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Israel at Sixty

Qassam rockets rain down on Negev towns; suicide bombings have reappeared; Israel is maintaining a blockade on the Gaza Strip with periodic invasions that are growing in severity; Hezbollah is re-arming itself in a chaotic Lebanon; and the fear of a nuclear Iran remains. It seems an odd time to say that Israel is now in the best position it has ever been to normalize its existence.

But that is precisely the case, and Israel's sixtieth birthday is the perfect opportunity to see this.

Israel has been at the center of global intrigue for so long, it's hard now to recall the idealism in which it was born. But sixty years ago, the first citizens of Israel dreamt of a country that was both Jewish and democratic, and that was welcomed fully into the family of nations and at peace with its neighbors.

Today, the view of Israel around the world is at its lowest point ever. Yet it has also been offered full recognition and normal relations by the entire Arab world, and all the negative press it has received has not eroded the general support in the West for its continued existence as a Jewish state.

Had this Arab offer been proposed even twenty years ago, most Israelis would have wept in joy at the prospect and leapt at it. But today, Israel is hesitant to extend its hand to that offer, even while it has acknowledged it as a positive step. What's changed, and how can we change it back?

Living By The Sword

Beginning with the very birth of the country in 1948, Israelis have lived each day with the sense that their neighbors want to destroy them. One can debate whether Arab determination toward that goal has waned, but that doesn't change the very real feelings Israelis have or their historical basis.

Modern historical research has shown that the Arab effort in 1948 to eliminate Israel in its infancy was half-hearted, but the war still cost Israel one percent of its population. Even if the facts on the ground were not in line with the mythos of the Israeli David triumphing over the Arab Goliath, it was still a stunning triumph, and one which cemented the central place the Israeli military holds in Israeli hearts and minds.

Technically, that war never ended. An armistice was reached, but a state of war remained with Egypt until 1979, with Jordan until 1994, and is still in place with Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

War flared again in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Israel learned to live by the sword, and this was only reinforced as it moved away from fighting other countries back toward fighting the Palestinians.

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to Israel's eighteen year occupation of southern Lebanon, an era many compared to America's Vietnam quagmire, was followed five years later by the first Intifada. Even the Oslo years were marked, in the mid-1990s, by an upsurge in terrorist attacks and, until early 2000, by the ongoing violence in southern Lebanon.

In the twenty-first century, Israel has seen the worst violence with the Palestinians since the 1948 war. In 2006, it also experienced its first significant cross-border conflict since 1973, as war broke out with Hezbollah.

That's a lot of fighting, and it's meant that Israel, which from its birth has focused on its military abilities, has become even more mistrustful of diplomatic initiatives. This feeling has been reinforced in recent years by the Israeli government's embrace of George W. Bush's style of international relations. That style is best described as "shoot first and ask questions if it happens to be convenient later."

The Right Flowers and the Jewish Mainstream Wilts

It isn't hard to see that with all that militarism in the mix, and the very real threats Israel has faced, an aggressive, right-wing element has moved consistently closer to the forefront, in both Israeli politics and among Israel's supporters throughout the Jewish world.

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