About two miles northwest of Bethlehem, Israel's much-discussed security fence comes to an end -- not with a bang but with a whimper.
A massive pile of coiled razor wire lays in a tangled heap beside the completed portion of the fence, which here separates the newly built Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa -- a pile of stone-fronted apartment houses plopped onto a mountaintop -- from the Palestinian city across the valley.
Israel's Ministry of Defense doesn't call the fence a fence. Spokespeople there refer to it as the ma'arechet, or "the system." The system, designed to prevent Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel, is actually a two-sided series of barriers. The layers go as follows: a razor wire fence, an anti-vehicle ditch, a patrol road, a gravel road raked to betray footprints, an 8-foot-tall fence studded with cameras and electronic sensors; then, on the other side of the electronic fence, the mirror image: gravel road, patrol road, vehicle ditch, razor wire. The remote sensors relay information of trespassers to army posts, which can dispatch a patrol in minutes to race up the roads and investigate.
Marc Luria, an American immigrant to Israel who is lobbying the Knesset for full and speedy completion of "the system," drove me through an open gate and up the empty patrol road -- a bit of a thrill considering the traffic that chokes the country's real roads -- to the place where the fence ended. Construction equipment lay scattered about nearby, and workers backed cement trucks up to the spot. But the workers weren't completing the fence: they were building a road that would bisect the system and continue on deep into the West Bank, to the Jewish settlement of Nokdim. Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman happens to live in that settlement, so Israelis, for whom a cynical sense of humor is practically a birthright, have taken to calling the nascent road "Lieberman Street."
The intersection of Lieberman Street and the system is as good a place as any to try to understand this small, divided and complex country. Here are the symbols of Israeli prowess -- modern development, military might, technological ingenuity. Here, too, is the proof of Palestinian presence: The system separates several Palestinian homes from the homes across the wadi and from a mosque some 500 yards up the opposite hill. Lieberman Street goes out to a settlement inhabited by religious Jews who believe their presence there is a God-given right that cannot be compromised.
Even a large drainage pipe running beneath the fence resonates. A sensor is affixed to its iron grill as well, because five months ago, a terrorist shimmied through such a pipe beneath a northern section of the fence, emerged onto Israel's new transnational highway, and fired on a passing car, instantly killing a 7-year-old boy.
But of course the most obvious symbol is the fence itself. To many Israelis it is a sign of increased security. To many Palestinians it is a sign of conquest. But there is no denying that it is an all-too-convenient image for a deeply divided land and society.
The most profound political division I found in Israel on this trip is the same one I found 19 years ago, when I lived for two years on a quiet street near the center of Jerusalem: what is to be done with the Palestinians and the territories?
In 1967, following an attack on Israel by Arab armies, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The conquest tripled the size of the land Israel controlled -- from 8,200 to 26,000 square miles -- and brought 1 million Palestinians under Israeli control.
Analysts estimate that within a few years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will exceed the Jewish population. The loss of a Jewish majority within Israel's post-1967 borders will force Israel to face the choice of being either a non-democratic Jewish state or a binational state that is no longer Jewish. One day in the next two or three or five years, said former Speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg, a Palestinian baby will be born who will tip the population balance between Jews and Arabs in the land called Greater Israel. "If the Palestinians put down their weapons and go for one vote," Burg said, "that will be the end of the Jewish State as we know it."
Burg said these dire words to participants in the United Jewish Communities' (UJC) General Assembly (GA), which brings together representatives of Jewish communities throughout North America (see story, page 24). Five years ago, UJC planners decided to hold the assembly in Israel, and went ahead with their plans despite the increased terror and a State Department warning against travel to Israel. The turnout astounded organizers: 5,000 Jews attended from around the world, making it the largest GA in the meeting's history.
Organizers took heat from some Israelis for not presenting some of the serious problems facing the country, a charge North American co-chair Susan Gelman denied. "We didn't run away from any issue," she told reporters at an opening press conference.
What the program's Israeli critics didn't understand is that the goal of every GA is first and foremost to rally the fundraising troops. The GA always includes Israel, but it is never all about Israel. The divide between the American and the Israeli Jewish experience is such that, with the exception of a small percentage of passionate activists, Israel is more of a symbol to American Jews than a reality. Israel is their team, and they show up for the big games (war, peace treaties), but they don't follow every game, or even every season. This GA, held in the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, may have had Israel as its focus, but it also devoted time to issues of concern primarily to the North American audience: addressing dwindling affiliation rates, philanthropic leadership, gay and lesbian inclusion, alternative spiritual expressions, etc.
