The country is depressed, with good reason

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, June 7, 2001

JERUSALEM - Grim. That about sums up the current security situation in Israel, the mood of the people and the prospects for the near future. I wish I could be a bit more upbeat but there's no sense in pretending. Sure, things could always be worse - and sadly, they probably will be.

Even by Israel's news-intense standards, recent weeks have been especially heavy with heart-wrenching headlines. Just when one felt as if the country had already hit rock bottom, sure enough it would suffer yet another new terrorist bombing, mortar attack or roadside shooting, to say nothing of the worst civil tragedy in Israel's history.

How much depressing news can a people endure? How much tragedy can one nation face without cracking? In the face of seemingly endless calamity, how can Israelis best deal with a crisis overload?

These questions came up during a recent conversation among friends. About two weeks ago, my wife and I had several people over for dinner. In a remarkably short time, the discussion turned to "ha-matzav" (the situation). Without exception, what each of our guests had to say was thoroughly depressing.

Like the rest of the country, all of us at the table were still reeling from the then latest terrorist outrage of the day before - a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body at a crowded shopping center in Netanya killing five people and wounding many others.

During the conversation, one of our friends, a highly patriotic woman who was born and grew up in Jerusalem said: "For the first time in my life, I can now understand those Israelis who decide to leave the country and live somewhere else because of the reality here."

And what a reality it is that imposes itself relentlessly. In the two weeks since that dinner, there have been several more terrorist bombings, mortar firings and fatal shootings in addition to the collapse of a Jerusalem wedding hall that killed 23 people.

Admittedly, crises and tragedy are nothing new for Israelis whose devotion to their country has been tested over the years like few other people. But this time, it's different.

Like some untreatable cancer, the hostilities with the Palestinians seem to go from bad to worse. With each new week (day?), the bloodshed escalates further, defying any apparent military or political solution. It's a pure unadulterated mess, and a volatile one at that.

Since moving to Israel in 1990, I have seen the country weather all kinds of adversity. But what's happening today seems unparalleled for its impact on Israel's psychological condition. The malaise cuts deep and it's not hard to guess why.

First, the cold statistics, which only tell part of the story. Since the Palestinian uprising erupted in late September, some 90 Israeli civilians and soldiers have been killed and hundreds wounded. On the Palestinian side, the numbers are far greater. The conflict may not yet be officially called a war but it feels like one, especially with the country under siege, as people are afraid to take a bus or go to a shopping center.

Compounding the anxiety is the gnawing sense of despair and disillusionment over the so-called peace process. Starting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rejection of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's far-reaching concessions last summer at Camp David through the Palestinian campaign of violence and hate-filled incitement against Israel, the past year has shattered any remaining hopes first raised by the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Even if the country is not facing an existential threat, the sense of doom and gloom is pervasive. For all its military might and technological prowess, Israel is hurting. In addition to the casualties, the Intifadah has skewered the country's economy, scared away tourists and led to sharp criticism of Israel by the international media and foreign governments.

It's a disturbing picture. Most unsettling is the perception that there is no imminent solution to the situation with the Palestinians. Lamentably, the country's leaders are no source of inspiration, reassurance or optimism for the future. Grim, grim, grim.

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