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The Masada Factor: Israelis Feel They Stand Alone

April 07, 2002|STEVE A. YETIV

Radical terrorism has contributed to an important change in the Israeli mind-set, which needs to be recognized around the world if progress is to be made toward peace.

Israelis haven't felt as besieged as they do today since the days preceding the 1967 Six-Day War, when they feared being overrun by Arab armies. Israel's tanks and airplanes bespeak a colossus grinding down on Palestinians and their leader, Yasser Arafat. Yet Israel's reactions are not motivated by a drive to dominate, as many Arabs see it, but by fear and by a notion that Jews ultimately stand alone against a hostile world.

The Masada factor is embedded in Israeli culture. All Israeli children learn about the resistance of a band of Jews in their final stand against Roman legions at Masada, a giant mesa overlooking the Dead Sea. The holdouts at Masada chose death over foreign subjugation, and while today's strong Israel is not faced with exactly the same dilemma, a similar siege mentality has taken over the country. In that sense, Israel has become Masada.

Masada-like thinking explains why some Israelis welcome Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace proposal, but many question its call for Israel to withdraw to pre-Six-Day War borders and to allow refugees to return. Those borders are widely viewed as indefensible, and refugee return is seen as demographic suicide.

The Masada factor also gives insight into Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He has suggested that Western powers were willing to sacrifice Israel as they did Czechoslovakia in 1938 at Munich. The Arabs call Sharon the "bulldozer," and not without reason, but Sharon sees Israel as a tiny state that may have to "go it alone," as he has asserted repeatedly. No wonder Sharon and most Israelis are cautious about allowing international powers a greater role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To many Israelis, the United Nations is a forum for anti-Zionism, an institution whose leader, Kofi Annan, is pro-Arab. Europe, they believe, isn't far behind; a resurgence of anti-Semitic acts only heightens this view.

Despite Israel's overwhelming military advantage, a sense exists that no Israeli leader can ensure security against a fanatical enemy. The concern about a nuclear or biological weapon earmarked for Israel is also palpable, even more so after Sept. 11, which taught Israelis the dangers of one devastating attack. That Iran is increasingly bold in sending arms shipments to the Palestinians adds to the Masada factor, as do Hezbollah's rocket attacks from Lebanon and Syria's military exercises. Making things worse is the recent failure of the 57-state Organization of the Islamic Conference to label suicide bombings as terrorism.

The gap between how Israelis see themselves and how many Arabs see them is gigantic. While Arabs largely see Israel as an avaricious behemoth, Israelis are seeking a touchy-feely peace based on normalization. Real normalization can cut through the Masada perspective, which is why it is so important. But every terrorist attack makes Israelis want to build walls.

To change Israel's position, more moderate Arabs, Europeans and even Americans need to treat Israel with the Masada factor in mind. A besieged state will never relinquish land for a piece of paper.

A crucial step is for moderate Arabs to commit publicly to Israel's right to neutralize groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They also need to cooperate with Israel and the U.S. in seeking this end. Confronting terrorism in this manner is doable, especially if the U.S. intelligently spearheads the effort. The recent Arab summit was positive, but suicide bombings undermined it. Stopping terrorism--at least generating a multilateral approach for doing so--is a prerequisite for a more serious peace process. Otherwise, no number of summits, cease-fires or diplomatic visits matter.

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Steve A. Yetiv, an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., is the author of "The Persian Gulf Crisis" (Greenwood, 1997).

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