Israel’s unhappy birthday

Israel’s unhappy birthday

Israel at 60 is a sad place. It is sad despite the prosperity that is apparent at every turn.

By most Western political and economic standards, the country is a phenomenal success story. It is one of the few states created after World War II to have emerged and remained a functioning, indeed vibrant, democracy; its citizens, including its Arab citizens (1.3 million out of a total population of almost 7 million), enjoy civil rights and the benefits of a legal system that is as free and honest as any in the West, and a social welfare basket that assures the survival of the poorest. It is a powerhouse in terms of economic, scientific and cultural creativity, with substantial high-tech accomplishments, a handful of Nobel Prize winners and a host of internationally successful writers to prove it.

Like most developed countries, Israel is not without poverty (mostly among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews), just as it has its share of clogged highways and traffic jams. But economically, it”s hard to argue that Israel is anything other than a miracle — a minuscule backwater (8,000 square miles) without natural resources, yet its annual budget today stands at about $60 billion. It exports high-tech products worth billions of dollars to the United States and Europe as well as to Asia, Latin America and Africa. The rush of foreign investors appears unstoppable.

Yet Israel is a sad place, and sometimes, after the most vibrant nightspots close, one can sense it in the air. In the mornings, one feels it in the coffee shops on Tel Aviv”s Dizengoff Street and Jerusalem”s Gaza Road, where the young and middle-aged and old linger over their cups and consider their collective and personal present and future.

Israel is a sad place because its Jews have begun to lose hope, hope that the 100-year-old conflict with the surrounding Muslim Arab world will ever end, hope of ever being accepted as a legitimate presence in the Middle East, hope of ever achieving peace. Indeed, most Israeli Jews are at least dimly aware that the state founded by the Zionist movement as a safe haven for a people oppressed and murdered through the centuries in the Christian and Muslim lands of their dispersion is probably today the most unsafe place in the world for the Jews. Without doubt, the crucial, defining moment, when despair overtook at least hesitant hope, was in 2000. Before then, between Israel”s founding in May 1948 and the Camp David summit of July 2000 attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, most Israeli Jews, and their leaders, believed in the prospect of eventual peace.

They may have lived and fought with their backs to the wall, under awful circumstances of political isolation and numerical inferiority. They may have felt mortal, existential peril as Arab armies assaulted or attempted to strangle their tiny state in 1948, 1967 and 1973. But they continued through all that time to believe that eventually the Arab world would tire of the struggle, that it would change and liberalize and Westernize, and that it would acquiesce in the existence of a Jewish state in its midst. All the Israelis needed to do was to hold fast, weather the next storm, and possibly also the next, and bright, sunny uplands awaited them over the hill and down the road.

The year 2000 changed all that. That July, Arafat, speaking for the Palestinian people and with barely a squeak of internal dissent, said “no” to the generous terms that had been offered — and thereby said “no” to the principle of a two-state compromise with Israel and “no” to a future with a Palestinian Arab state coexisting in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel. (Arafat”s nominal successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, continues to refuse to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”)

In December 2000, when Clinton published his “parameters” for a two-state settlement, Arafat responded with a second, even blunter “no”: Clinton had proposed a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, including half of Jerusalem and all of the Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinian rule over the surface area of the Temple Mount and massive international aid in resolving the Palestinian refugee problem, mainly by resettlement in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, or in the West, or in the future Palestinian state.

Instead, the Palestinians unleashed an open-ended terroristic assault on Israel, its restaurants and buses and marketplaces. For Israelis, each suicide bomber was a microcosm of what the Palestinians intended for the Jewish state as a whole. And the Palestinian masses cheered, in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, as each bomber successfully detonated himself. Indeed, the killers” mothers often publicly proclaimed their wish that they had more sons to sacrifice for the cause.

At which point the Israelis understood that their desire and struggle for acceptance and legitimacy in the Middle East was a lost cause; that the Arab world would never accept their sovereign presence in the region, just as it had never accepted the Crusader kingdoms in the Middle Ages.

