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"My friend, you're entering a world of pain," says Walter (John Goodman), one of the characters in "The Big Lebowski," every time he whips out his big pistol in reaction to a provocation. The image of the big, gung-ho tough guy - who is both Sabbath-observant and even more of a Zionist than Theodor Herzl - evokes the Americans' war posturing these days. Rather like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Walter declares, "I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude." He, too, says "Look at our current situation - with that bastard in Iraq, pacifism is not something to hide behind"; he, too, advocates the immediate use of harsh force as an answer to everything; and he, too, is a good buddy. A superpower buddy, the kind you want on your side in a dark alley. Maybe too much of a good buddy and too imposing: the kind of buddy whose militant patronage gets you entangled in constantly escalating dangers; a buddy who is bad news for you when he's around but even worse news for you if he's not around.

As things came to pass, Israel's "strategic partnership" with a great power - the dream of every Israeli leader since Ben-Gurion - is now being realized beyond anyone's wildest dreams, almost to the point where it makes one shudder. And from this aspect, heroic intellectualizing is required in order not to attribute excessive symbolism and meaning to the disaster of the Columbia space shuttle. A particularly optimistic effort is needed in order not to view as a divine portent - as in the beginning of Shakespearean tragedies - the horrifying spectacle in which a representative Israeli entrusted his life joyfully, believingly and confidently in American know-how only to be carried to perdition on its wings.

If the Americans did not and were not asked to apologize for the death of Col. Ilan Ramon, it's because America's imperial status is equal only to our infinite gratitude for the very fact that it has granted us its protection. For the same reason, no American apology was requested for the missiles that Iraq rained on us a decade ago in a war in which we were supposedly not involved, in which our hands were tied by our benefactors. But that's how it is when the sparks fly and you, the diminutive apprentice, are always under the elbow of the mighty smith.

So it is not surprising that the fact that we are being dragged, frightened (or are pushing ourselves, willingly) into the new war is accompanied by mixed, not to say mystical, feelings. One the one hand, there is the same semi-messianic arrogance bordering on nothing less than a "sense of miracle" (in the words of the "national commentator," Major General Amos Gilad) in the face of the Americans' determination to (again) rip out our enemies' fingernails; while, on the other hand, there is the same apocalyptic terror, justifiably based on traumas, lest the cure (elimination of weapons of mass destruction) again put us at greater risk than the disease (the launching of such weapons or the opening of the gates of hell of mega-terrorism). Both of these polarized reactions, though especially the hopeful one, are flawed by the same degree of exaggeration; certainly, they do not take into account America's achievements in the realm of Murphy's Law, according to which everything that can go wrong, will: in Cuba, in Vietnam, in the previous Gulf War, in Beirut, in New York, in the attempt to liquidate Bin Laden, with the Challenger and the Columbia, at Camp David-

Be that as it may, the plastic sheeting we futilely neglected is returning, and the duct tape is still being stretched lengthwise, and it's already hard to remember how we lived without "renewing the gas masks" or the "sealed room" - the psychoses that have affected us from time to time for the past dozen years. All the hopes and dreams we pinned on diplomatic negotiations and in changing Israel's status of being under permanent threat have faded away, together with the governments and leaders who shouldered this burden in the past decade. Now it's as though we have returned to the zero point of 1991, though with one difference: not only have we not been extricated from our existential plight, but the security of the entire world has worsened. This time even America is not the same rock of complacency and self-confidence to which we looked for salvation.

Since September 11th, at least, the same sudden unintended and unplanned closeness - solitary and somewhat off-putting - that develops between mourners or victims has emerged between these two special nations, the American and the Israeli. From the Rabin assassination to the mass terrorist attacks, the sheer bad luck and the traditional impotence and blunders, vast America and minuscule Israel find themselves increasingly collaborating. Not in scientific, diplomatic, economic or military achievements, but rather mainly in the etiquette of mourning and grief: in requiem prayers, tears, orotund speechifying, flags at half-mast. Here, as there, frightened eyes cast their gaze to the horizon of the attack and the mega-attack; here, as there, gas masks and sealed rooms are being readied.

This is not the strategic alliance we coveted. It was not in the realm of "life on the edge of the abyss" - with the plastic, the duct tape, the security guards, the tanks in the streets, the "high alerts" - that we aspired to be a light unto the nations. This is not how we imagined the 21st century. Welcome to the "world of pain," even if it's no longer clear who put whom into it.