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The former editor of The Near East Report explores the many dangers confronting Israel, and argues that the country is built for resilience
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About the Author
Mitchell G. Bard is a former editor of The Near East Report, the pre-eminent newsletter on US Middle East policy. He is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the director of the Jewish Virtual Library. He has written and edited 17 nonfiction books, including The Complete History of the Holocaust and Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
Will Israel Survive?
By Mitchell G. Bard
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2007 Mitchell G. Bard
All rights reserved.
Israel's Past Is Prologue
From almost the beginning of human history, the Jewish people have faced threats to their survival and overcome them. The ancient Israelites built a state that repeatedly faced enemies and ultimately succumbed to their superior power. Even then, however, some Jews remained entrenched in their homeland, and those who were exiled dreamed of returning. When at last the Jewish people regained their independence and established the state of Israel, they were blamed for turmoil in a region that had been the subject of competing interests for centuries. The desire to bring stability to the Middle East, particularly in light of the interests of modern nations in oil and trade, has led the world to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on a tiny nation whose people have asked for little more than the chance to build a home and live in peace with their neighbors. That peace has proved unachievable because the causes of the threats to Israel's future are complex and cannot be ameliorated by greater attention, inspiration, or inventiveness.
This is why the title of this book has a question mark. You might have expected the title to be, "Israel Will Survive." Israel might be the only country in the world whose right to exist is debated and whose future is questioned. Can you imagine anyone asking whether the United States will survive or whether it should exist? Or anyone saying "no" if asked?
Even Israelis question their future. In a September 2006 poll, for example, Israelis were asked, "To what extent are you certain the state of Israel will exist in the long run?" Nearly one-fourth of the Israelis answered they were not certain. Three-fourths of Israelis said they were in a struggle for survival and 56percent said the country is less secure than it was a decade ago. The following month another poll found that 54 percent of Israelis feared for the existence of the state.
Despite doubts about the future, the history of the Jewish people is a story of survival. After all, what were the odds against an agrarian people, enslaved for generations, escaping their tormentors, marching out of the desert, conquering the inhabitants of a remote land that they believed was promised to them by God, and forming a nation? The Israelites, the forebears of the Jewish people, did just that.
From the time that the Israelites set up their state, they had to fight for their lives and livelihood. Like today, the battle was not just with external enemies; it was often among themselves. A Jewish monarchy evolved after it became evident that the people needed a strong central leader and the tribes could no longer govern the masses. Internal conflicts led to a split in the powerful kingdom of the Jews. This weakened their hold on the land and led eventually to their defeat and exile for more than two thousand years.
For religious and secular Jews who understand the lessons of history, the internal strife that led to the dissolution of the Jewish state is a constant reminder of what can happen to Israel if the people do not remain strong and united. From the more religious point of view, it is also prophetic of what will happen if Jews turn away from their faith.
Much later the Jewish people would discover that their promised land may be a place of milk and honey but, unfortunately, those commodities are considerably less valuable than the oil beneath the unholy ground of their enemies. In the early days of independence, however, the more serious problem was that the Jews found themselves at one of the central meeting points for the armies of empires that competed over their land and its surroundings. The Jewish people held off their enemies and maintained an independent nation for nearly 400 years before succumbing to the mighty Roman empire. This small piece of territory, formerly called the Land of Israel, continues to be fought over today.
If not for the combination of internal strife and the imperial designs of its neighbors, Israel would today be one of the oldest nations in the world, celebrating more than 3,000 years of independence rather than a mere 59.
Even after most Jews were dispersed, communities remained in Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias. Many Jews were massacred by the crusaders during the twelfth century, but the community rebounded in the next two centuries as large numbers of rabbis and Jewish pilgrims immigrated to Jerusalem and the Galilee. By the early nineteenth century—years before the birth of the modern Zionist movement—more than 10,000 Jews lived throughout what is today Israel. While most Jews remained in the diaspora, they never gave up the dream of a return to Israel.
Despite the catastrophic loss of independence that lasted for centuries, it is the Jews who emerged as the victors over the long haul. It took more than 2,000 years for the Jews to regain power in their homeland, but Israel is now a prosperous nation of more than seven million citizens, while the mighty Assyrians, Babylonians, and other ancient powers that once dominated the region have been relegated to Marx's dustbin of history.
And it is not just ancient empires that the Jews have outlasted. In 1917, the Russian revolution led to the creation of a Soviet empire. That same year, the Balfour Declaration issued by Great Britain called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Now, 90 years later, the Soviet Union has disintegrated, but the state of Israel has survived. "The revolution that purported to redeem mankind failed miserably," Maoz Azaryahu noted, "whereas Zionism has succeeded in reformulating Jewish existence in geographical, national and cultural terms."
