A Cloud over Jerusalem

by Brian on November 14, 2006

in In the News


Their economy is better and terrorism has decreased, but Israelis are losing their characteristic 'stoic optimism.'
By Nicholas Goldberg
Los Angeles Times
November 12, 2006

See original article here

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.

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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