Editor's Notes: The state of the nation at 60

We have spent most of the lifespan of our revived country failing to agree on how to reconcile ancient rights, security needs and demographics.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
When our first child was born, the midwife, after a cursory inspection to establish gender, welcomed him into the world with the Eeyore-esque summation: "Another soldier." He's 16 now and, indeed, only two years from putting on the uniform of his country's defense forces. We never remotely doubted that Israel would still need an army to protect itself by the time our children would be old enough to serve. We had hoped, though, as all sane Israelis have always hoped, that with the passage of the years, our sovereign Jewish presence in this region would gradually become more tranquil, that our neighbors would come to accept us, and that by the time our kids reached 18, Israel would no longer be engaged in a day-to-day struggle to ensure its very survival. But our eldest, born shortly after Saddam's unprovoked Scud attacks and in the midst of the first intifada, has lived through years blighted by the same intermittent wars as faced by previous generations and by levels of terrorism more ruthlessly orchestrated than ever previously known, and is reaching maturity in a Jewish state arguably threatened as never before by the Israel-hating Iran's march toward a nuclear weapons capability. As David Ben-Gurion told the first new Israelis and the rest of the world 60 years ago, what we were doing on that May day in 1948 was exercising our thoroughly "natural right" to retake our place among the nations - to reestablish a Jewish state for the Jewish people in the historic Jewish homeland. Certainly, that long overdue mandate for Israel's revival was never going to be accepted with delight by the impacted local Arab population, but the international community did attempt a Solomonic division of Britain's mandatory territory that was intended to feature a first-ever sovereign entity for those local Arabs, too. The fact was that, with mutual goodwill, the envisaged two-state solution was eminently viable. With mutual goodwill, it still is. Israel at 60 is a triumph of initiative and innovation and resilience and faith. The pioneers drew every ounce of sustenance they could from this unpromising promised land and simultaneously created the framework in which brainpower and creativity could compensate for absent natural resources. They insisted on forging a first-world democracy with equal rights and freedom of expression, and somehow managed to reconcile those values with the halachic precepts of the religion that had sustained our people through centuries of exile. The country became a haven for Jews in peril around the world - the haven so terribly absent for Europe's millions of Holocaust victims. Here, our ingathered people have been housed, fed and unified around the revived Hebrew language. Israel truly did stretch out its hand in the hope of neighborly relations, as it had promised it would in the Declaration of Independence - delightedly endorsing president Sadat's Knesset plea for an end to wars; signing a peace treaty with the Hashemite kingdom just 100 days after King Hussein's first public embrace with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin; and attempting to consummate Yasser Arafat's duplicitous reconciliation overtures. And when it had to, it defended itself, at frequently tragic cost. For a full quarter century - from foundation through to the Yom Kippur War - we fought a series of wars in which defeat would have spelled the end of Israel. For the next quarter century or so, we wanted to believe that the longed-for normalization was finally coming to pass. But on its 60th birthday, Israel is slowly internalizing that we have entered a third era in which the legitimacy of our very presence here - so compelling and undeniable as to have won over the UN majority in 1947 - is now widely challenged and doubted, not only by perennially hostile states in this region, but by erstwhile champions of Israel as well. And if Arab disunity was a key factor in our ability to prevail in those existential conflicts of yesteryear, 2008 sees a dismaying new unity of anti-Israel purpose in much of the Arab world, as well as the singular potential of a nuclear Iran to remake all conventional notions of deterrent capability and balances of power. ISRAEL, OF COURSE, has also known its share of internal disharmonies. Many of them, as we turn 60, have been if not resolved, then at least assuaged. The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide is largely bridged. Tensions heightened by the mass of immigration from the former Soviet Union at the turn of the '90s have generally dissipated. Friction between the ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of Israel's Jews, centered on issues such as army service and religious coercion, still flares intermittently, but has been pushed to the margins by the economic and physical challenges of daily life here. Where we have