Our existential struggle: A matter of no choice

Within Israel and without, Israel's legitimacy is being questioned, and not only on the fringes.

yaalon 88 (photo credit: )
yaalon 88
(photo credit: )
As Israel approaches its 60th anniversary we can take pride in the wonderful achievement of having established ourselves as a regional power. But our right to exist as an independent Jewish state is still in dispute. The acceptance of the State of Israel as an independent Jewish state on the part of our neighbors requires a long-term perspective on two fronts. On the one hand, Israeli society must remain steadfast over what will necessarily be a period of conflict spanning many years; on the other hand, we must always keep our eye on societal and moral changes that have to take place among our enemies before reconciliation can ever really occur.
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Anti-terror warfare is important, but it addresses only the ability to commit terrorist acts rather than the roots of terrorism. The Palestinian education system continues to deny Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state; labels the entire historic land of Israel "from the River to the Sea" as "occupied"; and denies any connection between the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland. An education system of this kind is not preparing Palestinians for reconciliation, but for war. THE ENLIGHTENED world, with the Unites States taking the lead, must continue to make financial assistance to Arab states - and especially the Palestinian Authority - conditional on fundamental educational reform. The first step should be a ban on incitement to hatred in government-controlled mosques and media, followed by significant changes in school textbooks. This is not to say that Israel should take a paternalistic attitude by imposing educational reform on the Palestinians by force. We ought not to actively intervene except for encouraging cooperation and educational encounters between Jews and Palestinians - not just encounters in which the Palestinians accuse the Jews and the Jews accuse themselves, but encounters which take the Zionist self-understanding as a legitimate point of departure. Yet Israel can act to encourage the democratization of the region, especially in the Palestinian Authority. It is, after all, in Israel's interest to be involved in the Middle East rather than to live in permanent isolation within the region. THE CHALLENGES facing our military are no less formidable. In the area of conventional warfare Israel will continue to maintain a military built on a regular army and reserves, on a scale that addresses the potential threat. Maintaining our competitive edge will require continued investment in human capital, by nurturing future generations of scientists, engineers and technicians - those who will develop the IDF's technological infrastructure, its security industry, and its roots in both the civilian economy and in academia. As far as unconventional warfare is concerned Israel must maintain its deterrent capability and make every effort to prevent our enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran poses an extremely serious threat; such a capability in the hands of a radical regime that does not hide its intentions regarding Israel would fundamentally alter the strategic balance in the region. For this reason, the recent speeches of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be taken with utmost seriousness. In his messianic Shi'ite world view, the arrival of the "Hidden Imam" - the messiah - can and should be hastened through practical measures. When he was mayor of Teheran he invested in initiatives to prepare for the day of the arrival of the Hidden Imam. As a disciple of the Ayatollah Yazdi he believes that a precondition for the coming of the Hidden Imam is the destruction of the State of Israel. This is a genuine belief, and any attempt to dismiss Ahmadinejad's words as mere posturing in order to garner internal support, or as simple baiting, misses their meaning. Israel must view the Iranian threat as profound and existential, and respond accordingly. MOST OF THE terror directed at Israel today is funded by Iran. Although Hamas has its own fundraising apparatus, it has received a great deal of money in recent years from Iran. "With regards to the challenges ahead of us, we count on an expanded role by our Iranian brothers in Palestine," Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal said in a recent joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Meanwhile, Hizbullah receives tens of millions of dollars to work and act from within Lebanon and to operate Palestinian terror in Gaza. Israel, it must be emphasized, is far from alone in this war. For many years I have struggled with the challenge of convincing people in other countries that they, too, are in danger. As head of the IDF's intelligence branch I went to Washington in 1996 in order to convince the Americans that the Iranians aspired to obtain nuclear weapons. Back then I found few people willing to listen. The good news, such as it is, is that in the last few years not only the Americans but even the Europeans have come to understand the Iranian threat. TODAY, ISRAEL'S security strategic position is much stronger than it has been in the past, but the challenges of the future are great. The central one, as I have suggested, is to persuade hostile neighbors to recognize Israel, and to reconcile themselves to its right to exist as an independent Jewish state. This is connected to a second major challenge: to internalize the advantages of a Western society without losing Jewish patriotism and identity, and without weakening the Zionist ethos. This, in my opinion, is more worrisome than the external threat: Within Israel and without, the fundamental legitimacy of an independent Jewish state is being questioned, and not only on the fringes. My mother survived the Holocaust. My father came to Palestine in 1925 from the Ukraine as a 15-year-old after one of his brothers was murdered because he was a Jew, and another brother arrested because of his Zionist activity. On the other side, my grandmother comes from a family that came to Safed after escaping the Spanish Inquisition, and has remained there ever since. To me it is clear that in a world divided into nations and countries, there must be at least one Jewish state, or else we will endure continuous persecution. With all the disagreement and confusion and mistakes, everything comes down to one irreducible fact: We have no choice but to prevail. The writer served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005. He is presently a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This article is adapted from the current edition of Azure (www.azure.org.il), the journal of the Shalem Center.