saul singer 88.
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In a poll that The Jerusalem Post commissioned for the new year, Israelis said they feel less secure than they did 10 years ago, while a healthy plurality believes that this is the best country in the world to live in.
Are we crazy?
Faced with these seemingly contradictory results, most people might snicker at the upbeat half, dismissing it as baseless bravado. A strong case, however, can be made for an opposite reaction: that the sense that we are less safe is wrong, while the feeling that Israel is a great place to be is justified.
About 10 years ago, things seemed to be clucking along nicely. Francis Fukuyama's book, The End of History and the Last Man, first out in 1992, was reprinted in 1996. His thesis, which tapped into the zeitgeist of the time, was that democracy and capitalism had beaten communism in a knockout, and there were no challengers - at least on the intellectual level - to step into the ring.
Swept up in this aura of victory, I must admit that I wrote these words in a January, 1997 editorial for this newspaper: "The good news is that the democratic revolution today has no long-term, worldwide, competition... Nationalism and fundamentalism remain powerful forces in some places, but they are unlikely to resist the human yearning for freedom."
The same editorial, however, contains this prescient caveat, written five years before President George Bush spoke of the "axis of evil":
"The regimes of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, and Libya remain the most troublesome flies in the ointment of democratic progress... The question facing the West is whether it will allow them to win the race between decreasing political legitimacy and increasing military power... The time for concerted action against growing threats to the international order is now, not when the countries posing those threats become better armed and more desperate."
THE 1990S were a decade of advancing freedom and prosperity, coupled with complacency toward growing threats. Then, many people felt safe. In Israel in particular, the Oslo process was accompanied by terrorism, but seemed like it was, by fits and starts, leading toward an eventual comprehensive peace agreement.
In the late 1990s, security was still an issue, but anyone suggesting that Israel's survival remained under serious threat would likely have been dismissed as irrationally pessimistic. Last week, when our poll asked "Is Israel today struggling for its survival?" 75 percent agreed with this dire statement.
But are we really less safe than we were then? If a storm is gathering, ignoring it does not make one safer. On September 10, 2001, for example, Americans felt safe. They obviously were not.
Here too, we were not safer as Hamas gathered strength and Hizbullah was busy accumulating its arsenal.
When threatened, it is safer to be on guard, aware, and fighting back than it is to be complacent or in denial. By this measure, we are safer now than we were about a decade ago. But we are far from safe enough.
Even though the West is fighting back more than it was, each new atrocity by militant Islam has a dangerous numbing effect, even if it goads further defensive action. Terrorists always have to top themselves to achieve the same effect. It may difficult to "top" 9/11, making it harder on the terrorists; on the other hand, each attack breaks another ceiling of unthinkability that renders even worse attacks possible.
SINCE OSLO, Israel's Arab and Muslim opponents have broken one such barrier after another: Yasser Arafat's war got the world used to suicide bombings against Israel; Hassan Nassrallah's war did the same for missile attacks on our cities; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas are making it "normal" to reject Israel's right to exist.
That we are nominally, fitfully and hesitantly fighting back is progress, but it does not mean we are yet winning. Whether we are winning needs to be measured first in the most crucial contest, to stop Iran from supporting terrorism and seeking a nuclear bomb.
The most telling sign that we are not winning in Iran's case is that most people seem to think the Iranian regime will obtain a nuclear weapon. Outgoing Israeli national security advisor Giora Eiland told the Post on Friday: "In the end, Iran will attain a nuclear capability. The international opportunities a few years ago were not exploited, and today it's too late."
Ehud Olmert disagrees, saying that neither the US nor Israel can accept a nuclear Iran, and that he believes George Bush will not allow it to happen.
EVEN IF Eiland is right, however, the conviction of the Israelis polled that this is the place to be is not irrational. Warren Buffet, who just bet almost $5 billion that Israel is a good investment, argues that the security "risk factor" is no different here than in the US.
If anything, Israel is better equipped to defend and fight against terrorism than any country in the world. Our public is immeasurably better protected than are most Western countries, whether against suicide bombers or ballistic missiles. No one doubts the courage, training, resources and motivation of the US military, but one wonders whether the Israeli army, given its proven ability to combine air power, intelligence and ground forces against terrorist targets, would not be more successful if it were fighting in Iraq.
Yet even the capabilities Israel has developed amount to stopgap efforts. They cannot substitute for victory.
Safety cannot be meaningfully measured during a war, since so much depends on the outcome. And in a global war such as the current one, it is hardly clear that Israel is less safe than Europe or the US.
In November, the US will hold midterm elections. Whether the results weaken or strengthen George Bush, he will then have less than two years to reverse the current expectation that Iran will go nuclear. The safety of all of us hangs in the balance.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11
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