IsraelAmerica

IsraelAmerica
IsraelAmerica

Monday, May 12, 2008

Life in Israel

Barry Rubin

Tel Aviv, Israel

A slightly shorter version appeared in the Ottawa CitizenMay 9, 2008


I'm sitting in Israel's Independence Hall, a 10-minute walk from my home, a small, relatively bare room that was Tel Aviv's first city hall. Sixty years ago today, it was the place where Israel was declared a country.
It was given that honor back on May 14, 1948, because of its thick walls and small windows. As has been the situation so many days since, there was a war on. Within hours of the ceremony, the Egyptians bombed Tel Aviv, hitting a nursing home for senior citizens not far away.
About six months earlier, in November, the UN had voted to partition Britain's Palestine mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, the plan to be implemented on May 15, 1948. The Jews had accepted; the Arabs rejected.
Almost immediately after the UN voted, irregular Arab forces launched offensives seeking total victory. The British often tipped them off, as archival documents show, so they could seize local strong points, army bases, and police stations. Instead, they were defeated and lost more than they could have obtained through negotiations, another pattern often repeated since.
On midnight on May 14, surrounding Arab state armies crossed the border. The secretary-general of the Arab League, the most important representative of the Arab world, Abd al-Rahman Azzam said, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the [Genghis Khan] massacres and the Crusades."
And most of the world thought that they would win, and had little doubt who would be massacring who. The response of David Ben-Gurion, about to become Israel's first prime minister was rather different. The Declaration of Independence he read included the following lines, "We extend the hand of peace and good neighborliness to all the states around us and to their peoples...."
It was understandable, though, that most experts thought that relatively untrained Jews, not known for being fighters, would have no chance against professional Arab armies. Already, Jerusalem was under siege, with no food or water allowed to get through, a sharp contrast to the present situation where the world expects Israel to provide fuel, electricity, and other supplies to a Gaza regime openly sworn to exterminate its people.
The Western world, most notably Britain, declared an arms' embargo. The Arab armies had already been supplied for years with equipment; the "even-handed" action hurt Israel's chances further. And the Jordanian army soon to join the siege of Jerusalem and eventually to capture the city's eastern part was led by British officers seconded from that country's army.
But despite the high odds, Israel basically won the war and established its independence. The cost was also high. One percent of its population died in 1948, the equivalent for the United States today would be more than 3,000,000 people.
Fast forward sixty years. Despite facing terrorism every year, being involved in wars for too much of its history, weathering slander and economic boycotts, Israel has made spectacular progress. High politics, boundaries, and conflicts are the stuff of the news but daily reality relates to people and actual lives.
As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebration, Israelis are choosing their national bird but they have long since picked the national sport: self-criticism.
The great Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon described his own arrival in the country shortly after independence by joking that as the ship approached the coast it became very hot and we began criticizing the government over the weather.
Daily Israel, every conceivable failing (real or imagined) is relentlessly dissected. The negative is usually highlighted, though afterward people feel optimistic at having been able to vent their pessimism. One day walking down the street I ran into a friend.
"How's everything?" he asked.
"Great," I answered.
"How can you say that!" he exclaimed. "Don't you read the newspapers?"
This characteristic has a positive effect, by inspiring a ceaseless effort to make things better. In dictatorships and places ruled by extremist ideologies, the stifling of this process has been one of the main reasons for their failings.
I know our society could have been, and could be today, far better. Don't get me started on the teacher's strike or the low calibre of politicians. The president and prime minister have rightly both faced charges of malfeasance. One cannot help but think that if so much effort didn't have to go into self-defence, the country would be within shouting distance of utopia.
Still, when annual quality of life polls are taken, the positive scores from Israelis are into the 90th percentile. Moreover, although Israel faces very real threats, its security situation is better than the great majority of those sixty years. While there is full, formal peace with only Egypt and Jordan, most Arab states--except for Syria--have in practice made the material, as opposed to verbal, pursuit of the conflict, a low priority.
Again, though, these issues are by no means the full story.
