is the ultimate expression of national unity and pride, has come under fire. The army's failure to extinguish the Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation between 1987 and 1993, its chilling helplessness to protect Israeli civilians from Iraqi Scuds during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and its inability to end the stalemate in the portion of southern Lebanon that it holds have tarnished its image. Many youngsters still compete to join elite combat units in the same way that some American students vie to enter Harvard and Yale, but others look for ways to escape conscription or be dismissed early from service. The social stain that once attached to an early or dishonorable discharge has faded.

    Every once in a while an event occurs – like the recent death of a Russian-born soldier in southern Lebanon – that reminds Israelis they have lost something precious in the rush to modernity. Sgt. Nikolai Rappaport was a model soldier who volunteered for a combat unit so he would have extra pay to send home. After he was killed on patrol, Israelis were shocked to discover that his father and sister lived in a small, squalid storehouse in one of Tel Aviv's bleakest sections. To make matters more poignant, Rappaport could not be interred in a Jewish cemetery because his mother was not a Jew. His father chose to take his body back to Russia for burial.

    The soldier's dedication, the poverty his family endured and the decision to go back to Russia all sent a shiver of shame and guilt through a society that still honors those who sacrifice their lives in its name. "It is a pity we have come to this point," said President Ezer Weizman, himself an old-school Zionist, after visiting the Rappaport hovel.

    As old institutions have faded, so have old leaders. The historic figures who stalked the land like gruff behemoths – Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin – have passed on. The last of their breed, the former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and the former prime minister Shimon Peres, sit in forced retirement, rejected by voters in their last hurrahs.

    Instead, Israel is ruled by a new generation whose contradictory impulses reflect the country they lead. Binyamin Netanyahu, narrowly elected over Peres two years ago, is, at age 48, the first prime minister who is younger than the state itself. A master of the televised sound-bite, Netanyahu is an ideological hawk and an apostle of the modern, consumerist society – "the kind of right-wing ideology you eat with a TV dinner," says Ezrahi. He wants Israel to be both Sparta and Athens, a country that spends a disproportionate part of its national budget on high-tech weaponry yet can still afford the latest in foreign-made consumer goods.

    Netanyahu was elected in the wake of a series of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets and he ran on a platform that promised "a secure peace." He has made no secret of his distaste for the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, and critics – including many in the Clinton administration – contend he has set out to quietly suffocate the peace process. Yet his reluctant acceptance of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his decision to honor a prior government's commitment to partially withdraw from Hebron – the first time a Likud leader has ceded West Bank territory – have helped create a far wider consensus among Israelis that a Palestinian political entity on a substantial portion of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is inevitable.

    Fettered by the constraints of his governing partners and the chaotic system he rules over, Netanyahu has appeared to lurch from crisis to crisis with no clear goal other than survival. He functions, as the Hebrew daily Haaretz put it in an editorial, "not as a leader with authority, but as a barrel reverberating with the collection of pressures put on him."

    Cabinet Shifts Right

    The danger lies in the fact that, while Netanyahu may want to stand still, time does not. The Middle East abhors a vacuum and radicals move quickly to fill it. The departure from his cabinet of relative moderates like David Levy and Dan Meridor has left Netanyahu to contend with a far more hard-line cast, led by cabinet ministers Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, the architects of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. One informed analyst, Ehud Yaari of Israel Television, co-author with Zeev Schiff of "Israel's Lebanon War," the definitive analysis of the 1982 war, said he fears these men may again be leading Israel into a military confrontation with the Palestinians.

    Arab radicals are also moving to fill the gap. Younger Palestinians, the same force that triggered and sustained the uprising, or intifada, for six years, are increasingly frustrated and dismayed by the lack of progress toward a state and a modicum of economic prosperity in the West Bank and Gaza. Another round of suicide attacks could scuttle the peace process altogether.

    For Ezrahi, the weakness of Netanyahu's government and the loud volume of the ensuing debate over Israel's future are signs of healthy skepticism within the body politic that suggest the country is indeed maturing. But for Yosef Alpher, a strategic analyst who is Jerusalem representative of the American Jewish Committee, Netanyahu's weakness is a danger sign.

    "It is significant that in our 50th year we saw with the threat from Iraq a sort of dry run of what wars are likely to look like in the Middle East in the coming decade, the threat of missiles and nonconventional weapons," Alpher said. "The fact is we have no overall strategic concept to deal with this threat, and we haven't taken advantage of the peace process to get our own part of the Middle East in some semblance of order. My fear is that this lack of strategic thinking may cost us dearly."

    Frankel was The Post's Israel bureau chief from 1986 to 1989.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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