An op-ed by David A. Harris
Executive Director of The American Jewish Committee
The Jerusalem Post, April 24, 2008
Israel is about to mark its sixtieth anniversary.
Some friends say they’re in no mood to celebrate. The timing isn’t right, they complain. The country’s political circuitry is overloaded. Danger lurks on the Gaza and Lebanon borders. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and annihilationist threats loom large. Disputes over the current peace talks with the Palestinian Authority are daily fare. Israel continues to take a beating in UN forums. The drumbeat of anti-Zionism grows louder. A fractious social climate creates long-term and seemingly insoluble fissures between Arab and Jew, not to mention Jew and Jew. And global market volatility spells trouble for the Israeli economy.
All true, perhaps. But the story mustn’t end there. Milestone anniversaries offer the chance to step back, however briefly, from the news of the moment and take stock of the larger picture. By my reckoning, Israel is quite a success story. Actually, Israel itself is nothing short of a miracle.
Think about it.
Just three years, almost to the day, after the end of the lowest point in Jewish history, the sovereign State of Israel was established. From the most vertiginous fall in the life of the Jewish people to its greatest ascent all in a matter of just over one thousand days.
Few gave the embryonic state much chance of survival. Faced with larger armies determined to eliminate the new nation in its infancy, the 650,000 Jews defended themselves and emerged victorious.
Against all the odds, they built a state. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.
A land with pitifully few natural resources required the industry and talent of its human resources. Surrounded by forces bent on its isolation and destruction, the fledgling nation couldn’t let up its guard even for a moment. And a country defined as a home for Jews everywhere faced the challenge of absorbing millions of immigrants from the four corners of the earth, even as its infrastructure was stretched to the breaking point.
And it wasn’t just any state that was built. It was a pulsating democratic state, reflective of a country where just about everyone believes they have a Ph.D. in survival methods, leadership, and diplomacy. Through thick and thin, Israelis have benefited from free and fair elections, smooth transfers of power, an independent judiciary, a feisty press, and political parties covering the ideological gamut. No other country in Israel’s rough-and-tumble neighborhood can make similar claims.
True, the military plays a critical role in the life of a nation that couldn’t survive a single day without it, but civilians control the armed forces, not the other way around.
Israel has no oil or gas reserves. Isn’t that the reason, according to the joke, why Moses and the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years? To find the only place in the region without any energy resources.
Sixty percent of the land surface, in fact, is desert. Yet Israel has created a dynamic economy that, on a per capita basis, puts it squarely in the middle of the pack of European Union nations and, in the realm of high-tech, places it among the world’s top innovators.
All this in a nation that has never known a single moment of true peace, yet carries this unfathomable psychological burden with extraordinary resiliency and irrepressible optimism.
Imagine what it must be like to live with the Sword of Damocles hanging over a nation’s head from the get-go.
Imagine facing enemies who deny your very existence and teach contempt to children before they’re old enough to read.
Imagine adversaries who have no compunction about using women and youngsters as human shields to protect terrorists; target civilians; celebrate murder; use ambulances to transport armed gunmen and weapons; employ mentally retarded children as suicide bombers; and target their own energy suppliers so they can then accuse Israel of collective punishment.
These are, of course, the same foes who have never had an interest in solving the Palestinian refugee problem, an outgrowth of two wars triggered by the Arab world in 1948 and 1967.
Are Palestinians the first refugee population in history? Hardly. But they are surely the first refugees who, as a group, have categorically resisted resettlement, instead living for decades as wards of the international community.
Indeed, in Gaza today, years after Israel renounced any territorial claims, there continue to be refugee camps. Why? Why other than to serve as incubators for hatred that produce recruits bent on martyrdom and mayhem are there Palestinian refugee camps in Palestinian territory?
Some argue that the foundational problem of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the Israeli occupation. I beg to differ. That’s not to say the occupation, the result of Israel’s 1967 war of self-defense, isn’t a problem. Of course, it is. I don’t for a moment underestimate the difficulties resulting from it for both Palestinians and Israelis alike. But it has a potential solution a two-state solution, tried first in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and then in the Barak-Arafat-Clinton talks of 2000-1. Tragically, both failed.
