Israel Turns 60 | The Nation


Israel Turns 60

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As anyone who spends time speaking with Israelis cannot help realizing, Israel is a far more complex country than is portrayed in the American media. This complexity is one reason, Avineri notes, that Israelis are coming to resent what he believes is the "harm caused by [some] American Jewish organizations." He believes that Israel's "contentious political culture is totally lost when seen from the prism of advocacy, which presents Israel as a one-dimensional country, as if everything has to do with survival, attacks, counterattacks." What's more, he adds, "the shrillness on exhibit doesn't help. It does not enhance Israel in any way."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The Israelis I spoke with were grateful for the fraternal support they receive from Jews around the world, particularly in the United States, but were nearly unanimous in their resentment--even condemnation--of what they see as the ignorant and malevolent meddling in their affairs by wealthy right-wing Americans like billionaire gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is investing heavily in Netanyahu's career, and Morris Talansky, who was stuffing cash-filled envelopes into Ehud Olmert's pockets. The neoconservative hardliners in the US media and national security establishment who parrot this hard line are hardly more popular. Former ambassador Rabinovich explains that one of the problems he faced while trying to represent his country's government in Washington was that "the neocons were undermining our policy. Feith, Gaffney, etc. were trying to abort the policy of the government of Israel." AIPAC, Avineri adds, "is basically a right-wing lobby and a lobby for Likud--it is not a lobby 'for Israel.' After Oslo, it lobbied openly against an agreement signed by the Israeli government. Forgive me," he adds, "I have a bias against someone who lives in New York and tells us not to give up 'our' land." Giving voice to similar concerns, filmmaker Amos Gitai worries that many American Jews are reluctant to relinquish what he calls Israel's "mythical role with the gun in their hand fighting the Arabs...fighting to the last Israeli."

Amazingly, I've gotten this far without mentioning Iran--the issue that preoccupies the official American Jewish community, many of whose members fear what they call a "second Holocaust" should Iran be allowed to achieve its aim of creating a nuclear weapon to use against Israel. Over lunch respected historian--and extremely controversial political analyst--Benny Morris walked me through the terrifying scenario that he believed would occur were the United States to fail to bomb Tehran: given that the Iranian leaders say they welcome martyrdom and have proved willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Iranian children in the Iran-Iraq war, and given that no Israeli prime minister could risk allowing a nuclear threat from Iran to materialize and that Israel lacks the ability to take out the Iranian nuclear program conventionally, Israel is forced to consider a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Iran (as incredible and horrifying as that sounds). "The Iranians are driven by a religious ideology that says Allah will protect them, and Allah, they believe, says they must destroy Israel," he tells me. "You can't rely on deterrence with them."

This shocking conclusion was recently seconded by a number of participants in a symposium in Moment, a liberal-minded Jewish magazine at which I am a columnist. Shortly after I met with Morris, Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, gave an interview in which he warned that Israel had just twelve months in which to destroy Iran's nuclear program or risk coming under nuclear attack itself. Shavit told London's Sunday Telegraph that such an attack was far more likely should Barack Obama be elected President, as Israel felt it could rely on McCain but not Obama to undertake a sustained conventional attack.

Most people with whom I spoke found Morris's prediction of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, nuclear or conventional, to be no less difficult to imagine than I did (though, in contrast to most American liberals, many would be pleased if the United States decided to do the job instead). In any case, Israeli concern about the inability of nuclear deterrence to operate on Islamic would-be martyrs further complicates hopes for a two-state solution, as it deepens Israeli insecurity and diminishes sympathy for the victims of the occupation. With the erection of the separation wall and the creation of more than 600 army checkpoints, according to a recent UN report, around Jerusalem and the West Bank the mere act of living one's life and conducting one's normal business is becoming an increasingly impossible burden for Palestinians, draining the peace process of its potential supporters and Hamas of its likely opponents. Many with the opportunity to do so are fleeing to the Gulf states, explains the longtime journalist Danny Rubinstein, where jobs are plentiful and well paying. The preferred Israeli response to this creeping crisis, however, appears to be denial. As Aluf Benn tells me, "Most Israelis are happy with the reduction of terrorist attacks and fear if you give away the West Bank, you are going to get Palestinian attacks on Ben-Gurion Airport. They don't care about the settlers or the settlements. Most people would support their removal, but we can't go through that ordeal and get rockets landing on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."

Even leaving the plight of the Palestinians aside, many Israelis fear that their society's de facto denial of demographic reality amounts to a kind of slow-motion suicide for a nation that seeks to remain both Jewish and democratic. As Prime Minister Barak admitted to the Jerusalem Post in 1999, "Every attempt to keep hold of this area as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a nondemocratic state or a non-Jewish state. Because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don't vote, it is an apartheid state that might then become another Belfast or Bosnia."

Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy makes the point that the solution to the Iranian crisis is the same as the solution to most of the rest of Israel's security problems. "Imagine peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and most of the Arab world," Levy writes. "Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dare threaten Israel then, too? On what pretext? Imagine that Israel announces it will not attack Iran until all other means have been exhausted, simultaneously calling on the West to talk to Iran about security guarantees. Does it sound unreal? Will we not contribute more this way to reduce the danger?"

As Moshe Halbertal notes, Israel "tried to get a peace agreement and that failed. Next we tried a unilateral withdrawal and that turned into a base for radical Islam to launch attacks on us." Friends of Israel and the Jewish people must understand this, but understanding is not enough. We must also help Israel look beyond the relative comfort of the present moment toward the nightmare that awaits it just down the road should it continue in its current direction. Menachem Brinker, who notes that Israel will never find a "better partner for peace than [PA President Mamoud Abbas, aka] Abu Mazen," avers that "without an element of enforcement of the international community as there was in the Balkans," most Israelis cannot even envision the possibility of peace in the near term. "We need to be forced into good sense." Many of his compatriots concur. "I have been very much disappointed with the American Jews who do not oppose settlements," explains A.B. Yehoshua. "They have been educated on liberalism and democracy. And they could see what is happening here and help us. I understand the idea of automatic solidarity, but all their good democratic values vanish when it comes to Israel."

Listening to Yehoshua, Brinker and so many others, I was repeatedly reminded of the moment in the film Exodus when the handsome young warrior Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, pleads with his Palestinian boyhood friend not to fight against the Zionists but to join them in the battle to end British colonialism and to forge a new society: "Now we will be equal citizens in the free state of Israel," Newman/Ben Canaan swears. While it's true that Hollywood dreams are just that, dreams can be necessary to sustain a people through difficult historical moments. Zionism is the product of exactly such a dream. In Theodor Herzl's utopian 1902 novel Altneuland, the movement's prophet goes so far as to imagine Palestine's Arabs thanking the Jews of future Israel for helping them find the freedom and prosperity that today is still lacking in Arab societies. Although that hope is likely to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future, the best way to help Israelis and Palestinians move closer to their dreams is to insist that each society allow the other to develop and flourish peaceably side by side. The alternatives are too awful to imagine, which may be why Israelis--sixty years into their continuing miracle--remain unready to face up to them.

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