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Israel's unhappy birthday

After six decades, the Jewish state's hopes for peace are near death.

May 11, 2008|Benny Morris | Benny Morris is the author of many books about the Israeli-Arab conflict, including, most recently, "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War."

Israel at 60 is a sad place. It is sad despite the prosperity that is apparent at every turn.

By most Western political and economic standards, the country is a phenomenal success story. It is one of the few states created after World War II to have emerged and remained a functioning, indeed vibrant, democracy; its citizens, including its Arab citizens (1.3 million out of a total population of almost 7 million), enjoy civil rights and the benefits of a legal system that is as free and honest as any in the West, and a social welfare basket that assures the survival of the poorest. It is a powerhouse in terms of economic, scientific and cultural creativity, with substantial high-tech accomplishments, a handful of Nobel Prize winners and a host of internationally successful writers to prove it.

Like most developed countries, Israel is not without poverty (mostly among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews), just as it has its share of clogged highways and traffic jams. But economically, it's hard to argue that Israel is anything other than a miracle -- a minuscule backwater (8,000 square miles) without natural resources, yet its annual budget today stands at about $60 billion. It exports high-tech products worth billions of dollars to the United States and Europe as well as to Asia, Latin America and Africa. The rush of foreign investors appears unstoppable.

Yet Israel is a sad place, and sometimes, after the most vibrant nightspots close, one can sense it in the air. In the mornings, one feels it in the coffee shops on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street and Jerusalem's Gaza Road, where the young and middle-aged and old linger over their cups and consider their collective and personal present and future.

Israel is a sad place because its Jews have begun to lose hope, hope that the 100-year-old conflict with the surrounding Muslim Arab world will ever end, hope of ever being accepted as a legitimate presence in the Middle East, hope of ever achieving peace. Indeed, most Israeli Jews are at least dimly aware that the state founded by the Zionist movement as a safe haven for a people oppressed and murdered through the centuries in the Christian and Muslim lands of their dispersion is probably today the most unsafe place in the world for the Jews. Without doubt, the crucial, defining moment, when despair overtook at least hesitant hope, was in 2000. Before then, between Israel's founding in May 1948 and the Camp David summit of July 2000 attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, most Israeli Jews, and their leaders, believed in the prospect of eventual peace.

They may have lived and fought with their backs to the wall, under awful circumstances of political isolation and numerical inferiority. They may have felt mortal, existential peril as Arab armies assaulted or attempted to strangle their tiny state in 1948, 1967 and 1973. But they continued through all that time to believe that eventually the Arab world would tire of the struggle, that it would change and liberalize and Westernize, and that it would acquiesce in the existence of a Jewish state in its midst. All the Israelis needed to do was to hold fast, weather the next storm, and possibly also the next, and bright, sunny uplands awaited them over the hill and down the road.

The year 2000 changed all that. That July, Arafat, speaking for the Palestinian people and with barely a squeak of internal dissent, said "no" to the generous terms that had been offered -- and thereby said "no" to the principle of a two-state compromise with Israel and "no" to a future with a Palestinian Arab state coexisting in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel. (Arafat's nominal successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, continues to refuse to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state.")

In December 2000, when Clinton published his "parameters" for a two-state settlement, Arafat responded with a second, even blunter "no": Clinton had proposed a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, including half of Jerusalem and all of the Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinian rule over the surface area of the Temple Mount and massive international aid in resolving the Palestinian refugee problem, mainly by resettlement in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, or in the West, or in the future Palestinian state.

Instead, the Palestinians unleashed an open-ended terroristic assault on Israel, its restaurants and buses and marketplaces. For Israelis, each suicide bomber was a microcosm of what the Palestinians intended for the Jewish state as a whole. And the Palestinian masses cheered, in the streets of Gaza and Ramallah, as each bomber successfully detonated himself. Indeed, the killers' mothers often publicly proclaimed their wish that they had more sons to sacrifice for the cause.

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