Was 5758 a good or bad year for Israel You decide…depending on your view of peace process, econom

JERUSALEM — The year now drawing to a close can hardly be described as a particularly good one for Israel, even by the most optimistic of observers.

On the other hand, 5758 cannot be depicted as an especially bad year — even by the Netanyahu government's most virulent critics.

It was not a year of war, and even the perennial scourge of terrorism was less devastating than in previous years.

Just the same, this was the year in which Israel marked its jubilee. And despite what one might have expected on the 50th anniversary of Israel's birth, there is a sense of letdown in the air, of disappointment in the national mood.

Even though the government spent some $40 million on the jubilee celebrations, the anniversary events failed to recreate that spirit of dancing in the streets, of transcendent national purpose and unity, that accompanied the creation of the state five decades ago.

Perhaps the strongest indicator that Israeli society was not in a celebratory mood came on Independence Day, on what should have been the high point of the jubilee year. A lavish pageant mounted in late April at a Jerusalem stadium, with Vice President Al Gore present as the guest of honor, was beset by behind-the-scenes strife that seeped onto the stage, spoiled some of the performances and triggered weeks of nationwide confrontations between secular and Orthodox Israelis.

The confrontations centered on a scheduled performance by the Batsheva Dance Company in which the dancers planned to strip down to their underwear during a song based on the Passover Haggadah. Leaders of the haredi, or fervently religious, community objected, calling the performance immodest. A compromise was struck under which the dancers were to wear tights — but the troupe finally canceled its performance, saying it had been subjected to undue political pressure.

Perhaps laughable in other countries, the dispute seemed to dredge up all the unresolved tension and anger that still gnaw at the solidarity of Israeli society — and that stand in such stark contrast to the country's material achievements in its relatively short existence.

Indeed, religious-secular tensions seemed more bitter and prevalent in Israel at its 50th anniversary than at any previous period.

Things were said and written this past year — on both sides of the divide — that would have been unthinkable, or at any rate unprintable, only a few short years ago.

Certainly they would have been unutterable in the early period of the state, when, despite all the rancor and deep ideological differences that also existed then, there was an overarching awareness that Israel itself seemed to exist only by the grace of God.

One aspect of the worsening conflict is Israel's continued failure, indeed refusal, to accept the pluralistic stance that American Jews consider a natural expression of democracy and of Judaism.

An interdenominational commission headed by the minister of finance, Ya'acov Ne'eman, produced a blueprint for compromise — at least on the issue of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel.

But even this compromise was effectively blocked and shelved during the year by what each side said was the other's obstinacy.

Sociologists and political scientists at least partly attribute the intensification of the religious-secular conflict to the fact that all of the Orthodox parties to the dispute are partners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, while much of the secularist forces side with the parties of the left and center, which are in the opposition.

Along with the resurgence of Orthodox-secular tensions, the jubilee year was marred by a sharp and unexpected wave of Sephardi-Ashkenazi resentments — something that many Israelis had hoped was disappearing.

The backdrop was a worsening economic situation, with more than 200,000 people on the unemployment rolls by year's end.

Hardest hit, as always, were the development towns and the down-and-out urban suburbs — the homes of Sephardi families, who carry the scars of failed absorption for decades and generations.

Comments made during the summer by a leading Labor Party figure, Ori Orr, brought the controversy back into the headlines.

Orr claimed that Moroccan Israelis were less "Israeli" than others and less inclined to logical reasoning. This, he explained, was the cause of that community's refusal to embrace the Labor Party, despite party leader Ehud Barak's attempt last October to apologize on behalf of Labor's past generations for the wrongs that Sephardi immigrants may have suffered during their absorption into Israeli society.

The turmoil caused by Orr's impolitic statements has yet to subside — and is still years from healing.

Not surprisingly, evaluations of the year just passed differ depending on one's political ideology.

For political doves, 5758 was a year of inactivity, a wasted year in which the peace process proceeded nowhere, in which negotiations with the Palestinians were suspended most of the time, in which negotiations with other Arab partners were nonexistent — and in which, as a result, Israel's relations with the United States and much of the world declined.

Now, with the end of the five-year interim period prescribed by the Oslo Accords just months away, the doves say peace with the Palestinians seems hopelessly off track and bereft of even a modicum of mutual trust and good will.

They warn of an explosion of frustration and violence in the Palestinian territories that could destroy the last vestiges of the accords.

Government critics also cite the slowdown in Israel's economy as evidence of Netanyahu's misguided domestic priorities and of the international community's negative reaction to the withering peace process.

The government's supporters, on the other hand, have a far more positive assessment of the year.

In their view, Netanyahu has succeeded in delivering on his electoral pledges: He remains committed to Oslo — but is determined to negotiate more slowly and more cautiously than the previous, Labor-led government.

The reduction in terrorist activity, they say, is tangible evidence that the premier's tough line is paying off.

They hold similar views about the economic front. The slowdown is hard on certain sectors, they admit, but it is under control.

The government's underlying policies are healthy and will lead to real growth. Above all, they add, inflation has been curbed to just 4 percent annually — giving investors at home and abroad a sense of confidence and security.

And so, it seems, 5758 was either a bad year or a not-that-bad year for Israelis, depending on their individual political, religious and ethnic perspectives.