|"One of these things is not like the other...
one of these things just doesn't belong..."
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War, and it is telling that the media, in general, seems to be marking the half century point of Palestinian occupation, as opposed to the daring victory that allowed Israel to survive for another five decades of international condemnation for the sin of existing.
You'll forgive me for not parsing once again, on demand from the pitiless calendar, a matter I have dissected endlessly already and that, alas, does not change much as the years slip by, only becoming more hopeless and tragic. I think I pretty much summed it up in last year's post.
But I can't just say, "Been there, done that," so I offer up this, which ran immediately after Israel had a bloody encounter with a flotilla of activists who wanted to run their blockade of Gaza. It appeared at a time when my column ran a full page, and I have left in the subheadings.
At least now I am off the hook for another 25 years. Squinting toward the 75th anniversary, I will be 81. I don't know which is more likely, that the problem will be lingering still, roughly as it is now, or that I'll still be applying myself to this odd business.
Those growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, came to expect a certain genius from Israel, an ability to accomplish tough, nearly miraculous tasks, between the strategic brilliance of the Six-Day War and the daring raid at Entebbe.
Since the Intifada, though, Israel's record has been spottier, and the latest fiasco—seen coming a mile away, like the Syrians advancing on the Golan Heights in 1973—is Monday's deadly response to the protest flotilla bringing supplies to Gaza.
It was a lose-lose proposition: let the ships pass, and anybody who wants to is now free to land a boatload of rockets on the beach at Gaza—which, remember, has the habit of firing them at Israel. Stop the ships and you risk a slaughter at sea, which is what happened. Israel took a long look at the trap, then carefully stepped in.
Israel has justifications for this, but so what? Second-guessing Israel has become an international sport, like soccer, and explanations mean nothing in the capitals of Europe and on college campuses in America, where Israel has long been regarded as a synthesis of apartheid South Africa and the evil Empire from "Star Wars."
TRYING TO BOO THEM OFF THE PLANET
Does world opinion matter? In the short term, no. Existence as a nation is not a global popularity contest, thankfully, because if it were the U.S. would be voted off the planet along with Israel, which suffers in part because it is so similar to us—a prosperous liberal democracy in the midst of repressive Islamic monarchies and impoverished police states, all too happy to condemn Israel for occasionally doing what they themselves do every day.
Nothing changed Monday. Those who despised Israel last week continue to do so today, with a fresh outrage to add to their litany. The same people who didn't believe Israel had a right to exist in 1948 and 1956 and 1967 and 1973 and on May 30 continue to do so. And those who support Israel also continue doing so, with the same gathering uneasiness they've felt for years.
In a way, this unease is misplaced. Israel's supporters tend to forget that the present crisis is actually an improvement over past crises. Forty years ago, the problem was a ring of hostile neighbors keen to destroy the nation, not with global finger-wagging, but with tanks and armies. The current mess is a better problem to have.
Though not, of course, from the perspective of the Palestinians in two occupied territories, a pair of poison pills that Israel has been unable to either swallow or spit out. I don't think that supporting Israel requires denying the anguish of the Palestinians—betrayed by their corrupt and bellicose leaders, sure, bypassing chance after chance for peace, definitely, but suffering all the same.
Can the status quo continue? Absolutely. We live in a country routinely condemned by most of the world for whatever we do; in their eyes we are waging not one but two needless wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, we manage to sleep at night, and the Israelis are used to being scorned for doing what other countries do without notice. Few care that Gaza also borders Egypt, which quickly loosened its own blockade Tuesday, or that Jordan borders the West Bank. If six trucks had rushed an Egyptian checkpoint in Gaza, their occupants would be just as dead as the ship activists, though the world wouldn't notice. And Jordan, which once controlled the West Bank, certainly doesn't want it back. Few bother to wonder why. If "Free Gaza" were the issue, it would be free tomorrow—alas, Gaza doesn't want to be free; it wants to be the outer suburb of a Palestinian Palestine, and prefers to grind through the years in misery rather than function normally and give up the dream.
Here's where Israel's past successes led it astray—having handled so much, it assumed it could handle an endless occupation, and it can't. Rather, Israel needs to conjure up its past genius and figure out how to end this and get on to the next problem. (Anyone who thinks that solving the Palestinian crisis brings peace is forgetting what the situation was like before).
Two reasons why this must be done: First, it's a humanitarian nightmare. History has jammed 1.5 million Palestinians into a bad place, and fate's designation of the Israelis as their jailers is one of the cruel ironies that history seems to savor. Just as you can love America and not take pride in its slaughter of the Indians, so you can support Israel and wonder: If they're so smart, why are they still in the bloody occupation business after 43 years? (Of course, nobody flips that question and asks: If the occupation is so cruel, then why don't the Palestinians make peace?)
Second, the occupation erodes Israel's standing in the world, and while that might not matter now, it will eventually, particularly as the Muslim populations of the United States and Europe grow in numbers and sophistication—adopting the PR techniques that Jews once used to rally the world to Israel. How will Israel fare as a completely ostracized pariah?
I realize, with miracles confined to biblical times, this might be expecting Israel to do the impossible—but Israel used to be known for achieving the impossible. Maybe it can do so again. If not, the Palestinians are waiting for their own miracle, and lack neither patience nor support.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times June 2, 2010.