- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

TEL AVIV Israeli officials said yesterday the nation wants to be involved in future space missions despite the weekend disaster that claimed the life of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
"There will be more," said Aby Har-Even, director of the Israel Space Agency, who added that Israel had already made its desire clear to the United States.
"We have received a positive response, and the president of the United States and [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel Sharon] have discussed it," Mr. Har-Even said in a telephone interview with Reuters news agency.
"I think in the near future we will start working on a project. … I am sure it will take time. But we will continue our research in space."
The pledge should give a psychological boost to Israelis, who before the shuttle disaster were already depressed over a slumping economy and the daily violence of the Palestinian uprising.
Col. Ramon's mission had been one of the few positive distractions for Israelis, who watched in horror the television images of the explosion that rained debris over a wide area including, ironically, the town of Palestine, Texas.
"The mission put us on the map with all of the big countries like the U.S., France and Russia," said Irad Ben Yitzhak, a cashier at a convenience store in central Tel Aviv where stunned shoppers watched news reports of Columbia breaking up.
"Now the explosion erases all of that," he said. "It's like it never happened."
And in northern Israel, 39-year-old barber Gabi Moor told the Associated Press: "We got another slap in the face, as a nation, in addition to the slap we get every day.
"It's like there is a jinx on us," added Mr. Moor, whose shop is next to a cafe damaged last year in one of the current conflict's nearly 90 Palestinian suicide bombings.
It was in 1997, when a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians seemed within reach, that Israel got the nod from the United States to contribute an astronaut to the U.S. program.
With a glut of engineers and its emphasis on maintaining a technological advantage over hostile neighbors, Israel was one of only a handful of countries to have sent its own satellites into space. But it lacked the resources to support a manned space program.
"This symbolized working with the U.S. It was part of recognition of close relations," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "In some ways it was a political symbol."
After waiting four years for a 2001 launch that was then delayed three times, banner headlines in newspapers heralded the lift-off of Col. Ramon, a 48-year-old payload specialist with the Columbia crew. The mission gave Israelis a psychological boost from the everyday depression of the seemingly unending conflict with the Palestinians and an election campaign that failed to inspire any real hope for change.
Two years after the collapse of the global technology sector forced thousands of layoffs at Israeli companies ranging from start-ups to Nasdaq high fliers the launch also reminded the country of the days when it was toasted as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.
But Saturday's disaster returned Israelis to the sober reality of life in the Middle East. Some at Mr. Ben Yitzhak's store darkly joked that the ill-fated mission may have been jinxed by the country's bad luck.
"There aren't enough troubles in this country? Now this?" read a message posted on a bulletin board on the Israeli Web site Tapuz.
A television critic for the daily Ma'ariv summed up the national mood, saying: "Somehow this global celebration ended for us in a local tragedy. The almost-lone source of pride for us exploded in a blow. The fact that it all happened over a town called Palestine (in Texas) added a symbolic touch."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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