For a nation sitting on a perpetual powder keg, Israel boasts a remarkably successful economy. And for first-time visitors, it is a land full of surprises in terms of its historic beauty but also in the depth of divisions that challenge the area's leaders.
I've just spent eight days in the Middle East, five days attending the meeting of the International Press Institute in Jerusalem and three days touring neighboring Jordan.Israel in late March is lush and green. It rained throughout most of the first four days and temperatures were in the 40s and 50s.
Snow fell briefly during our visit to the disputed Golan Heights which are two hours by bus north of Jerusalem and near the Sea of Galilee. We passed Jericho on the way into the agriculturally rich valley of the Jordan River, land that was not part of the original boundaries when Israel was formed as a nation in 1948.
As most know, Israel's current boundaries include land taken when Israel successfully fought off Arab attacks in 1967 and 1973. It is this land, now settled by 140,000 Israelis, that stands in the way of a permanent peace.
And then there is the problem of the mistrusted and ill-treated Palestinians, who are nonetheless citizens and who number 850,000 of Israel's 5.6 million population. Palestinians are not allowed to serve in the Israeli armed forces and occupy only eight seats in the 120-member Knesset. None serve as ministers in the government. Although Arabs are 15 percent of the population, they comprise more than 50 percent of those living below the poverty line.
Over the 45 days prior to my visit, more than 60 people had been killed in Israel by Moslem suicide bombers. In response, Israel destroyed the family houses of the young bombers and closed off the West Bank and Gaza strip sections, where Palestinians have been granted self-rule. Supplies of food were sharply reduced and thousands of Palestinians were prevented from going to jobs in Jerusalem and elsewhere. More than 2,000 Moslem fundamentalists were arrested.
The climate is clearly tense. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbullah, has termed the recent suicide bombings as just the beginning, ''the crowning glory in the next phase of the struggle.''
Hamas, the radical Palestinian group, announced this week it would renew suicide bombings.
And Ramadan Sallah, leader of the Islamic Jihad organization in neighboring Syria, pledged that the Jihad will continue to launch suicide attacks against Israelis to create a ''balance of terror.''
The Jerusalem Post quoted Mr. Sallah as saying that he was not against Jews in any personal way.
''Had they remained in New York, Poland or Russia, we would not have thought of taking up arms against them,'' Mr. Sallah said. ''But it is something else to take over Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and Ashkelon.''
While terrorist groups represent minority thinking in an area where most want peace, their indiscriminate and murderous tactics have enormous impact. Even so, most visitors feel safe walking the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, where one can find Arabs and Israelis working side by side in apparent harmony.
Yet I was stunned at the depth of hatred I heard from three prosperous and educated Palestinians in their late 60s who were born when the land was a British protectorate (having been acquired in World War I after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire).
''Hitler should have finished the job,'' said one of them, who in 40 minutes of previous conversation had seemed kindly and intelligent.
''They took all my family's land,'' he continued. ''Today it would be worth $100 million. And the land I have they will not let me build on. If I was a Jew (instead of a Christian), I would have no problem,'' he asserted.
The two other men launched into similarly venomous attacks, one claiming Americans were being played for suckers by Israeli Jews who overstate their need for money. The third man said many of the Russians who emigrate to Israel only pretend to be Jewish.
''They (the immigrants) go out and settle Arab lands and when the peace settlements come they will have to move and you Americans will pay for it,'' said one.
I asked these three men if there were others who felt like them and they replied there were many. Even so, they represent only a tiny fraction of the Israeli population.
The real story of Israel is the incredible success of the Israeli economy, where per capita income has reached $13,374, up from $5,010 in 1980. This is all the more impressive when you consider the impoverished state of many Arabs.
Tourism, with 1.8 million visitors expected this year, is the No. 1 industry, followed by agriculture and diamond cutting. Old Jerusalem, a religious center for Christians, Jews and Moslems, exudes a profound sense of history. The surrounding metropolitan area is clean, modern.
More than a million tourists a year visit the Golan Heights, where Israelis look down on vast stretches of Syrian land and where the United Nations maintains a peace force. Before 1967, Syria occupied this strategic land. The difference between now and then is that Israeli settlers have cultivated most of the land, where they grow grapes and a variety of vegetables and fruits.
''The Syrians hardly used the land,'' an Israeli army officer told me. ''We have put it to good use.'' The Golan Heights, by the way, is about the size of Rhode Island.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is up for re-election on May 29. Some believe his Labor Party could be ousted from power if the terrorist attacks cannot be brought under control.
The opposition Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is viewed as much tougher than Labor. Likud does not support giving up any Israeli lands to bring about peace and vows a much tougher crackdown on terrorists.
Mr. Peres has said anything is negotiable, including both the Golan Heights and even the status of Jerusalem, the Israeli capital which was seized after the 1967 war. Of course, saying something is negotiable does not mean Mr. Peres is ready to give it back. He said any negotiated settlement on land would have to be approved by a referendum of all Israelis.
''Since the creation of the State of Israel almost 50 years ago, we went through five wars and hundreds of smaller confrontations,'' Mr. Peres told the IPI meeting. Many times it looked like a lost cause, he said.
''Then with the Oslo Agreement, followed by the Jordan-Israeli accord and before it our agreement with the Egyptians, there appeared a new chance.''
But Mr. Peres said the threat of Moslem fundamentalists was greater because of efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
''Never in history did such a group have a chance to acquire the ultimate weapons and threaten the rest of the world,'' he said.
Moslem thinking, he said, was based on poverty, frustration and misbelief. Mr. Peres then warned:
''If the fundamentalist movement, headed today by Iran, will . . . either gain more ground, take over more oil fields, get themselves more organized and get a nuclear option, by the end of this century we shall have a problem which is incomparable to any other problem known in history.''
For the moment, Mr. Peres is concentrating on the terrorist crackdown while exhorting Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to control his own people.
It is worrisome that the temporary closure for security reasons of the Arab areas of Israel seems to be creating widespread animosity and hardship among the Arabs. Many fear it could lead to an explosion before the elections. Mindful of this, Mr. Peres was moving to relax the crackdown when we left Tel Aviv on Monday.
If Mr. Peres wins, he has promised to immediately resume talks to work out a permanent solution with the Palestinians. Concurrently, he'll renew efforts to create a rapprochement with neighboring Syria where the wily dictator, Hafez Assad, sits hoping to get back the Golan Heights.
The fact that Syria, with a population of more than 13 million and per capita income less than one-tenth that of Israel, has lost its support from the former Soviet Union, causes some to be optimistic about these talks.
So these are critical times in the Middle East and bear close watching in the next 60 days. Permanent peace could lead to huge benefits for the 100 million people living on or near the borders of Israel. It would also serve as a good example for Iran and Iraq as to what can be achieved with free market economies and a peaceful, cooperative environment.