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Israel Looks Ahead the End of the Beginning

In 1938, 10 years before the State of Israel was born, David Ben Gurion wrote a letter to his children in which he said: “At this crucial moment we must bear the simple truth: in the diaspora our history was made by others. In Palestine — by ourselves. And whatever others scheme and foreigners do, if we are able to create history even in the worst possible conditions, they shall not be able to overcome us.”

Israel did create history, and in the worst possible conditions, and it has not been overcome. This might very well be the theme of Israel’s 40th anniversary next year, with one modification: creating history under far better conditions. What lies ahead can be described as an unprecedented period of great possibilities in technological, scientific and medical innovations, profound social changes, progressive improvement in relations with the international community, and an acceleration of Zionist consciousness.

The possibilities at home are quantum leaps in the fields of high-tech industries and agriculture, intense and planned efforts to settle the Galilee and the Negev, the continued restructuring and renewal of decaying neighborhoods and blighted lives, and far-reaching applications of computer science to medicine and research and development.

SOME CHANGES IN THE PERIOD AHEAD

The next period will also be marked by greater national self-assurance and self-sufficiency in the economic and military fields. Israel has the technological know-how to produce its own sophisticated and innovative military weapons, thereby reducing its dependence on American military aid diverting some of the attendant pressures from American administrations.

Israelis in all walks of life are saying both privately and publicly that the country’s umbilical ties to the United States must be severed in order to change the perceptions of Israel as nothing more than a vassal state of the U.S. in the Middle East.

Israel may also be expected to adopt a more critical and less symbiotic relationship with diaspora Jewry. At some point, Israelis note, Israel will have to forego advice from afar and paternalistic treatment that characterizes “checkbook Zionism.” It will no longer accept the status of a poor relative from either the U.S. Administration or diaspora Jewry.

In short, ever more Israelis are saying that Israel’s relations with the world at large, Jewish and non-Jewish, will remain correct but it will be less reactive, less skittish, and more independent. It will be more assertive in determining its own domestic and foreign needs based on what it perceives as necessary for survival and growth, not as others see it.

The consensus of many Israelis is “We do our own dying and we’ll do our own living, unless there is someone out there who wants to do the dying for us.”

This is not a hard-nosed attitude, nor one of arrogance and impudence. It is a declaration of independence from what Israelis feel are undue pressures — some refer to it as “meddling”– from all sides to shape up according to an image projected by others.

THE ART OF SURVIVAL

For 40 years Israel has been beset by war and unremitting and relentless terrorist attacks in which thousands of Israelis have been killed, wounded and maimed. For 40 years fathers have been saying kaddish for their sons.

It has had to weather contradictions, conflicts and tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, secular and religious, tradition and modernity, overcrowded cities and barren spaces in the Galilee and Negev, shanty towns and squalor in the shadows of posh high rise apartments and commercial buildings, Jews and Arabs, dreams and realities, hopes and fulfillments.

Through all this, Israel has absorbed almost 2 million Jews from 120 countries speaking 70 languages. But now, while it continues to call for more aliya, yerida (emigration) is mounting.

No other country in modern history has had to contend with so many diverse problems and pressures. No other country could have withstood them and still continue to survive and progress. To compensate for the uncertainty of life and the fate of the nation, Israelis chose to act as if they didn’t care what the rest of the world thought about them.

They acted out an existence that might have taken its cue from a line in the Broadway hit, “My Fair Lady,” to paraphrase, “Israelis don’t actually care what anyone says about them as long as it’s pronounced correctly.” But this is beginning to change. Israelis are becoming more reflective and introspective, more sensitive to interpersonal and international relations.

THERE IS ‘ANOTHER ISRAEL’

Winds of change are blowing throughout the country. Ironically, the more changes that are taking place they less they are noticed or alluded to by the world at large. And Israelis are angry about this. The world media, for example — with the exception of the Jewish media — continue to view Israel through the prism of hard-headedness and obduracy.

Israelis resent having their country depicted as a homogeneous entity best represented by diehards and rightwingers like Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir, Guela Cohen, the Gush Emunim, West Bank Jewish settlers, and a rapacious and bellicose foreign policy typified by the invasion of Lebanon.

Headline hunters abroad — and unfortunately some even in Israel — continue to depict Israel as uncaring, self-centered, rambunctious and hard bitten. They focus almost exclusively on ethnic tensions and conflicts, political imbroglios, gyrations of politicians, extremists, strikes and anti-Palestinian activities.

