MASADA, Israel -- After a week of traveling up and down Israel, I've found it to be a nation mired in a despair it has never known.
Nothing captured that mood like a stop at Masada.
Overlooking the Dead Sea, the mountaintop fortress is where Jewish zealots killed themselves rather than surrender to Rome's mighty legions.
It has become an archaeological shrine to Zionist determination never again to leave Jews vulnerable to their enemies.
Yet even Masada has fallen victim to the Palestinian intifada.
Though this monument lies well within Israel's original borders, the tourist buses that carried Jews and gentiles no longer venture there, and its vast parking lot stands deserted, as even Israelis have opted to stay close to home.
For all their outer stoicism and a broad consensus that backs a fierce response to the suicide bombers, an unsparing realization has struck a majority of those Israelis who don't put their faith in divine destiny or messianic ideology.
They are struggling to cope with an emerging awareness of the true price of Israel's 35-year hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Outraged over a decisive shift in international sympathy toward the Palestinians, many Israelis accept their government's dismissal of this as just the world's latest spasm of blind prejudice against Jews. But a cold eye might also perceive this reaction as self-pity.
Self-pity also marks their grumbling as the bill for re-tightening Israel's grip on the territories literally comes due.
The government has just called for more tax hikes and cuts in education and welfare programs to pay for Operation Defensive Wall, the military offensive into the West Bank.
Now the country's political factions are haggling over the fairest way to share the fiscal pain.
But while most Israelis strongly assent to what they judge as elemental self-defense, much as Americans have endorsed the strikes in Afghanistan, many of them rue the decision to subsidize more Jewish settlements deep inside land that is still deemed by the government to be negotiable.
Yet during the past year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has added at least three dozen more outposts, each requiring security deployments that demand a price in money and blood.
And only last week, Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet that to withdraw from a single isolated settlement deep in the Gaza Strip -- Netzarim -- would be no more acceptable than giving up Tel Aviv.
But more settlements offer no more security, as even their supporters tacitly admit.
Just a few days after declaring the first stage of Defensive Wall successfully completed, four settlers in Adora, near the West Bank city of Hebron, became the latest to die in a Palestinian assault. And the government told them to expect more terrorist attacks.
Three decades ago, when previous governments sanctioned the first settlements, Israeli pragmatists justified them as prudent first lines of resistance that could hold off the Arab armies bent on driving the Jewish state into the sea.
Yet today, with Israel's outer frontiers unchallenged, the settlements, which house more than 200,000 Jews, have become its soft underbelly, no longer providing either a buffer or a bargaining chip.
Instead, the settlements have become hostages, in constant need of Israel's protection. And in a cruel paradox, all Israelis find themselves hostages of the settlers for as long as their presence remains a central obstacle to political agreement with the Palestinians.
Tom Ackerman, a Washington correspondent for Belo Broadcasting, was based in Israel as a correspondent for seven years in the 1970s.
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