A Holiday of Highs and Lows

And so, between one funeral and the next, between one bombing alert and another, between a small-scale war and a war that threatens to turn big, the traditional celebrations may go on, but the heart does not rejoice.

Israel's 54th Independence Day has caught us with our national mood at rock bottom. The Promised Land has become the Land of the Security Check - a land in which citizens are afraid to walk the streets. For the first time in many years, the shadow of economic crisis also looms. Investors are fleeing and defunct tourism has become a grave financial-environmental disaster. The international media has returned to the symposia and opinion polls of old, probing the question of how long Israel will survive, if at all.

And if that were not enough, the country is in the throes of a global image crisis. From Australia to America, Muslim demonstrators throughout the world (20 million of them living in Europe) have joined up with local anti-Semites to create a toxic compound against the morality of Israel's battle for secure borders.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has isolated Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, has brought upon us worldwide isolation the likes of which we have never known before. The way things look at the moment, Israel is in a military and political rut. The stars of the show are two stubborn, bullheaded leaders with 30 years of bad blood between them who are prepared to scratch at each other until the bitter end, like a pair of fighting roosters.

And so, between one funeral and the next, between one bombing alert and another, between a small-scale war and a war that threatens to turn big, the traditional celebrations may go on, but the heart does not rejoice.

But the truth is, it all isn't very new at all. Throughout Israel's 54 years of existence, there has never been an Independence Day on which the country was not in a state of war, to one extent or another. Israel is also the only country of this age in the world that has no permanent borders or peace agreement with its neighbors, and is threatened with total extinction by the countries around it and the terrorist organizations they harbor.

Hours after David Ben-Gurion joyfully proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab armies invaded the new state, intent on destroying it in one fell swoop. Today, the Palestinians are paying the price for the hatred and arrogance of the Arab nations, which rejected the Partition Plan and kept them from achieving statehood. The territories now at the epicenter of the bloody dispute - the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including Jerusalem - were in Egyptian and Jordanian hands for 19 years. In all that time, it never occurred to them to establish a state for the Palestinians.

In our 54 years of existence, we have fought five major wars. Between one war and the next, between terrorist attacks and the war of attrition, from one Independence Day to another, Israel has known a 14-year U.S. arms embargo, Arab boycotts, the threat of a Russian missile attack, a harsh period of austerity, economic hardship and inflation that rose to 450 percent.

But in spite of our tiny size, in spite of the wars and the terror and the boycotts, Israel has become a glorious country, a marvel in the eyes of the whole world, practically a global power - a law-abiding country, a country with freedom of expression, the sole democracy in the region.

While the oil-rich Arab nations kept their brothers, the Palestinian refugees, holed up in camps for decades, Israel, with a population of 600,000, absorbed millions of Holocaust survivors, Jewish refugees from Arab lands and Soviet Jews. No other country has multiplied its population seven times over within such a short span of time. It took 20-30 years for certain Arab leaders to get smart and realize that there is no eliminating Israel by force, that we are here for good, with an overwhelming majority that believes in the principle of land for peace, as long as there is another side prepared to talk instead of shoot and bomb.

But Israelis have this manic-depressive tendency. When things are good, their euphoria soars sky-high and they think they can do anything they want - like building settlements in the territories. When the inevitable explosion comes, they are masters at letting off steam, and cry as if it's the end of the world.

For a country that has rocked back and forth between high and low from the day it was born, it is only a matter of time before we recover yet again and get back to business. Either America steps in with two feet, we sign a cease-fire agreement and start negotiating, Arafat is expelled, Sharon is ousted, or both leaders go home.

Whatever happens, as the pilot in the famous joke says, we won't stay in the air.