Israel, at its 50th birthday, faces imperfect peace: Maturity: Books, pictures and millennia of legend argue that power makes compromise affordable.

THE ARGUMENT

March 08, 1998|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At age 50, Israel has not escaped the mid-life torment of self-doubt. What its citizens hoped would be a brief, unremarkable coming of age has become an epic, because many of the questions dating from the country's birth remain unanswered: Israel will be a Jewish state, but how Jewish? It must share land with the Palestinians, but who has the better claims to which parts of it? Peace is necessary, but peace obtained at what price?

A photograph by Micha Bar-Am in "Israel: A Photobiography, the First Fifty Years" (Simon & Schuster, 200 pages, $40), depicts one of the epic's turning points. The time is the moment in the 1967 Six Day War when Israeli troops had just fought their way into Jerusalem's Old City and reached the Western Wall, the only surviving remnant of the Jewish Temple. An Israeli soldier, his back to the camera, faces the wall. On his head is a small skullcap held on by a bobby pin; on his shoulders is a bright necklace of bullets, draped like a prayer shawl. He stands in the posture of prayer. But at age 50, a person must rethink what he should pray for. For greatness or comfort? Perfection or tranquility?

One of the lessons of the last 50 years for Israelis and Arabs alike is that epics always involve great costs. The Old Testament suggests you can lead a wholly principled life only at the cost of large sacrifices as you travel that vertiginous path. In the Old Testament, Moses leads the Israelites from Egypt into 40 years of wandering - a full 40 years to ensure that only a new, younger generation enters the Promised Land. Once in Canaan, Joshua is said to take possession of a long list of Canaanite cities, but only by destroying them and killing all their inhabitants.

Prime Minister Golda Meir in the early 1970s imagined a satisfying epic in which Israel could largely disregard the Palestinians. Arab leaders wasted decades and thousands of lives by imagining a drama in which Israel would disappear. Leaders of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza now cast themselves as redeemers of land promised to them by God, characters in a new chapter of epic Jewish history.

And in every epic, the longer you are en route to your ultimate, impossible goal, the sweeter it becomes in your imaginings. In "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" (Pantheon, 312 pages, $26), Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami shows the Palestinians becoming mesmerized by that false sweetness of absence. Villages that Palestinians fled during Israel's War for Independence in 1948 became places of bliss and splendor in the retelling of history in the refugee camps. So in a sense the epic has been shared. Two peoples, or some among them, have sometimes fantasized that the land could be pristine and whole.

At age 50, you perhaps should wish for less than everything. One of the sobering, painful lessons of age is that not every desire will be met. War will not bring total victories; witness the battles against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Peace will not bring serenity; witness the imperfect, durable peace between Israel and Egypt.

Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist, gracefully extrapolates the changing Israeli national experience from three generations of his family's life in "Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel" (University of California, paperback, 300 pages, $16.95). Ezrahi was 8 when David Ben-Gurion read Israel's Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. It seemed the beginning of a permanent age of heroes. "It never occurred to us," Ezrahi writes, "that our leaders could be unfair, mistaken, unjust, or reckless and they could lead us into wars and bloodshed by mistake."

Political, miliatry

It's that epic -- the wars, the social and political divisions and the life-size screen on which they have been been acted - that holds our attention. The prolific Martin Gilbert, in "Israel: A History" (William Morrow, 748 pages, $30), narrates the political and military aspects of the story, from Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gilbert offers too little context and analysis in this very long book, but his chronicles of military and diplomatic battles powerfully evoke the enervating sense of constant conflict. The volume's maps are dense with long, dark arrows showing "main lines of attack," "settlements overrun," "principal lines of advance" in battles fought and re-fought - a history no nation would wish for itself. In April 1948, after weeks of especially bloody violence by Jews and Arabs, a young woman named Zipporah Porath writes in her diary, "All Jerusalem is asking itself, Is there no end to it?"

A second life

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