The common denominator was Yasser Arafat. When the critical moments came, he made it abundantly clear that he was neither a Gandhi nor a Mandela. Jimmy Carter may think it fitting to lay a wreath at his gravesite, but, at the end of the day, Arafat was a failed leader. He could have ushered in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. Instead, he opted to speak with a forked tongue, intoning the rhetoric of peace in English while speaking the language of armed struggle in Arabic. And when presented one last chance at the end of President Clinton’s second term, Arafat chose to declare that there never was any historical connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish people, once again denying legitimacy to the Jewish presence anywhere in Israel.
That’s been the biggest obstacle to peacemaking the failure to recognize Israel’s inherent right to exist, whatever its final borders, as a non-Arab, non-Muslim sovereign presence in the region.
Peace requires an enduring foundation of mutual respect. That will come only when Palestinian textbooks begin to describe Jews as an integral part of the Middle East, with a three thousand-year historic and spiritual connection to Jerusalem and the land, and not simply as modern-day colonialists, imperialists, or crusaders.
Israel’s journey as a state cannot be complete until peace with all its neighbors is achieved. Peace is a strategic necessity. Peace is central to the Jewish mission on earth.
Today there are peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and, more quietly, it appears, between Israel and Syria. Could there be a better birthday present for Israel than peace accords on both fronts?
Wishing for peace and achieving it, however, are quite different. For Israel, the challenges are many.
For example, world leaders can talk all they want about the need for a democratic and demilitarized Palestinian state living next to Israel, but realizing those twin goals may not be so easy. When a top American strategist was asked how to ensure demilitarization, a position he advocated, he had no answer. And given the strikingly short distances, a new Palestinian state could be in a position to wreak havoc on Israel’s population centers. Those who assert that an international force can serve as a buffer may be right up to a point, but the experience of UNIFIL in Lebanon is a sobering reminder of the limitations of peacekeeping forces. Iran and Syria smuggle weapons to Hezbollah, and UN forces largely look the other way.
But because I believe in Israel, I believe in miracles. Few could have imagined full-fledged peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan thirty-five years ago, yet today both are realities. In point of fact, had Palestinian and Syrian leaders taken a page from the late Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, who convinced Israelis that they were true men of peace, there could have been agreements long ago. Perhaps tomorrow will be different.
Meanwhile, Israel, the miracle, continues to inspire awe for its very being and for being the vibrant country it is.
No, it’s not perfect. Israel has made its share of mistakes and faces more than a few unresolved issues. Statecraft, at the end of the day, is an imprecise science no matter where it’s exercised.
But Israel operates in a context, not a vacuum. It reflects both domestic and global realities. And the vagaries of decision-making don’t bypass Israeli leaders any more than leaders of other democratic countries. Still, Israel, like other democratic societies that benefit from a robust political culture and vibrant civil society, has the self-corrective mechanisms that invite both appraisal and improvement.
At the end of the day, for me, the meaning of Israel is perhaps best encapsulated in three enduring images.
In 1991, I went to Israel at the start of the Gulf War, as Iraq fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state. During a visit to Ben-Gurion Airport, I was struck by the arrival of Soviet Jews during this tough period. They weren’t afraid to come, and Israel didn’t miss a beat in welcoming them. In other words, even as Israel faced the uncertain prospect of full-scale war with Iraq, it never faltered in its commitment to serve as a home and haven for Jews seeking a new start.
In 2000, during the so-called second intifada, I was in the northern part of Tel Aviv. I passed a construction site. On the sidewalk nearby a Palestinian Muslim laid out his rug and began his prayer ritual as he faced in the direction of Mecca. No one interfered with him in any way. Even as Palestinians elsewhere were attacking Israelis, this scene spoke volumes about Israel’s commitment to democracy and pluralism.
And in 2006, after Hezbollah started a war with a cross-border raid, an AJC delegation, the first to arrive from the U.S., visited Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The emergency room was ready to receive casualties, be they military or civilian, Arab or Jew, and it received them in droves. Elsewhere in the hospital, though, even as Hezbollah-fired missiles rained down on northern Israel, medical researchers continued their investigative work regularly interrupted by the need to rush to bomb shelters in the fields of cancer, diabetes, and stem cells.
In other words, as Hezbollah and its Iranian backers were seeking to shorten life for Israelis, Israeli scientists were seeking to extend life for all.
Yes, there is much to celebrate, starting with our good fortune to witness what countless generations before us could only dream about the sovereign State of Israel.
It makes me want to jump for joy.