When I think of Israel it is no abstraction but the people of my neighbourhood, an air force officer and a chef, a museum official and a pianist, a real estate agent and an editor, an artist and a plumber. Some are religious and others secular. They don't spend all that much time debating the peace process or obsessing what the foreign media says about them as they go about their daily lives.
Israel is both a continuation of 4000 years of Jewish history and a distinctive development from 120 years of Zionism, plus 60 years of statehood. It has taken in influences from all over the world, including the most modern, usually giving them a twist of its own. It is simultaneously Mediterranean and Eastern European and Middle Eastern and more in a mixture all of its own that has become a cohesive national ethos.
Sometimes these things are unique syntheses, as when the children of Holocaust survivors--one from Greece, the other from Poland --come together to make a remarkable rock album on the Holocaust. At other times, they seem mere copies of Western fads. Yet if you view the Israeli versions of shows about surviving in wilderness, rival chefs, or competing singers, each have been coloured by Israeliness. And that also applies, albeit in a very distinctive way, to the 20 percent Arab minority.
It's true that the old comradeship of decades ago has declined, as have the institutions created to build the state. As in other countries, privatization has replaced statism. I can remember when a telephone installation took a month. Now it takes a day. Television stations have gone from a single choice to dozens. The national airport has been upgraded from a place barely fit for a small provincial town to a large, thoroughly modern one.
This tiny state of now seven million people is a world leader in science, medicine, and hi-tech among other things, yet still has some of the globe's best-tasting fruit and vegetables as well as internationally exported flowers.
And nothing more symbolizes Israeli daily life than the driver behind you setting off his horn to beat the speed of light from the changing traffic signal. Yet civility, too, is creeping in gradually.
With all of its problems--at times because of its problems--it is a great place to live.
Oh yes we are human beings, a fact that often seems forgotten in the hate-filled propaganda that pervades too many institutions, the slanderous misrepresentation of latest fact and longer-term history which is heard far too much. A friend told me today that he was seriously informed on an international television broadcast that former prime minister Ariel Sharon drank a glass of Palestinian blood every day.
As the twentieth century began, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Jewish nationalism, recorded an amazing fact. Despite advances in technology, transportation, and communication, one thing remained as it was when the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium, Columbus set sail, and oxcarts were the main means of travel.
That one thing was antisemitism. Indeed, Herzl mournfully pointed out, "After a short breathing space...bad times have come again...not only in the backward countries...but also in those that are called civilized."
It's often explained that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism as such but increasingly the extreme, crazed attacks precisely duplicate that hateful standpoint. More important is this: historic antisemitism's claims and assumptions have simply been adapted to Israel; the word "Zionism" simply substituted for "Judaism" and "Israel" for "Jews."
We are the only people in the world continually called on to apologize because we survived, even after 85 percent of European Jews were murdered and about 90 percent of Middle Eastern Jews were expelled or had to flee the countries where they were born.
In contrast to the false accusations, we will be delighted to agree, cooperate, and celebrate the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state willing to live in peace alongside Israel. Unfortunately, that prospect seems distant. Equally unfortunately, that movement's Islamist and much of its nationalist leadership prefers to continue the conflict--and intensify their own, and our, people's suffering--rather than accept anything less than Israel, in the words of Iran's president, being wiped off the map.
A thousand years ago, Chasdai Ibn Shaprut wrote from Spain: "Dishonoured and humiliated by our dispersion, we have to listen in silence to those who say: `every nation has its own land and you alone possess not even the shadow of a country on this earth.'"
But if there really was a place, Shaprut said, "where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subject to nobody...I would not hesitate to forsake all honours, resign my high office...and travel over mountains and plains, over land and water," to reach it.
Well, now it exists and will keep on doing so, very probably long after seemingly more established states or at least societies vanish in its neighborhood or elsewhere.
Nahum Lenkin, one of my few relatives who escaped with his life from wartime Poland, wrote how his parents there often "went without food" to pay for the town's Zionist school where he and others could be prepared "to one day go as pioneers to Eretz Israel." Virtually all that town's survivors, and their children, live in Israel.
In fact, some of us had a barbecue today to celebrate 60 years of national existence.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.


