Ahlin: Israel courts self-destruction with increasingly hard-line
In June 17 years ago, I stood with my friend on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. It was a beautiful day, and we were watching people come down to the water and cover themselves from head to toe in the mineral-laden black mud of that sea - mud be...
In June 17 years ago, I stood with my friend on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. It was a beautiful day, and we were watching people come down to the water and cover themselves from head to toe in the mineral-laden black mud of that sea - mud believed to have healing qualities.
My friend was an American married to an Israeli, and she and her husband had gone out of their way to show my husband and me the Israel they loved.
It was a heady time for Israel. A few months later, the Oslo Accord would be announced. But even in June, the attitude in Israel was upbeat. The Gulf War of a few years before had not morphed into the full-scale Middle East conflict they'd feared. Yitzak Rabin was prime minister, and he was a gifted leader. Not only was he popular as he embarked on his second stint as prime minister after a period of years out of the limelight, but also, because of his military history - particularly in the 1967 War - he had special credibility. In fact, he probably was the only leader Israel ever had who possessed enough standing among all Israelis to move forward on the touchy issue of trading land for peace.
The Israelis we met in 1993 through our friends were intensely Jewish but secular, politically astute but realistic. They had no patience for the fanaticism of Jewish settlers in the disputed territories, many of whom came from the U.S., bringing with them a skewed sense of Zionism. And yet, the history of the Holocaust and the physical smallness of their nation - along with its location smack dab in the middle of Arab countries both sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and unwilling to acknowledge Israel's right to exist - made them wary.
Even as we stood by the Dead Sea on that lovely June day, my friend reminded me that there are only a few miles of salty water between Israel and Jordan and Israel never could let down her guard. As my friend put it, it would be like standing on the side of a Minnesota lake knowing an enemy ready to destroy your nation was on the other side.
Whenever Israel disgraces itself the way it did with the killing of nine people and injury to dozens more in its commando raid on the first ship of a six-ship flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza, I think of that day. In other words, I understand that Israel is militaristic for a reason. But military might must be balanced with good sense and ethical decision-making.
Unfortunately, over the past decade, Israel also has squandered the moral high ground it used to occupy by compromising its principles. The basic idea of Judaism that to save one life is to save the world and to take one life is to destroy the world has a hollow ring as, more and more, Israel is viewed by the world as an unfeeling aggressor.
When Rabin was assassinated by a rightwing Israeli zealot in 1995, much of the energy of the Oslo agreement was lost. President Bill Clinton managed to revive it and almost succeeded in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal in 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the government of Israel signed on, but on the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat showed himself to be nothing more than the old terrorist he was by not signing Clinton's proposal. He cared more about his power than an agreement that would have given the Palestinians much of the land they wanted and a real chance to live in peace.
Since then, Israel's policies have been increasingly hard-line and the casualties of those policies have been Israel and the United States. (One commentator dubbed "Israeli diplomacy" an "oxymoron.") Worse in the current crisis, by attacking a ship flying under the Turkish flag, Israel has seriously damaged an alliance in the region it desperately needs and opened up a new front of difficulty for America. That Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not apologize points up Israel's uncompromising and unproductive political mindset.
My friend no longer lives in Israel, and we haven't kept in touch with the folks we met in 1993 through her and her husband. It would be interesting to know whether they see the folly in the hard-line politics of Israel's government today. It would be interesting to know where they find hope.
Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum's Sunday commentary pages.