Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Prosperous, troubled Israel

Israel is celebrating its 50th anniversary a stronger, more prosperous and more divided state than ever before. The government sealed off Gaza and the West Bank (which it prefers to call Judea and Samaria) during the holiday as a necessary security precaution.

This irony is at the heart of the story ever since the state was proclaimed in 1948, leading immediately to invasion by five Arab armies and the long fight to lift the siege of Jerusalem. There has been profound and dramatic change since then, and nothing has been settled, not even what it means to be a Jewish state.

The founders knew what they intended, a place of refuge and in-gathering to enable the Jews so long dispersed and persecuted to become a "normal nation." I remember the exultation of the first Israeli chief of police, who happened to be French, saying "Now we have Jewish policemen arresting Jewish criminals and Jewish prostitutes _ our own country."

David Ben Gurion, who made the daring decision for independence, insisted on reviving biblical Hebrew as the national language, against the advice of the revered President Chaim Weizman, who wanted English to assure openness to the modern world.

Ben Gurion's reason wasn't piety but the expectation that Jews from many different parts of the world would flock to the new state and shouldn't be put at disadvantage.

Survival was always the first problem, and for that population growth was necessary. The first big wave of new migrants came from Arab lands. The outpouring of Russian Jews, now nearly a million in Israel, was scarcely foreseen.

But least expected among the pioneers was the rising voice and power of orthodoxy. For political reasons, Ben Gurion left wide legal scope to the rabbinate.

Now, orthodoxy is coming to redefine the meaning of survival, as not just security but Jewishness itself. A fellow guest of the late President Chaim Herzog told me once when I complained about the assertiveness of the ultra-religious, "Why do you suppose there aren't 60-million Jews in the world, after so many generations? It's not because of the Holocaust. It's assimilation. We owe our survival to the orthodox."

But later, a bearded photographer in Tel Aviv, who had just been observing the angry Jewish settlers in Hebron, said, "I don't feel I belong in the same state. I belong to the state of Tel Aviv." Ze'ev Chafets, former spokesman for Likud and the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, also writes disdainfully of the "political rabbis intent on turning the Jewish state into a kosher Iran."

What they do agree on is the need for security. Israel has peace treaties with two Arab neighbors and overwhelming military power. But it doesn't feel safe.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have changed too. Concluding after the watershed defeat of three Arab armies and the occupation of the lands they held in 1967 that they couldn't expect salvation from outside, the Palestinians set out to organize their own destiny. After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, it was recognized that this would have to be achieved by compromise accepting the legitimate existence of Israel.

The Oslo accord launched the "peace process," not yet peace itself but an implicit agreement that it would be reached through separation of the territory of historic Palestine into two states. It was a tremendous breakthrough, irreversible in the sense that neither side could continue to deny the existence of the other. The hope was that step-by-step negotiations would bolster the confidence of both enough to take the ultimate hard decisions.

That has failed. Now, the Palestinians' Yasser Arafat says he will proclaim a state on May 4, 1999, the date set by Oslo for concluding final negotiations, whether or not that is agreed. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu declares that unacceptable. It "would be a direct violation of Oslo and would dissolve the agreement," he threatens.

Leaving what? He offers no alternative but continued construction of settlements and by-pass roads through territories Israel still recognizes as Palestinian. The Palestinians, and many Israelis who do see separate states as the only solution, suspect that there is a hidden long-term plan.

It is to crowd and discourage the Palestinians into such resignation that they will abandon all resistance to Israeli domination. That is no more likely than the Arab expectation over much of the last 50 years of wiping out the Jewish state and driving Israelis into the sea.

Illusions have changed. But illusion remains the key and blocks the peace all need. Closing off the West Bank and Gaza to prevent terrorism while Israel celebrates is a way of admitting that.

Flora Lewis is the former foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times.

Flora Lewis