During the long centuries of exile that preceded the reestablishment of Israel, the Jewish people learned from their mistreatment by Christians and Muslims, and ultimately from the Holocaust, the painful lesson of what can happen if they do not have a homeland of their own. Support for Israel became almost a religion for Jews (and many non-Jews) committed to the Jewish state's survival. As Shlomo Avineri observed, "to be Jewish today means, in one way or another, feeling some link with Israel." On the other hand, one reason for questioning Israel's future is the sense, reflected in polls of young American Jews, that this connection may be fraying.
Israel's survival also does not seem so certain when one realizes how many people would like to see the Jewish state disappear. Many view Israel as the greatest irritant to the Arab world, responsible for instability, terrorism, and rampant anti-Americanism. Without Israel, the critics suggest, the Arab world would have better relations with the United States and the region would be placid. History has shown, however, that U.S.-Arab relations have only gotten closer as American ties with Israel have grown stronger. Today, the United States has good relations with every Arab state except perhaps Syria and Libya (and a slow thaw is even taking place with Muammar Qaddafi's regime). Moreover, the entire region is marked by inter-Arab and inter-Muslim conflicts unrelated to Israel. Border disputes exist, for example, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Iraq and Iran, and Iraq and Kuwait. Syria considers Lebanon a southern province it would like to control. Shiite and Sunni Muslims are in conflict throughout the region and are killing each other daily in Iraq while competing for power with Kurds. Christians, Muslims, and Druze fight for control over Lebanon. Hamas and Fatah fight for control over the Palestinian Authority. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody ten-year war unrelated to Israel. Iraq invaded Kuwait. If Israel disappeared tomorrow, the Middle East would still be in turmoil.
The hatred exhibited toward the United States usually has nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. The attacks on 9/11, for example, were conducted because of radical Muslims' hatred of Western values and the U.S. presence in Arab countries (in particular Saudi Arabia), and to further the Islamists' ultimate goal of the establishment of an Islamic empire. Similarly, the last two wars that the United States has fought in the Middle East with Iraq had nothing to do with Israel.
Impatience with the instability of the region and the conviction that America has the power to do something about it have led to persistent calls for U.S. engagement. But what can the United States do about the conflicts mentioned above? The answer is little or nothing. Consequently, the focus is on the one dispute in which the United States does exert some influence, namely, the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. A major Democratic Party theme of the 2004 presidential election, for example, was that President George W. Bush's failure to be more actively involved in peacemaking was largely responsible for the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli violence. That the violence began on President Bill Clinton's watch and was partly an outgrowth of the failure of his engagement was ignored (more about that later).
The idea of U.S. intervention is not a partisan one; rather, it is a cardinal tenet of the State Department. American officials have long believed that they can solve the Arab-Israeli conflict through diplomacy. Since the United States has influence on only one party to the conflict, Israel, any American plan necessarily focuses on pressuring Jerusalem to make concessions that the diplomats hope will satisfy the Arabs.
The United States has been pursuing diplomatic efforts in the Middle East for nearly six decades and the one thing they have in common is failure. Even President Bush, who said he wanted to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes of his predecessor, was dragged into Middle East diplomacy. He enunciated a plan in 2002 that gave way to the road map for peace (backed also by the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) and, ultimately, neither plan brought the parties any closer to ending the conflict. This outcome was consistent with the past, as not a single U.S. peace plan has been successful, yet diplomats and other wishful thinkers continue to hold out hope that some comprehensive plan can be devised to bring about peace. You can't blame the diplomats for trying because it is their job to pursue negotiated solutions to problems, but you can fault them for their naïveté given their purported expertise on the region.
This naïveté is not unique to the United States. Others, including many Israelis, believe in the existence of a magic formula that will end the conflict. The implication is that we just need the Einstein of diplomacy to figure out the secret, but this is an illusion. The absence of peace has nothing to do with the inadequacy of previous plans.
I am not suggesting that it is a mistake to seek peace or to work toward ending the conflict; however, this approach is too simplistic. The job of diplomats is to devise political solutions to political problems, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a purely political dispute. If it were, a settlement could be reached to which all the parties could agree. President George H. W. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, offered the best example of the naïve view that the difference between Arabs and Jews was no different than a disagreement between, say, the United Auto Workers and General Motors. Baker's great accomplishment was in convening a conference in Madrid where the Palestinians and several Arab states, including for the first time the Saudis, sat at the same table with Israel. Unlike a president handling a labor dispute, however, he couldn't force them to agree and little came out of the meeting.