But either out of design or accident, this year's GA tried to draw delegates much deeper into the game. In the past three years, when Israel has been on the agenda, the forums have tended to be less than sharply critical and the Israel-oriented events more cheerleading than scrimmage. This week some of Israel's strongest and least critical American Jewish supporters got a taste of the political debate that has defined so much of Israeli society.
At the opening ceremony, delegates leapt to their feet and cheered when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared, "Our enemies have yet to understand that the Jewish people can't be broken, and will never be broken."
But the next day they heard Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrachi say, "Solidarity with Israel is not always an uncritical solidarity with the Israeli government. Sharon speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He says he supports the 'road map' but he has not removed one illegal settlement from the West Bank."
Ezrachi was the rule, not the exception. At the sessions I attended, speaker after speaker exhorted American Jews to get involved in the debate over the Palestinian question. "We are facing the most difficult historic choice since 1948, and it is imperative that every Jew must take a stand," Ezrachi said.
Arye Carmon, founder of the Israel Democracy Institute, told another audience, "I call on you to agonize with us. The time has come to translate slogans into action."
Israelis and others outside questioned whether it was American Jewry's place to weigh in on the policy direction of a country they don't live in. It is not Diaspora Jewry's role to be nuanced and involved, one resident told me, it is our role to just support Israel in the face of an international community that finds it legitimate to question the existence of Israel but not of, say, Finland.
But in another session, Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's General Security Services, or Shin Bet, directed his remarks -- ominously -- to just that concern. "You have to think about what will happen as a result of our actions to Jews everywhere," he said. "I'm not sure we [Israelis] understand that."
The debate that marked these particular GA sessions distilled the concerns I found everywhere during my week and a half in Israel. Ayalon made waves internationally just as the GA began by joining with three other former Shin Bet directors in publicly criticizing the direction of the Sharon government. It was an unprecedented moment in Israel's history when an interview with the four appeared in the Nov. 14 edition of Yediot Aharanot. Sharon, they said, is using terror as an, "excuse for doing nothing," in the words of Carmi Gillon. "In this terrible situation," Ayalon said, "where civilians are slaughtered in restaurants and buses, in my opinion there is no other way but to take unilateral steps."
Ayalon, together with Palestinian activist Sari Nusseibeh, drew up a declaration of principles that they are circulating among Palestinians and Israelis as a way of building grass-roots support for negotiations. Along with his former colleagues, he believes the current government is endangering Israel's security and its democracy by reacting to terror militarily without a strategy that holds out hope for the Palestinians.
But it is terror that has made the debate over the Palestinian question both more urgent and more difficult. "It is hard to talk about peace and democracy when you are under attack," said MK Tommy Lapid, the leader of the Shinui Party.
I spoke with Israelis who were convinced that the only solution to the conflict was the eradication of the Palestinian people. "I shoot first, then I ask whether they're interested in peace or not," said a man who had just returned from reserve duty in the Gaza Strip.
A diplomat I spoke with echoed another common idea for addressing the problem: increased aliyah, or immigration, to Israel. One million Jews moving to Israel, she said, would counter Palestinian population growth. Sharon received a standing ovation for saying the same thing to the GA delegates. "It's so crazy," said one participant of Sharon's suggestion. "These people are not going to come, and they would think it's a tragedy if their kids came."
As Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar pointed out, the 30,000-40,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have recently left Israel have made Moscow one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. The sad fact, said Lapid, is that the Israel he sought refuge in as a survivor of the Holocaust is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a Jew.
The presentations at the GA were Israeli society in a nutshell: vibrant and fearful, cautious and defiant, pessimistic and hopeful. Sometimes, as in the case of Lapid, one speech hit all these notes. Yes, there must be a two-state solution, he said, but don't expect it to put an end to conflict. "We will give up all kinds of biblical dreams in order to have a pragmatic solution," he said, "but to promise you there's only a few steps we have to take and they have to take is not enough."
The security fence, Lapid said, may be a system for defense, but it is not a solution.
Israelis harbor deep doubts that their leaders, much less the Palestinian leadership, are able, now and in the foreseeable future, to work out a settlement to their conflict. Lacking that, they know full well the clock is ticking on the demographic issue, a conflict that a temporary security system manages but doesn't solve. The deepest divide of all here remains the one between the country Israelis and American Jews want, and the one they are likely to get.