Israel is, yet again, at war. But you could still get a smile in Jerusalem last week by suggesting that there is some mystical message for the Middle East in the name of America’s incoming president. Bara(c)k is Israel’s Defense Minister, leading the air and ground assault against Hamas in Gaza. Hussein is a quintessential Arab surname, carried by an old enemy who ended up in a noose, and Obama is one letter away from the name of our era’s paragon of Islamist evil. In all, this is a moniker that could be etched in an exhibit somewhere in the Israel Museum about ancient prophets and kings. So Obama’s ascension now must have some meaning—or not. The smiles fade. There is war with Hamas in Gaza, the militant Palestinian movement that took advantage of Israel’s withdrawal from that benighted strip of seafront land to oust the Fatah leadership based in the West Bank and fire thousands of missile rounds on southern Israel. Retribution on what turned out to be a massive scale was inevitable once Hamas ended a “cease fire” in December and hammered Israeli cities with rockets.
Passengers on an El Al flight from New York, packed with young Israelis returning from sojourns abroad, burst into applause on landing.
Military conflict is pretty much a constant in Israel. Over the past decade, there was the second Initifada, marked by horrendous suicide bombings around the country, ending in 2004. In 2006 came the battle to a frustrating stalemate with Hezbollah fighters in northern Lebanon. Now comes the siege of Hamas. And oh yes, Israel is six weeks away from a national election. So this is a war being fought by a team vying for renewed power—Ehud Barak as leader of the Labor Party and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as leader of Kadima, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert facing corruption charges when he leaves office and “Bibi” Netanyahu, leader of the Likud, also looking for advantage in the conflict.
There is always a lot to talk about in Israel. But this period is especially intense. I came to Israel to attend the wedding of Hannah Sharansky, the daughter of Avital and Natan. He is the former Russian dissident and political prisoner who is an iconic figure in Israel as a symbol of resistance to the Soviet Union and a latter day oracle, less as a hardened politician than an advocate for freedom and Israeli values—which makes him controversial, because Israelis argue endlessly about what those values are. Sharansky (whose books I have published since his release from the Gulag in 1986) is indelibly in my memory holding my newborn son in Moscow early in 1977 on what we both correctly suspected was the eve of his arrest. Seeing him and his beloved Avital—whose youthful beauty while campaigning relentlessly for his release gave the story a glow beyond politics—and their hundreds of joyous guests under a tent at a kibbutz on Jerusalem’s outskirts, was a for me at least, a satisfying end to this saga.
The wedding was as far from the raging war as, say, New Haven is from New York. Some of the younger guests were unable to get military leave. Yet the mood was completely festive.
Rockets, missiles, ground forces readying the attack that came over the weekend, civilian casualties, and bloodcurdling warnings from Hamas of suicide bombings seemed for now to be less an acute crisis than a flare-up in what is a chronic conflict that defies resolution in the sixty-first year since Israel became a state.
My visit was short but was packed with animated encounters with pundits, policy analysts, politicians, activists, a former Israeli army chief of staff, and opinionated cabdrivers. What emerges from all the talk is less a consensus than a set of impressions, inevitably filtered through my own perspective and bound to be considered by some who read this piece as wrong. If ever there was a subject on which everyone who remotely cares has strong opinions, Israel is it.
For all the uncertainties and dangers, the mood in Israel was better than I expected. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as distinct from the southern towns and cities under intermittent shelling, there were no signs of heightened security. Passengers on an El Al flight from New York, packed with young Israelis returning from sojourns abroad, burst into applause on landing. As 2009 starts, Israel seems sure of itself in ways that have not always been the case. One reason is that, in the past, the major Arab states of the region were sworn to Israel’s destruction. Its active battles now are with factions: Hamas and Hezbollah. The once fearsome Palestinian Liberation Organization is, relatively, a moderating force on the West Bank. Arab leaders such as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal are bluntly calling on the Palestinians to resolve the bitter disputes among themselves instead of merely denouncing Israel for its bombardment of Hamas.
On the home front, Israelis of all persuasions agree that the political frontrunners—Barak, Livni, and Netanyahu—are flawed in one way or another. The previous two prime ministers, Ariel Sharon (in a three-year coma) and Olmert, were undermined by their personal financial shenanigans. And yet there is a widespread belief among Jerusalem’s opinion-makers that the election will produce a coalition operating within acceptable boundaries of integrity, personality, and policy. Until the impact of the global financial crisis last fall, the Israeli economy was doing very well and still finished the year with a growth rate of about 4 percent. Investment in infrastructure such as railways and roads has held up, and so has construction of settlements, which means that this vexing issue that has stalled peace negotiations time and again, remains. There is less confidence than ever in the overall peace process—Camp David, Oslo, the “road map,” and Annapolis have all foundered. What seems to be happening is an evolving reality: the broader Arab world is coming to terms with Israel’s existence. Iran, especially as a potential nuclear power, is a looming threat. There are Palestinian groups that would subject themselves to Israel’s pounding rather than focus on their own development. There will be no breakthroughs any time soon.
Meanwhile, Israel’s sense of itself as a people gets stronger. There have now been three or four generations since the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. The emigrants from Russia and elsewhere are gradually absorbed. The young (just in or out of their mandatory army service), with iPods and other paraphernalia of international youth culture, display a blend of religious and cultural characteristics that is distinctively Israeli. After three-score years, Israel is not a country at peace, and its survival cannot be taken for granted. But it is a nation with a deep and increasingly powerful identity, a commitment to democracy, and a fierce strain of patriotism that may well be its greatest long-term asset. And that, appropriately in my view, was the subject of Natan Sharansky’s most recent book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. One thing is certain about Israel, you cannot spend time here and leave unmoved.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the Founder and Editor-at-Large of PublicAffairs Books. He is Vice-Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House Inc. and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post. Visit TCF.org for a full archive of Platform columns.