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Days intense in Israel: a small nation with big problems

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I had just come off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, gotten into a van and proceeded exactly 40 yards, when I turned the corner and entered upon a scene of utter pandemonium: Sirens screaming, men with guns running everywhere, two people carrying a stretcher. A racing ambulance cut us off. A cop pounded on the windows of our van and bellowed at us to get out of there.

"What the hell is going on?" I asked our driver."We just stumbled into the middle of a drill. Anti-terrorist. Chemical weapons, I think," he said calmly as he gunned the engine and sped away. "Welcome to Israel."

It's a long way from the land of Monica and Bill.

Living in the United States, now enjoying a time of unprecedented security, prosperity and social tranquillity, it is almost impossible to understand this country.

Hard to grasp first is the intensity of life. Israelis are a people for whom every day involves matters literally of life and death.

Life and death for their sons and daughters, who serve in the army and regularly expose themselves to death in places like Lebanon. Life and death on the street, where the loaded machine guns so casually slung over the shoulder of what seems like every youngster over 18 are a reminder that you are in a garrison state. (By law, no group of children is allowed on excursion without an armed escort - a result of bitter experience with terrorism.)

And finally, life and death for the country, one of the few nations on earth that, should it miscalculate in dealing with its enemies, can disappear.

Hence the intensity: argument and disputation at every turn, passionate debate at every dinner, politics everywhere and incessant. After two weeks of this, a return to the triviality of Monica-Bill Washington will be an almost physical decompression, a palpable and quite guilty relief. It ain't easy living on the edge.

One reason Israel lives on the edge is its size. The edge, the frontier, is everywhere because the country is so incomprehensibly small.

You go to Mount Scopus in Jerusalem and if you look eastward toward the West Bank, you are struck immediately by a range of mountains looking you right in the eye no more than 25 miles away. They are in Jordan - a good 10 miles into Jordan.

Your eyes have just traversed the West Bank, which is 15 miles wide at that point. You are looking not at the Palestinian state soon to be created next to Israel, but over it to a second Arab country lying beyond it - all at the distance of an American suburb.

Indeed the very topographical adjectives used here seem faintly ridiculous to Americans. Mount Scopus, like the Mount of Olives and just about every other "mount" here, is no mountain. It is a hill.

The Jordan River is no river. For almost its entire length it is something between a creek and a stream. This comes as a shock to many Christian pilgrims who, when they think of rivers, think of the Mississippi or the Hudson.

And the Sea of Galilee is no sea. For all of its biblical grandeur, it is no more than a small lake. It is 14 miles long and 8 miles wide at its widest point, less than half the size of Ted Turner's Montana ranch.

Equally striking for a traveler, however, is the other frontier, the internal frontier dividing Israelis. To Westerners, Israel's obvious obsession with external enemies tends to obscure its other obsession: the "haredim," the ultra-religious minority.

They are only 7 percent of the population but, because of Israel's fractured political system, they wield inordinate and oppressive power. In a recent poll asking Israelis what concerned them most about the future, the ultras topped the list. (The Palestinian issue came second.)

David Makovsky, a leading journalist, explained the problem succinctly. "The haredim don't serve in the army. They don't work or pay taxes (the men spend all day in study), and they want to tell everybody else how to live. These three things don't add up."