The Arabs might accept some Jews as a minority within a Muslim Arab Palestine, but the bulk of the Jews, like the Crusaders, would, in time, be swept into the sea or, at least, back to Europe. Weak Arab rulers and states, such as Anwar Sadat”s Egypt in 1979 and King Hussein”s Jordan in 1994, might sign formal peace treaties with Israel, but the Arabs, the masses and their intellectual and religious guides, would never bow to its existence. The Palestinians” election to power in 2006 of Hamas — which openly avows that its aim is Israel”s destruction — only drove the nail into the coffin of Jewish hope.

Which left many Israelis wondering where had they gone wrong. Could they have behaved better toward their own Arab minority and toward the 3.5 million Palestinians in the semi-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, in a manner that would have led to acceptance and integration in the region? Would a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza after 1967 have led to peace with the Palestinians? Was the problem the (continuing) expansion of the settlements in the West Bank?

Many left-wing Israelis, with a penchant for self-flagellation, certainly thought so; Israel should have been more conciliatory and “softer.” But most Israelis concluded that the fault lay in the historical circumstances and with the other side. The problem was not what Israel did but what Israel was — a Jewish state, a democracy, an outpost of Westernism and modernity in a world that abhorred the West. Most Israelis looked about and saw an Islamic Arab world that was hardening and radicalizing regionwide, brutal and closed to compromise and change, and resistant to the West and its messages of democracy and liberalization and secularism and individualism.

The mini-war between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 only deepened the sense of despair for most Israelis. The IDF, unwilling to inflict large-scale casualties on Lebanese civilians (Hezbollah forces hid among them and operated from their villages) and unwilling to risk greater Israeli casualties, fought with both hands tied behind its back, sending in the air force to do a job that only a massive sweep by ground forces could have done: rooting out and killing Hezbollah”s fighters and destroying the organization”s Katyusha rocket launchers, strongholds and arms stores as far north as Beirut.

The Israeli army has traditionally functioned well against conventional Arab armies. And Israel, over the decades, has managed to ward off the successive conventional challenges by the Arab world (including economic boycotts and the threat of international political isolation).

But the threats that have emerged since then, coupled with growing Muslim rejectionism and radicalization, have posed and continue to pose far more difficult challenges: Hezbollah and Palestinian fundamentalist terrorism, with their rockets and suicide bombers; Palestinian demography (Palestinian Arab birthrates are twice those of Jewish Israelis) and the looming black cloud of a nuclear-armed Iran, whose leaders almost daily proclaim, in Allah”s name, the need to destroy Israel. All these constitute challenges that are extremely difficult if not impossible to counter at a cost that is morally acceptable.

How do you silence the rocketeers of Hamas and their fellow jihadi groups (which are firing on an almost daily basis into the Israeli town of Sderot) without killing masses of civilians in Gaza? How can you reduce Palestinian Arab birthrates (and this includes the birthrate among Israel”s own Arab minority, whose members increasingly identify themselves as “Palestinians” and will, if present demographic trends continue, constitute more than a third of Israel”s population within 15 to 20 years)? How do you stop Iran”s nuclear armament (after the world has failed to do so) without initiating an open-ended war and without yourself using nuclear weapons?

And these long-term threats are compounded by the short-term prospect that Israel”s staunch friend in the White House may well be replaced next year by Barack Obama, whose views on the Middle East I find to be unclear, at best, and who many Israelis fear may sell them down the river.

All this presents Israel”s Jews with the prospect of a bleak short- and medium-term future, and perhaps no future at all. A small minority is making tracks, or may make tracks, for the West. But the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, for whom Israel is and always has been home, is staying put.

But it doesn”t look good. It is no wonder that there has been little enthusiasm for the government”s 60th anniversary festivities.

Benny Morris is the author of many books about the Israeli-Arab conflict, including, most recently, “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”