Vol. 3    Issue 24   01 - 16 May 2009
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The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
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Israel, Iran and Fear


When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, the return of the capital from Bonn to the scene of the crime, Berlin, prompted agonizing over how to memorialize the Holocaust. Germans thirsted for a “Schlussstrich” — closure with Hitler — even as they acknowledged its impossibility.

A large Holocaust memorial was built in Berlin, but not before a leading writer, Martin Walser, had prompted outrage by railing against “the permanent presentation of our shame” and use of Auschwitz as “a moral stick.”

    Closure on the Nazi mass murder is of course impossible. There is no such thing as inherited guilt, but inherited responsibility endures. Germans, through responsibility, have built one of the world’s most successful democracies, a wonder from the ashes.

    In the German mirror stands Israel, another vibrant democracy birthed from the crime, albeit one, unlike Germany, that has not found peaceful coexistence. Israel, too, craves closure on a past that holds the insistent spectre of annihilation.

    As Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, has written, Israel was supposed not only to take the Jewish people out of exile but ensure that exile was “taken out of the Jewish people.” In this, 61 years after its creation, Israel has fallen short.

    Uncertainty does not so much hang over the country as inhabit its very fibre. Existential threats — from Iran, from Hamas and Hezbollah, from demography — are forever invoked. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses — for now — to support even the notion of Palestinian statehood.

    I’ve been thinking about corrosive Israeli anxiety since I read a response to my recent columns on Iran from Eran Lerman, the director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. Lerman framed his piece around his “vulnerable” 17-year-old daughter, who, he wrote, often asks him what he’s done “to make sure that she gets to be 25,” given Iran’s annihilationist rhetoric and nuclear program.

    Israel, Lerman suggested, faces “simply the challenge of staying alive in a hostile environment.”

    But it’s not that simple. How frightened should an Israeli teenager really be, how inhabited by the old existential terror, the perennial victimhood, the Holocaust fear and vulnerability from which Israel was supposed to provide deliverance?

    Yes, Israel is small — all the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea is scarcely bigger than Maryland — and its environment hostile. This, as former President Jimmy Carter notes in a fine new book, makes it vulnerable. But as Carter also writes in “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land,” Israel has a “military force that is modern, highly trained and superior to the combined forces of all its potential adversaries.”

    Not only that, Israel has a formidable nuclear arsenal; it has made peace with Egypt and Jordan; it has a cast-iron security guarantee from the United States; it has walled, fenced, blockaded and road-blocked the roughly 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza into a pitiful archipelago of helplessness; its enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas, only declared victory in recent wars by preventing their own destruction.

    Israel has the most dynamic and creative society in the region, one that does not convict American journalists in shameful secret trials, as Iran has just done with Roxana Saberi; it has never fought a war with Iran; and it knows — despite all the noise — that Persia, at more than 3,000 years and counting, is not in the business of hastening its own suicide through militarist folly.

    Some of this, no doubt, Lerman has told his daughter. It should reassure her. Fear is the worst of foundations.

    Far from Iran, and the tired Nazi analogies misleadingly attached to it, there is another threat. As Gary Sick, the prominent Middle East scholar and author, suggested to me recently: “The biggest risk to Israel is Israel.”

    A core contradiction inhabits Israeli policy. While talking about a two-state solution — at least until Netanyahu redux — Israel has gone on building the West Bank settlements that render a peace agreement impossible by atomizing the 23 percent of the land theoretically destined for Palestine.

    As Ehud Barak, now the defence minister, remarked in 1999: “Every attempt to keep hold of this area as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a non-democratic or a non-Jewish state, because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a bi-national state, and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state ...”

    That’s right. The population of Arabs in the Holy Land, at about 5.4 million, will one day overtake the number of Jews. So a two-state solution is essential to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. Persisting in the 42-year-old occupation and the building of settlements gnaws at the very foundations of the Zionist dream.

    Netanyahu now wants Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, who have recognized Israel, to go further and recognize it as a Jewish state, even before he accepts a hypothetical Palestinian state. That’s a sign of the Israeli angst occupation has institutionalized.

    Closure is the overcoming of horror. It is the achievement of normality through responsibility. It cannot be attained through the inflation of threats, the perpetuation of fears, or retreat into the victimhood that sees every act, however violent, as defensive.

(Source: International Herald Tribune, 19 April, 2009

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