Israel's democracy is a bright beacon in the Middle East


WASHINGTON -- It has been said that mankind hopes vaguely but dreads precisely. Surely that is especially true of Jews, various of whose religious observances commemorate calamities or narrow deliverances from calamities. Hence the necessity of a Jewish state.

Jews were 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire. If today they were the same proportion of the world's population that they were then, they would number 200 million. They number 13 million. The world was a much more dangerous place for Jews before they had a national home, even though that home is in a rough neighborhood. The problem of stateless Jews is no more. The long rescuing arm of Israel can reach even into Chechnya.

History became pregnant with Israel when Zionism was energized by Theodor Herzl, reacting to the anti-Semitism swirling around the 1894 Dreyfus trial in France. But, in a sense, Israel is a lingering echo of the French Revolution's idea that a people find true fulfillment only through revived nations. Zionism is an especially defensible nationalism. Having had a uniquely hazardous history, Jews deserve a common future.

The lash of events as well as the Zionist idea brought Jews to Palestine, where in the 1930s Jews asked newcomers, "Kommen Sie aus Uberzeugung oder kommen Sie aus Deutschland?" (Do you come from conviction or from Germany?) When Israel was founded, by a declaration of independence 50 years ago, on one-sixth of 1 percent of the 7.5 million square miles of land of what is too casually called "the Arab world," it was already engulfed in war.

It has experienced at least four wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973). Five if you count the 1969-70 "war of attrition." Six if you count the continuing conflict with terrorist groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's interlocutor in a peculiar "peace process" in which the PLO remains committed to Israel's destruction.

No rest, No peace

If peace is understood, as it should be, as more than the mere absence of clashing armies, Israel has never known a moment of it. There are few forms of cant more deserving of disdain than the recurring American injunction -- from a powerful nation insulated by two broad oceans and two friendly neighbors -- that Israel should "take risks for peace." Israelis take a risk boarding a bus.

In three weeks in 1973, Israel's casualties, as a percentage of its population, were larger than U.S. casualties in eight years of war in Vietnam. Yet although no nation ever had a better excuse for becoming a garrison state, Israel remains a vigorous democracy. Sometimes it is almost alarmingly vigorous: The saying is, "two Israelis can make three factions."

American values

It is still the only democracy, the only salient of American values, in a still inhospitable region. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, there still is no Syrian Lech Walesa or Palestinian Andrei Sakharov. And there is no reason to believe that when the Palestinians have fully achieved their second state (historically and ethnically, Jordan is Palestinian), the 22nd Arab state, it will be the first Arab democracy.

The 1967 war, the six days that shook the world, erupted on June 5, when Israel, surrounded by more than 370,000 troops, 2,000 tanks and 600 fighter and bomber aircraft, launched pre-emptive airstrikes. Israel told Jordan that if it did not attack, Israel would not cross the 1949 armistice line. Jordan, perhaps moved by Egypt's disinformation, attacked, and lost the West Bank. After that war a wit said: Imagine, the Japanese have the great trading nation, the Jews the great warrior nation.

Before 1967, Israel was the sentimentalists' delight -- Mozart among the orange groves, Athens reborn. On June 5, Sparta stood up. Since then, the premise of every "peace process" has been that Israel, by yielding something tangible, land, for something intangible, a better "atmosphere," would produce a Middle Eastern atmosphere so peaceful that land would be irrelevant to Israel's security.

When Israel balks at betting its life on this hypothesis, critics say Israel is being provocative. Actually, Israel's being is provocative to its armed enemies. Hence Israel's existential anxiety. When President Richard M. Nixon suggested a U.S. security guarantee, Prime Minister Golda Meir replied, "By the time you get here, we won't be here." A poem by Stephen Crane says:

A man said to the universe:

"Sir, I exist!"

"However," replied the universe,

"The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation."

That is understood in Israel, which knows that the 50th anniversary of its nationhood is also the 60th anniversary of the sacrifice of a small nation for the convenience of large ones at Munich.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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