The conflict between Israeli Jews and their Arab and Muslim neighbors has lasted now for more than a century because it is nothing like a management-labor negotiation. It is not even like most international conflicts, which are based largely on political and geographical disagreements. The Arab-Israeli conflict does indeed involve such elements, but it is also rooted in psychology, history, and religion. The inability to appreciate all these components is the reason why American peace initiatives have consistently ended in failure and why Israel's survival cannot depend on them.
On one level, the entire conflict is really about geography. Two people, Jews and Palestinians, claim one piece of land as their own. Since neither the Jews nor the Arabs were prepared to allow the other to rule over them, the only logical solution to the antinomy anyone has ever come up with is to divide the land. The British suggested this first in 1937 when Lord Peel offered a plan to split Palestine. A decade later, the United Nations arrived at the same conclusion in proposing and adopting the partition resolution to create Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. In neither instance, or any negotiations since, have the Palestinians been prepared to accept a state in only part of what they claim to be their homeland. The Zionists reluctantly accepted the partition ideas because they were prepared to settle for half a loaf to insure they had any loaf at all. At root, the persistence of the geographic dispute boils down to the Palestinians' refusal from 1937 to the present to accept the idea of a Jewish state living beside a Palestinian state in Palestine/Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel, as Jews prefer to call the pre-state area).
Beyond this basic point, however, geography is also a factor because it shapes the deployment of military forces, the availability of water, and the drawing of boundaries. Israel's view on these issues can be understood only if you appreciate the relative size of Israel vis-à-vis its enemies and the landscape of the area.
Because Israel attracts so much media attention, it is perceived to be much larger than it is. People who have not visited Israel often have a difficult time comprehending just how small and vulnerable the country is. Israel is actually the size of New Jersey, but that doesn't really capture the relationship between size and security. For example, before 1967, at its narrowest point Israel was just nine miles wide. President George W. Bush says driveways in Crawford, Texas, are longer than that.
To give another sense of the geography, on one of my trips to Israel, I toured a community called Gush Etzion. It is in the West Bank, so the rest of the world considers it a settlement (actually, it is a bloc of 18 communities), but it is less than a 15-minute drive, six miles south of Jerusalem. We stood on a hilltop and the guide said to look to the west. The tower we could see not far in the distance, he said, was the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the center of Jerusalem. He then told us to look to the left of the hotel, farther in the distance. It was a bit hazy but, he said, that was Tel Aviv. We were literally looking across the width of the country. It would be as if you came to visit me in Washington, D.C., and I took you to the top of the Washington Monument and said, "Hey look, you can see San Francisco."
In 2005 I took a helicopter tour that lifted off from an airport along the beach of Tel Aviv. We flew all of seven minutes before we reached the 1967 border. It is said that President Bush's policy toward Israel was strongly affected by a similar helicopter tour of the area that Ariel Sharon gave him when Bush was still governor of Texas. Once you see the geography firsthand, it's easier to understand what Israelis mean when they talk about the need for secure and defensible borders.
Forget the nine miles across the midsection of Israel. If you go to Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs are separated by only a few feet. The Temple Mount, on which sits the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, is literally on top of the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Around the corner is the church of the Holy Sepulchre. How do you draw lines between Jews and Arabs, Christians, and Muslims?
Israel's greatest weakness may be its size. It will never be geographically or demographically comparable to its neighbors. More worrisome, the military advantage it once had because of its size—short supply lines—has been largely erased by its enemies' acquisition of long-range missiles that can blanket the country. More ominously, its advantage is also threatened by the potential for an enemy with nuclear weapons to devastate the country with three bombs or fewer. In the missile age, it is questionable whether secure and defensible borders are still achievable.
Topography also matters. Travel up to the Golan Heights, a region Israel captured in 1967, which rises from 400 to 1,700 feet in the northeast corner of Israel, and overlook the Hula Valley, Israel's richest agricultural area. Prior to the Six-Day War, the Syrians controlled the region and used that vantage point to shell Israeli farmers below. Anyone who has been there immediately understands why Israel is reluctant to withdraw from this territory. North Carolina's long-time senator Jesse Helms, never regarded as a great friend of Israel, went to the Golan for the first time and said that he wished all of the other senators could see the landscape so they would understand why Israel can't give up that strategic high ground.
Excerpted from Will Israel Survive? by Mitchell G. Bard. Copyright © 2007 Mitchell G. Bard. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Israel's Past Is Prologue 1
The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 17
The Return of the Muslim Empire 35
The Demographic Bomb 53
The Nuclear Apocalypse 69
Dying of Thirst 89
Imperfect Peace 101
A Civil War 134
Silicon Wadi 151
Does Media Bias Threaten Israel? 165
A World of Danger 179
Israel's American Protector 203
Conclusion-Israel's Bright Future 230
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