Writing From Tel Aviv — In 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, a new kind of illegal gambling sprang up in Israel: suicide-bombings roulette.
The rules were simple: People placed bets on where the next attack in Israel would take place. If you got it right, you could make a killing. Naturally, Jerusalem gave the shortest odds. Betting on a bomb going off there seemed like a sure thing. Still, people ruined their lives getting this seemingly solid prediction wrong. Not as many as those whose lives were directly ruined by the bombings themselves, but there were still enough examples to teach us, yet again, that irrational rage is a tough thing to predict. And it's hard to think of another region on Earth that's even half as angry and irrational as the Middle East.
But let's try to simplify our Middle East gamble to one basic question: better or worse?
Which way are things headed in this region? Well, you'd have to be very naive to lay money on things getting better, what with the right-wing government in Israel and the Palestinians on the brink of civil war between militant religious fundamentalists and armed secularists. Plus, with apologies to Tolstoy, there's only one way of being happy on such a disputed and flammable piece of land: a fragile and unstable peace.
Whereas if you want to bet on unhappy, you've got more choices than a Cheesecake Factory menu: an Iranian nuclear strike turning all the guys at my local cafe in Tel Aviv into three-eyed mutants; a third intifada that will set the country aflame; a Hezbollah missile strike from Lebanon. And that's just the beginning. How about a civil war in Israel between Israeli Arabs and Jews? Or maybe a Jewish civil war between the Orthodox and secularists? Or, just for variety's sake, between the million Russian immigrants and the traditional Sephardim?
So if the question is better or worse, the smart money's on worse, right? Wrong. It's a trick question. The best bet is neither of the above.
One of the terms you hear often in the Israeli media, particularly when the condition of victims of violence is described, is "critical but stable." The stable part of the phrase is supposed to hold comfort for the listener but, at the same time, convey some grim news, that this critical condition isn't just going to improve in the near future. It is here to stay.
It's the perfect description of the region. We've spent the last two decades, more or less, in critical but stable condition. Another day, another body. Another day, another bombing. Another day, another checkpoint. Pick the bumper sticker that best fits your political mood.
So here is one solid prediction for next year: Handsome American officials will pay us a few visits, give great hopeful speeches and shake hands with both Arabs and Jews. All the while, we will keep killing each other in the savage yet contained manner we've been perfecting for so many years. We'll keep bleeding, but still, most of us will be around when it's time to place our 2011 bets. Most likely we'll go for the same bet then too.
Etgar Keret is the author of, most recently, "The Girl on the Fridge and Other Stories."