Much of the discussion about Israel and the Palestinians revolves around one question: Why does the conflict continue? Most of those who offer answers, especially veteran Middle East “experts” who have been advocating for and helping to promote the peace process for decades, spin a complicated tale in which Israel’s unwillingness to make concessions is put forward as just as much, if not more, responsible for the lack of peace than Palestinian intransigence and terrorism.
But though the region’s history during the course of the last century is complex, the answer to the question is actually quite simple. The conflict continues because the Jewish state exists.
That’s a daunting thought as Israelis spend Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) watching fireworks and enjoying barbecues and other holiday activities. It would be much easier to think that the conflict, which Israelis can’t evade because they spend the day right beforehand marking the solemn observance of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), when those who fell in defense of their nation and victims of terror are remembered. The two days are not something that can be neatly cordoned off.
But while it might be easier to live with if the ongoing struggle could be merely blamed on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supposed hard line or something else that might be remedied by the people of Israel, the truth is that the endless debate about how best to advance the cause of peace essentially boils down to a single equation. As long as the Jews are celebrating the rebirth of their sovereignty in the land of Israel, peace won’t happen. It won’t happen until their Palestinian neighbors come to grips with the fact that this fact will never be reversed.
This is easily forgotten amid much of the rhetoric heard from those who say that Israelis are sliding away from democracy by electing leaders American liberals don’t understand or like. However, the events of the past year, during which weekly “Marches of Return” have continued along the border with Gaza aimed at promoting the idea that the last 71 years of history can be erased, are a reminder that in the eyes of the Jewish state’s opponents, what is going on there is a zero-sum game.
That’s a grim reality that a clear majority of Israelis have accepted. The fourth consecutive victory of the Netanyahu-led Likud Party coalition reflected the Israeli people’s rejection of those who have failed to comprehend the consequences of failed attempts to trade land for peace. That grim equation in which peace is not merely a difficult problem, but also out of reach, is the sort of thing that leads some Jews to despair.
The notion of a generational conflict continuing for another generation is hard to bear. So perhaps it’s understandable that some prefer to cling to myths about settlements being the cause of conflict or shortsighted Israeli leaders missing opportunities for peace. To many, the fact that Israel can’t solve the conflict with a bold conciliatory stroke or even a long negotiating process leaves them feeling helpless. It also contradicts some of the precepts that the early Zionists clung to, in which they felt that they could determine events, rather than being forced to depend to some extent on the actions of others.
Nevertheless, this should actually serve to remind us not only of the incredible nature of Israel’s achievements during the last 71 years, but also that its ability to thrive isn’t dependent on the goodwill of the Palestinians.
In a matter of seven decades, the Jewish state has risen from a poverty-stricken backwater to the status of a First World economy and a regional military superpower. And it did so despite the predictions of doom and gloom.
Prior to 1948, Zionists were told that there was no way a Jewish state could be created. As Israelis are now often reminded, the numbers and time itself were against them. The staying power of anti-Semitic hate fueled resistance to the Zionist project then as it does now. But in spite of that, in spite of the refusal of the Palestinians to accept territorial compromise, Israel has gone from strength to strength.
What is needed on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a day of cheering for modern Israel, though it deserves plaudits for its economic achievements, military valor and vibrant culture. Rather, what is called for is an appreciation of how extraordinary the mere fact of its existence is in the context of Jewish history. Its rebirth and ability to defend itself and thrive in the face of continued hate and terrorism is something previous generations of Jews would have considered a miracle. It’s also something that was achieved by the determination of the Jewish people to persevere, no matter the obstacles and opposition.
Like any human creation, Israel is imperfect and faces problems. But what its people have done in the last 71 years is something few rational people would have imagined possible. In our own time and with our own eyes, we have seen 71 years of miracles as the Jewish state survived, thrived and enriched the lives of all Jews, even if they resided elsewhere. That should give us confidence that problems that seem impossible to surmount will be overcome, as they have been throughout the last seven decades.
Though the very fact of its existence continues to spur the enemies of the Jewish people to go on fighting, it is no reason to despair or to succumb to the lies of those who slander it. To the contrary, Israel’s strength and survival in the face of continued opposition is even more reason to celebrate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.