Year-in-review Analysis: 5754 in the Middle East: a Year Beyond ‘historic’

The year 5754 began and ended in Israel with events so monumental in its brief annals that even the word “historic” hardly seems to do justice to the dimensions of the change this year has wrought.

If, when Jewish history is written decades or centuries from now, there is to be a single year cited as the moment when the Jewish state achieved permanence in its geographical milieu, this was the year.

Historians, no doubt, will link the events of this year directly back to the first, great breakthrough to peace: the Camp David agreements and the peace treaty with Egypt of the late 1970s.

For the historians, with the benefit of a perspective that distinguished between the transient and the truly significant, the fact that the first breakthrough was achieved by the Likud under then-Premier Menachem Begin, and the second by Labor under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with the Likud standing firmly in opposition — this fact will fade into insignificance.

The sweeping view of history will see, rather, the firm grounding of both breakthroughs in the Jewish state’s military strength, tested in wars, and in the determination of its people, whatever their political affiliation, to win their country a place of permanence in the Arab-dominated Middle East.

In large part due to the peace process, this past year saw Israel’s wider acceptance in the international community, as well. The Vatican and Israel reached a landmark agreement that will lead to full diplomatic relations, and for the first time since 1981, the United Nations General Assembly accepted Israel’s credentials without a challenge from the Arab nations.

Rosh Hashanah 5754 took place in the warm and brilliant afterglow of the declaration of principles, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization before a breathless and jubilant world on the lawn of the White House on Sept. 13, 1993.

The year ended in an even warmer atmosphere, generated by the dramatic, uninhibitedly enthusiastic scenes of Israel’s leaders and Jordanian King Hussein meeting openly to renounce their countries’ 46-year state of war.

ONE AGREEMENT REINFORCES THE OTHER

The breakthrough with Jordan was greeted with untrammeled joy by the vast bulk of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab.

This acceptance stood in stark contrast with the scenes of parliamentary uproar and street demonstrations that characterized the yearlong (and still ongoing) public debate over the Rabin handshake with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli-PLO agreement and the Washington Declaration signed July 25 by Rabin and Hussein exist in a striking interrelationship.

The agreement with the PLO — marred by controversy within each camp, within the Arab world as a whole and indeed within the Jewish world — takes on a status of far greater stability as a result of the subsequent agreement with Hussein.

In the eyes of the world community, and in the eyes of the majority of Arab nations, the two agreements, and the ongoing negotiations emanating from each of them, represent a consistent movement forward toward Israel’s ensconcement as an accepted state in this region.

There are those who prefer the PLO and the radicalism it represents, there are others who are more comfortable with the conservatism of the Jordan’s Hashemites– but by and large the Arab world accepts both of these units as fixtures in the firmament of Arab nationalism.

And Israel’s accords with both Jordan and the Palestinians have invested Israel’s very existence with that fixture-status, too.

‘HEBRON MASSACRE’ TAKES ON NEW MEANING

Of course, there are those who object violently to the accords. The bloody objections of one Jewish settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, took on historic proportions.

Until this year, the words “Hebron massacre” meant, for Jews everywhere, the wanton killing by Palestinian Arab extremists of peaceful Hebron Jews in 1929.

Now, though, those same words have a similar meaning for the Arabs too.

Goldstein’s killing of 29 Palestinian worshippers inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Feb. 25 — Purim in the Jewish calendar — will live on in the Arab mind as the epitome of violent Jewish extremism, and in Jewish history as a stain of shame.

Subsequent acts of Arab terrorism, including bombs in the Israeli towns of Hadera and Afula that left a total of 13 dead, and the fatal stabbing of two young Jews at a Ramle building site, were all advertised by Arab extremists as reprisals for the Hebron killings.

Plainly, though, Goldstein failed, as did the various Arab bombers — if their purpose was to derail the peace process.

Arguably, in fact, the Hebron massacre and the subsequent wave of Palestinian terrorism served as a catalyst, expediting the conclusion of that vital first phase of the autonomy agreement.

Leaders on both sides were shocked into the profound and acute realization that to delay in the implementation of their accord would be to court the danger of its derailment amid a welter of blood and fanaticism.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that his party, if it returns to power, will not balk at the international undertakings entered into by its Labor predecessor.

The word “if” in the previous sentence is used advisedly.

While in the normal order of things, government and opposition change roles from time to time in democratic countries, no one can predict with certainty, as 5755 is ushered in, that the Likud will ever take power again in Israel — just as no one can predict that Labor itself will be returned to office.

Many pundits believe that both blocs will break apart — if not before the 1996 election then before the end of the century — with their various component parts reassembling into new political alignments no longer based on the increasingly anachronistic hawk-dove divide.

Indeed, 5754 provided Israelis with a first taste of political realignment, with the secession from Labor, and triumphal success, of one of the ruling party’s brightest hopes, Haim Ramon.

Just 45, Ramon ran a devastating campaign to unseat the Labor incumbent in the top post in the still-powereful Histadrut trade union confederation — and emerged as the winner.

Still formally a member of Labor’s Knesset faction, Ramon was keeping the country guessing as to his plans for the next parliamentary election: Will he, with or without the left-wing Meretz bloc, form a new party and run against Labor? That truly would signify the collapse of the Labor Party as it has been known until now.

A Ramon-led grouping, moreover, could attract support from the pragmatic wing of the Likud, with people like Tel Aviv Mayor Ronnie Milo — one of the Likud’s own bright hopes — moving across to give the envisaged new party a centrist balance.

The year 5754 also saw a key Israeli political figure articulate, for the first time publicly, the increasing discomfort that many Israelis feel over the fund-raising-based relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.

Yossi Beilin, deputy foreign minister, an acclaimed architect of the current peace process and another young star in the Labor camp, called repeatedly for a no-holds-barred reappraisal of the relationship.

He urged that Jewish philanthropy focus on ensuring Diaspora Jewish survival — rather than on the unwieldy and controversy-plagued Jewish Agency, which dispenses funds in Israel.

Beilin’s position expressed a feeling, shared by many in Israel and the Diaspora that the new era of Israel-at-peace represents a challenging new departure for the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

As the year drew to a close, the evolution of a broader Israel-Diaspora partnership was dramatically and tragically shaken by a series of terrorist bomb attacks that claimed 100 lives at the Jewish community office building in Buenos Aires, killed 21 on a Panamanian commuter plane and struck two Jewish sites in London, where miraculously there were no fatalities.

LINKAGE OF JEWISH AND ISRAELI FATES

The fact that one of the London bombings struck the buliding of the Joint Israel Appeal just hours after a similar attack on the Israeli Embassy graphically underscored the inexorable linkage of the Jewish and Israeli fates.

As Jews sit down to their apple and honey this Rosh Hashanah, they will have a very great deal, in terms of monumental events, to ponder.

In many households, armchair punditry will focus now on Syria:

Will this last redoubt of rejectionism among Israel’s neighbors break down during the year ahead, and, spurred by insistent American diplomacy, also sign a breakthrough peace agreement with the Jewish state?

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