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Israel Is At A Crossroads

This piece is one of a series of pieces commissioned from leaders to speak to their feelings about Israel at 70. You will find the others here.

Of all the many privileges in my life —- whether serving as Chief of Staff, Defense Minister, even Prime Minister —- the most precious dates back to when I was a small child: I witnessed the birth of the State of Israel.

Even as a six-year-old in the War of Independence, tracing every advance and setback on a map in the tiny room that my parents shared on our kibbutz, I understood that victory, indeed the state’s survival, hung in the balance. And it was clear even to the youngest of us that something deeper was at stake. We understood we were living through a historic time, that after centuries of diaspora, and a world war in which millions of Jews had been systematically murdered, we were finally on the brink of being able to take hold of our own destiny.

There was a sense all around us that, if we worked and sacrificed and ultimately prevailed, we had the opportunity to create something truly special. Not just a state that was strong, secure and safe. But, in biblical words that resonated even on non-religious kibbutzim like ours, a light unto other nations as well. And a country that, sooner or later, would find peace with its neighbors.

Israel is now about to turn 70, and in many ways we’ve succeeded beyond all expectations. Our population has grown twelve-fold. Economically, we have more companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange than any country outside of North America. We are a world leader in technological research and innovation — truly a start-up nation.

It is true we still face well-armed enemies. Almost inevitably, at some stage we will again have to take up arms to defend ourselves. Yet having devoted all my public life to ensuring Israel’s security, I can say without hesitation that we are stronger militarily and technologically than we have ever been. Stronger, too, than any combination of enemies that might try to confront or threaten us.

But Israel is at a crossroads. We face critical challenges, going far deeper than the specific policy differences I have with Israel’s current government -— the most right-wing in our history. They are about what kind of country Israel will be in its next seven decades, and the degree to which we remain true to the struggle, sacrifice and the underlying Jewish values I still vividly remember from Israel’s first war in 1948. Whether we remain dedicated to a vision of a country that is not only strong, self-confident and successful; but firmly democratic, governed by the rule of law, economically and socially fair, compassionate, united. And one in which, because of our strength, we are prepared to take the difficult decisions to try, at least, to achieve the ultimate goal of peace.

In the current Israeli political climate, that may seem a tall order. But particularly when I see the engagement among growing numbers of our citizens in making the argument for this kind of Israel, I can’t help thinking of Theodor Herzl’s famous words: “If you will it, it is not a dream.” They’ve been quoted so often over the years that they’ve become almost a cliché. But as a small boy on a fledgling kibbutz in 1948, I discovered they also happen to be true.

Ehud Barak served as prime minister of Israel from 1999-2001. His book, “My Country, My Life,” will be published on May 8 by St Martin’s Press.

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