Barry Rubin May 12, 2008
While America's secretary of state devotes her time to doomed Israel-Palestinian talks and America goes ga-ga over a candidate whose main foreign policy strategy is to talk to dictators, still another crisis strengthens radical Islamists and endangers Western friends and interests.
William Butler Yeats said it best: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst , Are full of passionate intensity."
The "best" are often too innocent indeed, sunk in constant self-criticism, persuading themselves they must atone for having done too much in the past by doing nothing in the present, trying to convince the other side of their niceness and sensitivity. Their priority is to ensure no one will accuse them of being imperialistic. And to prove it they will let another country fall into the enemy camp.
The Lebanese logjam has broken at last as Hizballah seized west Beirut and inflicted a big defeat on the pro-government side.
While Iran and Syria provide guns and strong backing to their friends, the West responds with words backed by nothing. Who can blame Hizballah and Damascus and Tehran for laughing with contempt, believing they are the tide of the future, assuming their "passionate intensity" will inevitably triumph over the weak-willed West?
The historic great powers act as pitiful, helpless giants but their enemies will take no pity on them. In short, Hizballah is pulling a two-stage version of Hamas's Gaza strategy in Lebanon and no one does anything effective about that either.
What Spain was in 1936; Lebanon is today.
Does anyone remember the Spanish Civil War? Briefly, a fascist revolt took place against the democratic government. The rebels were motivated by several factors, including anger that their religion had not been given enough respect and regional grievances, but essentially they sought to put their ideology and themselves into power. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy backed the rebels with money and guns. The Western democracies stood by and did nothing.
Guess who won? And guess whether that outcome led to peace or world war.
Funny, I thought September 11 changed everything.
Why should Lebanese Sunni, Druze, and Christians risk their lives when the West doesn't help them? Every Israeli speaking nonsense about Syria making peace; every American claiming Damascus might split from Tehran; every European preaching appeasement has in fact been engaged in confidence-breaking measures.
Hizballah doesn't need to win a military victory but only to show it can win one, using that position of strength to try to force its demands on the moderate government. . The government has already accepted Michel Suleiman, Syria's candidate for president. But Hizballah and the rest say this is not enough: they want veto power over everything.
The goal of Hizballah, and its Syrian and Iranian backers at present is not the full conquest of Lebanon--something beyond their means--but to control the government so it does nothing they dislike: no strong relations with the West, no ability to stop war against Israel, no disarming Hizballah's militias or countering that group's control over large parts of the country, and certainly no investigation of Syrian involvement in terrorism there.
Why, three years after Damascus ordered the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri do investigators dawdle, having edited out the names of top Syrian officials they blamed for the killing in their initial report?
Israel bombed a nuclear reactor being built in Syria. Rice reportedly opposed the action. The world yawned.
Iran drives for nuclear weapons. There is some effort but too little, too slow. Whether or not the war in Iraq was a mistake, when terrorists murdered Iraqi civilians, much of the West blamed America; all too many Americans agreed.
Far too much Western media, intellectual--sometimes political life--reviles Israel. But Israel is no threat to them; other forces are. And events in Lebanon are one more proof that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is only a portion, say one-fifth, of the wider Middle East crisis.
Many in the West think Israel will pay the price for their follies. But Israel is ready to do what it needs for its self-defense. If anything, the mistakes of the last round in Lebanon reinforced this determination.
Instead, the main victims will be Arabs, mostly Muslims, in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon, killed by the various Jihad groups, or ruled by them where they take power or dominate through intimidation. And second they will be Western interests, which would not fare well in a region dominated by a combination of Islamists and those who feel they have no choice but to appease them.
When Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama says he will negotiate with Syria and Iran over Iraq's future, he signals every Persian Gulf regime to cut its own deal with Iran. When his stances convince Hamas that he's the guy for them; when Iran and Syria conclude they merely need stand defiant and wait until January 21 for any existing pressure vanishes, the U.S. position in the Middle East is being systematically destroyed.
Note that this does not make Obama the candidate favored by Arabs in general but only by the radicals. Egyptians, Jordanians, Gulf Arabs, and the majorities in Lebanon and Iraq are very worried. This is not just an Israel problem; it is one for all non-extremists in the region.
If the dictators and terrorists are smiling, it means everyone else is crying.
The Syrian and Iranian regimes know that while they may walk through the valley of the shadow of sanctions they need fear nothing because there are all too many who comfort them.