But, Israelis point out, there is “another Israel” people who seek peace with the Arabs and Palestinians, oppose West Bank settlements, develop and implement cultural enrichment programs for Jews and Arabs, seek to settle the Negev and the Galilee, renew and revitalize cities and the lives of the poor, and share industrial, scientific and medical advances with developing nations.

For example, Israelis note, there are about 50 societies in Israel devoted to fostering Jewish-Arab understanding. Some of the more outstanding ones are:

The veteran Beit Hagefen, the Arab-Jewish center in Haifa, which was created more than 23 years ago by the late Mayor Abba Khoushy and now has some 20,000 registered and paid-up members, 60 percent of whom are Arabs and 40 percent Jewish. Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam (Oasis for Peace), a settlement 34 kilometers northwest of Jerusalem where Jews and Arabs live and work together and which includes a School for Peace from which more than 10,000 students have graduated since 1980; Givat Haviva, a Map-am-oriented study center for Jews and Arabs; Hilai, the Israel Center for Creative Arts which was founded in 1984, active in Maalot-Tershiha in the Galilee, the only jointly administered Jewish-Arab town in Israel, and in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev.

SEARCHING FOR REPRESENTATIVE PALESTINIAN

In politics, more and more Israelis are saying that Israel will have to, and indeed should, talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization. This view was until recently shunned and attacked by almost all Israelis except for extreme leftwing ideologues. This is no longer so.

Minister-Without-Portfolio Ezer Weizman, whose Yahad Party joined the Labor Party earlier this year, and Labor MK Haim Ramon, an outspoken dove, are calling for talks with the PLO because, they say, whether Israel likes it or not, Palestinians by and large accept the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

Weizman was very blunt about this. Talking to a group of students recently, he said: “I invite (PLO chairman Yasir) Arafat to dial 242338 (a reference to United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338) and to stop the shooting. Then I’ll be ready to sit down and talk peace with him. People who say the PLO poses a danger to Israel’s security make me laugh. To put it politely, that’s nonsense. We must sit down with the Palestinians to find a solution to the problem. What can we do if Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians view the PLO as their representative?”

Akiva Eldar of Haaretz wrote recently: “We won’t be able to evade the question of Palestinian representation forever. Unlike the international (Mideast peace) conference, which is merely a skeletal framework, this is an issue which touches the very nature of the peace settlement ultimately to be reached.” Meanwhile, Eldar noted, Israel is “muzzling Palestinian representatives who are considered ‘authentic.'”

Ze’ev Schiff, Haaretz’s respected military correspondent, denounce “the sort of gratuitous suppression that arises from Israel’s military rule over more than one million Palestinians.” Referring to an incident last January when Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin prevented three prominent Palestinians who favor a peaceful solution to the Mideast conflict from attending an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict in San Diego, California, Schiff wrote: “What’s particularly troublesome in this brouhaha is the hypocrisy of some of our leaders, who claim to be searching for moderate Palestinians with whom to conduct talks on resolving the conflict. It may well be that local Palestinian leaders cannot, in fact, stand up to the extreme wings of the PLO, or even the more radical elements with Fatah; but we are doing everything in our power to stop whatever ability they have to do so.”

Labor Party members of Knesset, including Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Abba Eban and Ora Namir are trying to put together a peace front with representative Palestinians from the West Bank. The projected front calls for peace within the framework of an international conference which would include “legitimate representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian people.”

These statements were not met by public derision and relentless hostility as they would have been in the past. There was no public outcry and no one demanded any heads.

NUCLEUS OF A ‘YOUNG GUARD’ IN LABOR

There are other winds of change in the Labor Party. There is the nucleus of a “young guard” that is calling for greater sensitivity to Israel’s poor, Sephardim, Arabs, development towns, and the reordering of priorities away from West Bank settlements to the settlement of the Galilee and Negev. This nucleus includes Peres’ advisors Nimrod Novik and Yossi Beilin, and Maalot Mayor Shlomo Buchout, Sderot Mayor Amir Peretz, and Yeroham Mayor Baruch Elmakias.

In addition, the Labor Party received an infusion of new and progressive blood when Mayor Eli Dayan of Ashkelon announced that he was joining the party. The 37-year-old mayor, a lawyer who was born in Morocco and was a member of the now defunct Democratic Movement for Change and Tami, twice won the municipal election in the Likud-leaning town. He said he plans to run for the Knesset in the next elections. In announcing that he was joining Labor, Dayan said that in the past the party had closed itself off from young leaders in development towns, but that this was now changing.

For many Israelis these developments, which are routinely unreported in the foreign media, and many others in the life of Israel, represent the country’s coming of age. It is the end of the beginning.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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