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Israel: Looking good or bad at 60?

Authors David Grossman and Daniel Gavron offer competing portraits – one sad, one happy – of where Israel stands as it prepares for its 60th birthday.

Grossman, writing in Salon, paints a gloomy picture, arguing that the Jewish state has yet to truly confront that alarming existential lessons of the war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006:

We have not yet dared to face, open-eyed, this war’s deep and frightening significance. … Go back to the war days. Recall the moments of anxiety, the sense of ever-widening fissures, when it suddenly became clear to each and every one of us that perhaps the army will not always be able to save us, and that there could be a time when a war could end otherwise. …

Israel has immense and impressive capabilities, but what did we see when we looked at ourselves during the war? We saw a powerful hulk groping its way insensibly, lurching hesitantly and clumsily, without any idea of where it was going. We were like a blind giant striking out in all directions, while others much smaller and weaker nipped at his flesh, drawing blood and exhausting him to the point where he might have collapsed at any moment.

The last war put it sharply: More and more it looks as if the things that set Israel going at its birth have lost their potency – its concept and its daring, its confidence in its purpose and values, its desire to create a country that would not only be a refuge for the Jewish people, but that would also transform Jewish existence into a modern civil state. Now, 60 years after Israel was founded, it must find new substance that will fuel its way forward. Without re-creating itself, it will not be able to stay in motion. Too many things, outside and inside, will hinder it. The time will come when Israel will not have the strength to overcome them.

Grossman argues that the problem did not start with Ehud Olmert, but that he is incapable of launching the necessary process of recreation.

A thousand lawyers could not obscure the feeling that this entire country has surrendered, out of passivity and apathy, or out of simple utilitarian considerations, to Ehud Olmert’s determination to hold on to his job, in contradiction of all the rules of good government and moral judgment. This feeling will not leave us as long as Olmert remains in power. It will have a corrosive and corrupting effect, even on those who were ostensibly unhurt by the war. I fear that this exhaustion, this sense of imprisonment, will prevent Israel’s rehabilitation.

The problem, Grossman argues, is that “no one among the candidates to replace Olmert looks like a leader who can alone generate a healing process, and some of them will only hasten the decline.” The solution?

Is there not any way they could unite into an apolitical national emergency force that could mobilize the large number of people who are sick of what is going on here? Those who still remember what we can aspire to, who can still rise above narrow sectorial considerations, because they recognize the danger to the whole? They would have to agree on a few common principles of security, peace, social policy, civil culture and relations between different groups in the country. To do so, they would have to make painful compromises in their positions. They could, for example, form a kind of “shadow government” that would deliberate on weighty questions, free of petty political pressures and intrigues. Such a “shadow government” could propose to the public and the government alternative policies and modes of action, as well as champion a different form of conduct, different public mores. It could be an effective way for spurring the government forward, to return it to its senses each time it is misled by inappropriate considerations or dangerous temptations.

Gavron strikes entirely different, more optimistic chord in today’s New York Times – which reads almost like a direct response to Grossman’s angst:

Something strange is happening to us Zionists in the 60th year of the state of Israel: we are repudiating our astonishing success. If in the 1880s (the start of Zionist settlement in what is now Israel) or in 1948 (the War of Independence) or even in 1967 (the Six-Day War) somebody had said that one day virtually the entire world, including all the Arab nations, would accept the existence of the State of Israel in 78 percent of the land of Israel, he would have been regarded as either idiotically optimistic or clinically insane. That, however, is where we are today. We have won, but we are refusing to accept the result.

It is as if the captain of a team winning the World Cup, a triumphant Olympic sprinter or a victor of Wimbledon were to say: “No, no. There has been a mistake. I didn’t win, I lost. My victory is an illusion.”

Yes, Israel faces problems in the form of Iran, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah – but, even in these areas, the picture is not all bad, Gavron argues.

Wake up, fellow Israelis, it’s over, we’ve won! What is more we’ve won a lot: more than 8,000 square miles out of the 10,400 square miles of the British Mandate for Palestine. And most Palestinians have accepted this territorially lopsided resolution of the 100-year-old dispute.

Sill, Gavron concludes, the Jewish settlements in the West Bank pose major problems and a different approach needs to be taken to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. In the end, he predicts, some sort of binational state is in the cards:

If we cannot summon the determination it would take for a complete pullback, might the world, led by the United States, try to force us to withdraw? It might, but it probably won’t, so we are most likely looking at some sort of single state, bi-national state or confederation. What matters is that we are acting from a position of strength, and we ought to be investing our energy and creativity in working out a long-term solution with the Palestinians that will be acceptable to both of us.

The answer is not “besieging and blacking out Gaza, killing and arresting dozens of Palestinians in the occupied territories every month, and constructing walls and fences between us and our neighbors.”

The political settlement that the world is begging us to reach is the only way to ultimately stop the violence between us and the Palestinians.

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