ONCE DRAWN TO ZION, NOW GLAD TO LEAVE

During my first visit to Israel, in the spring of 1981, I almost decided not to go back home. The seduction began shortly after I arrived at Ben Gurion airport, when I was joined on the bus to Jerusalem by a dozen Israeli soldiers. As a secular Jew from New York City, I was stirred beyond expectation by these young warriors--knit yarmulkes clipped to their heads, Galil rifles slung over their shoulders--who had put their lives on the line to defend their fragile state. Days later I was so moved by the sight of Orthodox worshipers praying at the Western Wall that I accepted an offer on the spot to enroll in a yeshiva, an academy of Talmudic learning meant to lure lapsed American Jews back into the fold. The spiritual awakening faded fast--I stayed at the yeshiva for two days--but Israel had left its mark on me.

Twenty years later I finally made it back, this time as NEWSWEEK's Jerusalem bureau chief. The country I encountered had become a vastly different place. The Camp David talks had just ended in failure, and stone-throwing Palestinians were facing off against frightened Israeli troops at checkpoints across the West Bank and Gaza. I couldn't imagine then how bad things would get--the new waves of bus and cafe bombings, the targeted killings of Palestinians, the military incursions. Now, as I prepare to leave after nearly four years living in the thick of the intifada, after 3,000 deaths and a dozen failed peace initiatives, I'm filled with a sense of personal relief--and deep disillusionment.

Yes, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised a military victory, and it seems he's delivered it. The terrorist group Hamas has been driven underground, the old leadership destroyed. When I met the commander of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin three weeks ago, he conceded that Israel's security barrier had made it "nearly impossible" to launch attacks across the Green Line. The last major suicide attack inside Israel came in March, when 10 people were killed in a double bombing at Ashdod port. (More than 100 Israelis died in terror attacks in March 2002.) In a recent poll, 65 percent of Israelis say they consider themselves safe, a high figure by the standards of the past few years. Last night I walked past the Hillel cafe in my neighborhood--the site of a suicide attack in September 2003 that killed seven Israelis. The place was packed, a welcome sign of normality.

So why feel disheartened? Because the calm Sharon has achieved is one-sided--enforced by military might, without interest in fair solutions. Because I know that Israeli soldiers are killing people on the other side of the wall--out of sight, out of mind--with regularity. (Two hundred Palestinians have been killed in the past four months, many of them civilians blown away by panicky teenage soldiers.) Because Sharon plans to withdraw from Gaza only to focus on his real goal: permanent occupation of most of the West Bank. Because the Bush administration, rather than lean on Sharon to stop expanding Jewish settlements, has given these obstacles to peace its blessing.

During the time I've been here I've seen a coarsening of attitudes on both sides. I recently met an Israeli soldier at Erez Crossing, the volatile entry point to Gaza, who asked me if I'd heard the latest joke making the rounds of the Army. "What do you call one Palestinian in the sea? Pollution." I smiled politely. Then came the punch line: "What do you call 2 million Palestinians in the sea? The solution." The attitude isn't much different on the other side of the wall, where I often hear scurrilous talk about "the Jews" and feel compelled to cover up my own ethnic background.

There are moments when I feel that Jerusalem could be a wonderful place to live. Jogging at sunset along the Sherover Promenade, I look out over the Old City walls, the Dome of the Rock, the Judean Desert glowing at twilight, and recapture some of the excitement that drew me to Israel two decades ago. Then I look a little farther to the east, and see the stark gray barrier marching across the barren hills dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank--Sharon's Wall. The new Israel, resting secure for the moment, has turned its back on the seething people on the other side. It's hard to imagine how the calm can last.