Finding the Real Israel

As Israel celebrates its 57th birthday this week, Israelis and their friends around the world face a challenge unlike any they have encountered since the Jewish state was born. Put bluntly, things are basically okay, and nobody is quite sure what to make of it.

The signs are everywhere. Israelis are experiencing a mild economic boom, allowing them indulgences like foreign travel and consumer purchases that they haven’t let themselves enjoy in a while. Last weekend alone, 6,000 Israelis flew to Moscow to watch their national team win the European basketball championship for the second year in a row and to revel in the knowledge that little Israel dominates one of Europe’s favorite sports. Back at home, the beaches, parks and highways were jammed with vacationers, making this year’s Passover holiday season the most festive in years by all accounts.

Most important, terrorism is at its lowest point in years, thanks to a combination of a sturdy fence, good intelligence work and an earnest effort by the Palestinian leadership to maintain a cease-fire, as Israel’s military intelligence chief notes on Page 3. Few Israelis expect the cease-fire to hold indefinitely, but most of them no longer indulge in such utopian dreams anyway. Sometime next fall, after Israel leaves Gaza, Islamic militants will defy the orders of the Palestinian Authority and resume attempts to attack Israelis . Israel will be forced to respond, and a new cycle of violence will start up. Things will be bad for a while, and then they will get better again.

How soon, how severe and how inevitable the next collapse will be is a matter of debate. Israel’s military intelligence believes the eruption can be minimized if Israel works harder to shore up the Palestinian Authority through cooperation and concessions. The Shin Bet security service believes coddling the Palestinian Authority right now, before it cracks down seriously on the militants, would only encourage terrorism. Prime Minister Sharon sides with the Shin Bet. His Labor Party coalition partners side with military intelligence.

It’s important to understand the debate, but it’s at least as important to understand what the two sides share. Across the broad Israeli middle, there’s now a national consensus that Israel can defend itself and minimize terrorism through a combination of toughness and flexibility. Terrorism can’t be decisively defeated, but terrorists can be kept largely out of Israel by establishing a clear border between Israel and those who wish it ill, and by encouraging moderate, pragmatic leaders on the other side.

In practice, that means finishing the security fence that separates the main concentrations of Israelis and Palestinians. It means making sure the fence follows a route that minimizes hardship to Palestinians, if only to minimize the anger and diplomatic damage. It means withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from the Palestinian side.

Following that middle path has given Israelis a real lift in the past year, in both concrete and psychological terms. Sharon’s disengagement plan has changed Israel’s diplomatic posture in real ways, opening trade, investment and travel possibilities and bringing a veritable stampede of foreign dignitaries visiting Jerusalem. Just as important, it’s given Israelis a sense of movement and hope for the first time in years.

To hear Israel’s overseas friends tell it, life in the Jewish state is a daily hell of bombings and mayhem. Of course, Israel has a certain interest in promoting that image; it puts moral and diplomatic pressure on the other side whenever there are issues to be negotiated. But there are down sides to that version. It’s bad for tourism and investment. Moreover, it’s not true.

What’s remarkable is how seldom the reality of daily life in Israel’s broad middle manages to break into general Jewish community discourse in this country. It’s as though nobody here were interested in the reality of Israel, only in its moral lessons.

In fact, much of our community’s discourse on Israel is dominated by interested parties with an ax to grind. For the most part, they fall into two broad camps, both of them reflecting Israel’s extremes. One camp argues that Israel should make territorial concessions because the Palestinians deserve better. The other camp argues that Israel should not make concessions because the Palestinians aren’t to be trusted. Largely missing is the mainstream Israeli view that Israel should separate from the Palestinian territories precisely because of continuing Palestinian hostility.

Israelis will chart whatever course they choose, of course. The losers in this exchange are American Jews. Our culture is impoverished. By limiting our Middle East discussions to moral outbursts, we miss out on the genuine joys and sorrows of real life in the world’s other great Jewish community.

It’s not just question of language. Anything can be translated. The question is, who’s doing the translating?

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Finding the Real Israel

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