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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 23, 2003

But what are the alternatives?

Israel's Warning for the U.S.

Most of all, what Americans can learn from the Jewish state is that unending war drains not just the economy but the national spirit

To a tourist visiting from the U.S., Israel feels deeply foreign, with compact cars, flat-roofed stone buildings, brilliant sunlight, and signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. Compared to bustling Manhattan, where I work at BusinessWeek headquarters, Israel is even more intense. Cell phones are more ubiquitous. Arguing is an art form. Religious Jews dressed in severe black contend for space on sidewalks with secular youths with nose rings and bare midriffs. Men greet each other with kisses on both cheeks. Strangers get in your face with criticism, unasked-for advice, and an occasional kindness.

But once you get over the strangeness of this sandy, New Jersey-size nation where the words run from right to left and the garbage men wear yarmulkes, you begin to focus on the similarities between Israel and the U.S. Both nations have suffered suicide assaults by radical Muslim terrorists.

And fairly or not, both are seen by much of the world today as aggressive military powers that respond to violence with their own violence, suppress Muslims, and reject the U.N.'s authority. After the September 11 attacks, the reaction of many saddened Israelis was "welcome to the club." They said it again after the U.S. invaded Iraq in the face of international condemnation.

ORDINARY TOURIST. America ought to be able to learn something from Israel's decades of experience. I'm an American who grew up Catholic, married an Israeli, and learned Hebrew, and I've come to Israel six times since 1992 on family visits. Although I have a day job as a BusinessWeek journalist, when it comes to Israel, I'm just an ordinary tourist who was here for Passover and the Easter holiday. That means I haven't talked to the experts or tried to gather all points of view. So consider this an overlong postcard.

Most of all, I think, what America can learn from Israel is that unending war drains the economy and national spirit. The economic damage here is obvious: My wife's relatives complain about the enormous gap between "bruto" and "neto" -- their gross pay and what they net after paying the taxes needed to support Israel's military-industrial complex and other services. Legions of guards paw through bags at the entrances to stores, restaurants, and offices -- an obvious cost. And nearly every Israeli serves in the military after high school: another drag on the economy.

To me, though, the spiritual draining is more serious. The Israelis I know are profoundly weary of perpetual conflict with the Palestinians in their midst and the other Arabs on their borders. Imagine what it's like to sit on a red-and-white Eged crosstown bus, knowing the next person to get on could be a suicide bomber who'll end your life.

SHADOWY ENEMY. The reaction is to seek safety by eliminating the enemy. That's how the U.S. reacted after September 11, when it invaded Afghanistan in the (unsuccessful) pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Israel behaves the same when it sends helicopter gunships to destroy cars full of suspected Palestinian terrorist leaders.

But war is never clean. It's dirtiest when it's fought against shadowy enemies who blend into the local populace. When it's hard to distinguish between true combatants and those who merely dislike you. When your ultimate objective is unclear. That describes Israel's shadow war in the "shtahim" -- the territories. To root out or seal off an unseen enemy, Israelis bulldoze Palestinians' homes and orchards, and blockade their towns.

Israelis don't like being perceived as bullies. Those who recently reelected ex-general Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister view his harsh crackdown as a necessary evil. They note -- with satisfaction tinged by guilt -- that the draconian approach seems to be working: Terrorist attacks have dropped off considerably in the past year.

REGRETABLE TIMES. It's an ugly business, though. Israeli Jews who once counted Arabs as friends have nearly lost interest in the Palestinian death toll. Says one friend: "My anger toward the Palestinians is that they took away our sense of humanity toward them."

One of my wife's relatives is a physician who specializes in ear, nose, and throat care. He spent Passover on reserve duty in the "shtahim" -- exactly where he wasn't allowed to say -- standing by to attend to Israeli soldiers and any injured Palestinians who came his way. In other words, he had a duty that in any reasonable world would not need to exist. An Israeli venture capitalist I know predicts that Israelis will some day look back on these days with regret.

Americans view their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as necessary evils in a just cause. Fresh from victory in Baghdad, Americans hope the struggle will end soon. But if Israel's experience is any guide, the war has just begun. And if the experiences of my wife's family and friends hold any lesson, fighting a war with no end in sight will burden both America's treasury and its spirit.