In Country

Israel may suffer from a lot of shortages — oil, water, new immigrants — but it has an astounding abundance, an endless supply, of opinions.

I began hearing them on my Delta flight to Ben-Gurion Airport. I heard more standing in the passport-control line — and I hadn’t even officially stepped foot in the country yet.

A few more came my way as I headed south toward my brother-in-law’s kibbutz in the Negev. A high school student wearing a kippah and tzitzit poked his head into my car and asked where I was headed. He heard my American accent. "It’s good you’re not afraid to come here," he said, as if I had asked. "You know, we watch the reports on CNN, the kids getting shot in your high schools, and we think it’s really dangerous in America."

These opinions come unbidden, without preamble, as if people are just jumping into the middle of an ongoing conversation.

That conversation is a mostly depressing one, as I’ve heard in the past few days here. The economy has been sucker-punched by the plunge in tourism, the worldwide recession and the high-tech bust. The pre-Oslo sense of isolation has returned, made worse by a sense that Israel has been betrayed by its Palestinian peace partner and by its American Jewish supporters, who have voted with their feet to stay away in droves.

But if the al-Aqsa intifada has darkened opinions, it has also refined them (opinion in Israel has long been more diverse, more freewheeling and less infected with guilt and jingoism than its American Jewish counterpart). The left here, as evidenced by a recent newspaper interview with Chaim Shur, the father of the left, is now more wary, if not outright disdainful, of its former Palestinian partners. The right, as evidenced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself, is more willing to consider the limitations of force.

And the debate continues, amid a daily life that is as full and vibrant as ever. After all, Israelis have always argued politics the way Angelenos talk about movies and real estate — it’s just what’s in the air.

The only opinion that’s been hard to come by here is how the current crisis will end. To that question, I usually get just a slow, silent shrug.