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True to Character, Olympic Mettle Eludes Israelis

TEL AVIV — Once every four years, Israelis gather around their televisions to watch their representatives in the summer Olympic games, hoping for victory but expecting defeat. It’s partly a matter of experience — it took Israel 44 years to win its first Olympic medal, and it has yet to take a gold — but no less than that, a matter of national self image.

The first days of the current Athens games lived up to expectations. One by one, members of the Israeli delegation found new ways to lose, and even newer ways of explaining how they lost.

Vered Borochovski, a female swimmer, failed to advance because she tore her goggle strap just prior to the race. Nike Kornetzky and Vered Buskila, a sailing pair who had done well in World Championships, were first disqualified from one race and then had their boat capsize in another. Even politics failed to help the Israelis: After a world champion judoka from Iran disqualified himself on orders from Tehran not to face him, Israeli Ehud Vaks had a clear run at a medal. He promptly lost his next match and his chances of advancing.

And so it goes. Thirty-six athletes represented Israel in Athens. The Israeli Olympic Committee brazenly predicted no fewer than 12 participants in final rounds, with perhaps as many as nine medals. There was even talk of a first-ever gold medal; so far, Israel’s Olympic tally amounts to one silver and one bronze medal in the Barcelona games (1992), and a single bronze each in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000).

As far as many Israelis are concerned, the meager total is symptomatic of deeper failings in the national character. Israelis like to think of themselves as resourceful and quick on their feet, but they don’t give themselves high marks for planning, order or ability to rise to the occasion. So it is in sports, in diplomacy and even economics.

Channel 2, the highest-rated TV channel in Israel, recently aired a documentary series titled “From Karkur to Singapore.” Karkur is a small town in central Israel, often spoken of — perhaps because of its odd-sounding name — as a local version of Smallville. The theme of the series was that Israel, unlike the East Asian island powerhouse, is not orderly, well-run — or successful. As it happens, Singapore hasn’t yet won a medal in Athens either, but that does nothing to change the perception the series is based on.

Another jarring aspect of the Olympic delegation, from the Israeli point of view, is the fact that half of the athletes are not Israeli-born, and some don’t even speak Hebrew very well. Israel has absorbed close to a million new immigrants in the past two decades, a source of enormous national pride, yet many of the athletes who have emerged from this human wave are viewed as mercenaries. Since many of them compete in sports that are far from popular — shooting, table tennis and canoeing are just three examples — they usually enter the public consciousness just prior to the games. Quickly afterward they disappear from view — and sometimes from Israel.

The real motives are not necessarily mercenary. Alex Danilov, an air pistol shooter, said candidly after a disappointing finish this week that he has to feed his family and train against tougher competition — and both are very difficult in Israel.

The best example of the “ours if you win, alien if you lose” approach in Athens was tennis player Anna Smashnova. Smashnova, who had won some pro tournaments, hardly visits Israel. She does her interviews in English, and is married to her Italian coach. Unlike other athletes, she doesn’t need the Olympics for money or recognition. She mostly wanted to be more accepted in her adopted homeland. But soon after losing miserably to a lower-ranked Italian opponent, she was vilified in the Israeli press for giving such little effort.

Israel’s great hopes for medals — judoka Arik Ze’evi, windsurfer Gal Friedman and pole vaulter Alexei Averbuch — still retain their chances. Should they manage to bring home even one gold, the perception of Israel’s part in Athens 2004 would be greatly altered. After all, another trait of the Israeli press — and of the national psyche, at least as reflected by it — is the way moods can change in a minute.

But is the sports-is-character analogy that far-fetched? Perhaps not. Just consider some recent maneuvering by Prime Minister Sharon. Under tremendous political pressure to separate from the Palestinians and stay close to the Americans without alienating his own right wing, Sharon has seemed lately to be improvising without a definite game plan. Just like some of the Israeli athletes in Athens, his performance has seemed to be all footwork and no strategy.

This fancy footwork is apparent, among other things, in the way he has been dodging some of the thornier issues in contention between Jerusalem and Washington. After failing to deliver on his repeated promises to President Bush to remove illegal outposts in the West Bank, Sharon is playing for time, trying to run the clock out until the presidential election. His special adviser and former bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, postponed a planned Washington visit this month until early September, hoping the Americans would be too preoccupied with the elections. That would allow Sharon to live another day without being called to task on the outposts.

Sharon has several advantages over the Olympic athletes. For one, he’s playing in front of a judge who has no inclination to call his fouls. This week he dodged a tough hit when the administration decided not to criticize him for authorizing the issuance of building tenders for 1,000 new homes in the West Bank settlements he had promised to freeze. The months-long standoff on the outposts, too, has been allowed to continue without resolution; the Bush administration periodically issues low-key condemnations, Israel explains its difficulties and the matter is permitted to fade from view.

Sharon has one more advantage over the Olympic athletes. His career is much longer than theirs, and in Israeli politics there is always a second chance. But lately, pundits agree, he is running out of chances. He’s currently scheduled to face the voters again in 2006, the same year as the next Olympics. Most odds-makers give him better odds that year than the Israeli Olympic team.

The trouble is, he may not be able to hold on that long. Ruling over a minority government since the spring, he has engaged in frantic coalition-building efforts that have so far produced little. With his own Likud reluctant to join a coalition that does not include an Orthodox party, Shinui in turmoil over the prospect of sharing power with the ultra-Orthodox and Labor continuing to balk over budget issues, Sharon could face his final hurdle sooner than he expected.

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