not reached a remotely workable consensus, however, is in our vision of the basic dimensions of this state. The conquest in 1967 of Judea and Samaria, the heartlands of the biblical Jewish nation, may have been regarded by some erstwhile Orthodox doubters as proof of divine support for the reborn sovereign experiment. But we have spent 40 years since then - most of the lifespan of our new nation - tearing ourselves apart over whether to absorb some or all of that territory into our state, failing to agree on how to reconcile ancient rights and ties, current security needs and future demographics. The volatile electorate has lurched across the spectrum, demanding inconsistent policies from insecure governments, and rendering Israel confused and incoherent when asked by overseas friends and critics alike to explain its strategic vision, its settlement policy, its red-lines for border negotiations. The relative decline of terrorism in central Israel has recently prompted a return of some of the top musicians who used to routinely play here. A few weeks ago, British pop-jazz pianist Joe Jackson, for instance, played two wonderful shows in Tel Aviv. His most poignant song-title: "You can't get what you want, till you know what you want." Israel at 60 needs to decide what it wants. By most, though not all, demographic estimates, we lack the numbers to long maintain a Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But we have seen the bitter consequences of unilaterally relinquishing territory in south Lebanon and Gaza. So what is the blueprint we seek to realize for the West Bank? Until we formulate an answer to that question on a national level, we will be unable to empower the appropriate politicians, and will continue to suffer from short-term, narrow-minded leadership, and international antipathy. REACHING OUR own consensus about the permanent dimensions of this country carries absolutely no guarantee that any such vision will be realized in the foreseeable future. The Second Lebanon War and the daily rocket assaults from Hamastan in Gaza have shattered the illusion that Israel can determine its own fate unilaterally. But an Israel of unified aspiration and purpose will be better able to encourage moderate interlocutors, to explain its goals and needs and, most importantly, to defend itself against the uncompromising Islamist mindset emblemized by Iran. By virtue of our geography and our religion, we are on the front line of the battle between the free world and the death-cult interpretation of Islam that preaches a despicable personal obligation to kill and be killed for Allah. Already, Iran is essentially encamped on two of our borders via Hizbullah to the north and Hamas to the south. Nowhere in Israel is beyond the range of its missiles. Few in Israel believe this country can survive, much less continue to thrive, in the shadow of a nuclear Iran. Certainly, there is no prospect for moderation prevailing in this region if Iran attains a nuclear capability and becomes a terrifyingly dominant regional power. But Iran's expansionist ambitions extend far beyond Israel. Already, it fosters Islamist terrorism around the world; the July 2005 attacks on London's public transport system bloodily underlined the capacity of extremist indoctrination to transform even men born and raised in a vibrant democracy into misguided mass murderers. Now it is building the missile systems to deliver bloodshed still more directly. It is fervently to be hoped that the latest intake of free-world leaders are not duped into believing that Islamist "grievance" can be ameliorated through short-sighted policies on Iran, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any hope of reconciliation in this region, and of the defeat of Islamic extremism around the world, it should be obvious, hinges on the thwarting of the rapacious ambitions of the current regime in Teheran. Last September, it has now been confirmed, Israel was moved to act to halt Syria on the brink of a nuclear breakthrough. It should not fall to Israel to block the nuclear goals of this Iranian regime, whose president has emphatically declared war on the current world order, warning the "monopolistic powers" at the UN General Assembly last year to "return from the path of arrogance and obedience to Satan" or face "the same calamities that befell the people of the distant past." A FEW weeks ago, my eldest son and his soccer team went to Sderot to play a match against the local youngsters. It was a happily banal encounter - a hard-fought game on a bumpy pitch with some dubious refereeing and a few faint sparks of talent. The new Magen David Adom station across the street was quiet and the concrete protective "cubes" at either end of the field weren't needed because there were no Kassam alarms. As the two sweaty teams left the pitch, their talk, rather than of the rocket threat with which Sderot has now been forced to live for years, was of late tackles and missed goals. An uneventful game of soccer for pre-army teens in an Israel turning 60. Surely that, too, is our natural right.