After all, if the UN human rights committee is run by Libya, if UNIFIL forces in Lebanon tread lightly so Hizballah won't be angry with them, if Westerners tremble and repeal freedom of speech lest some Muslims be offended, why should the "bad guys" worry?
Yet the West doesn't have to play it stupid forever. Now is the time for energetic action on Lebanon to wipe that confident sneer off their faces. To contain Iran and Syria, to buck up the Lebanese government side and all those Arabs who, whatever their faults, don't want to live in an Islamist caliphate.
If you want to know what's wrong, consider Obama's May 10 statement on Lebanon. He starts out playing tough, talking about "Hezbollah's power grab in Beirut....This effort to undermine Lebanon's elected government needs to stop, and all those who have influence with Hezbollah must press them to stand down immediately." He calls for supporting the Lebanese government, strengthening the Lebanese army, and to "insist on disarming Hezbollah."
But how to do this? By "working with the international with the international community and the private sector to rebuild Lebanon and get its economy back on its feet."
In other words, according to the Obama world view, it's a problem of development. If people have more money they won't be terrorists. Of course, that was the policy of Hariri, which was countered by Syria blowing him up. In politics, bombs trump business. And any way you can't have a strong economy with no government and chaos. Part of the mistake here is Obama's assumption that Hizballah (and other radicals) want stability and prosperity. In fact, they want to use instability as blackmail in their pursuit of power. They don't want conciliation. It's a military-strategic problem, not one of community organizing.
The statement continues: "We must support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions that reinforce Lebanon's sovereignty, especially resolution 1701 banning the provision of arms to Hezbollah, which is violated by Iran and Syria."
Great. But the UN is no substitute for U.S. power. As David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes, "It is highly unlikely that the UN -- which failed to even prevent the rearming of Hizballah--would agree to more dangerous deployments in Lebanon." America doesn't need a president whose solution is to turn over crises to the UN.
Nor can Obama pass the buck to Lebanon's army. Its commander is Syria's presidential candidate, its soldiers are mostly pro-Hizballah, and the quarter-billion dollars of U.S. aid given since 2006 may well become additional assets for Tehran.
As President Harry Truman said of the president's desk, the buck stops here. So the president of the United States must take the lead, be tough, and make credible threats. What's needed is not a conciliator but a confronter.
These are the questions Obama isn't even pretending to try to answer: Are you willing to fight on this issue? To defy an "international community" that opposes action? To intimidate and defeat the radicals? Answer: No.
But here's the worst part that few in America but everyone in Lebanon will understand all too well:
"It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system, and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment."
Here, make no mistake, Obama is endorsing the Hizballah program. It wants a new Lebanese consensus based on it having, along with its pro-Syrian allies, 51 percent of the power. What's needed is not consensus (the equivalent being getting Fatah and Hamas to bury their differences, or bringing in Iran and Syria to determine Iraq's future) but the willingness to fight a battle. In effect, Obama without realizing it, is arguing for a Syrian-, Iranian-, and Hizballah-dominated Lebanon. Such talk makes moderate Arabs despair.
Here, at the "From Beirut to Beltway" blog, is a typical, sarcastic, reaction by Lebanese government supporters:
"Oh the time we wasted by fighting Hizballah all those years....If only we had engaged them and their masters in diplomacy...sitting with them around discussion tables, welcoming them into our parliament, and letting them veto cabinet decisions. If only Obama had shared his wisdom with us before, back when he was rallying with some of our former friends at pro-Palestinian rallies in Chicago. How stupid we were when, instead of developing `national consensus' with them, we organized media campaigns against Israel on behalf of the impoverished people who voted for them.
"During that time when we bought into the cause against Israel, treating resistance fighters like our brothers, we really should have been `building consensus' with them. Because what we did...was...unnecessary antagonism, a product of a `corrupt patronage system and unfair distribution of wealth.'"
"We stand today regretting the wasted time that could have been wisely spent talking to them, to the Syrian occupiers who brought them into our system, and the Iranian revolutionary guards who trained them.[1]
The battle isn't over, which is all the more reason for real--not just verbal--international action. Hizballah has made its point for the moment, that it is the most powerful and to it every knee must bend. Yet without serious political and diplomatic support for Lebanon's government and real costs inflicted on Syria and Iran, the battle will be lost eventually.
For all those in the West who don't like Israel, then at least help the people you pretend to like. Back the Lebanese government with real power and aid, covertly or overtly, those battling the radical forces in Lebanon.
Rick: "Sam, if it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?"
Sam: "Um, my watch stopped."
Rick: "I bet they're asleep in New York. I'll bet they're asleep all over America."
[1] http://www.beirutbeltway.com/beirutbeltway/2008/05/obama-time-to-e.html

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.

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