Israel at 50

The tiny, embattled, fractious Jewish state at the centre of the world map is celebrating its half-century this month. Having survived five wars, a terrorism campaign second to none, internal feuding and five decades of overwhelmingly negative public opinion generated by a powerful and mostly hostile media machine, Israel is here to stay.

At a time when relations between Israel and the United States are unusually sticky, Vice-President Al Gore--the man in Washington Israel may well have to deal with much more in the future--brought a warm and moving message to the official jubilee event in Jerusalem.

"If those who persecuted you, despised you and murdered you could see this glorious celebration tonight, would they even recognise you?" Gore asked. "Look what has become of your dream: You are one of the most vibrant democracies in history; an economic and military power; a wellspring of productivity and prosperity, of wisdom and humanity; a place of poetry and theatre and learning and life.

"As I lift my eyes tonight and see the whole house of Israel, I recognise you," he continued, "and I remember the prophesy of Ezekiel that God would raise you up, that bone would join to bone, sinew to sinew and that He would breath life into your flesh and restore you to your land …"

Not everyone celebrated. Grabbing what they saw as a superb public relations opportunity, the Palestinian leadership galvanised mass action around the concept of the "catastrophe" (Al Naqba) which they said Israel's birth had meant for Palestinians.

Arafat has long since learned that a little well-timed violence always helps to turn up the pressure on Israel when negotiations are tough. Like anti-democratic movements everywhere, the PLO has realised the enormous value to its cause of television footage showing demonstrators hurt, killed, buried. The lives lost are a cheap price to pay.

The days leading up to May 14 were marked by heavy incitement to violence against Jews in the official Palestinian media. Arutz 7 radio reported that official Palestinian television repeatedly screened scenes from the intifada and played a jingle featuring the refrain, "Netanyahu, Netanyahu, we will burn the ground from under your feet".

The ground thus primed, Arafat sat back and watched as "his people" performed for the cameras, mimicking Israel's harrowing annual siren-and-silence custom marking the Holocaust, firing AK47s into the air in Nablus, torching the model of a Jewish settlement in Ram'Allah, burning Israeli and American flags and posters of Netanyahu's face, and finally, as expected, resorting to violent intifada tactics.

In what became the worst disturbances in the area in two years, between five and eight Arab protestors were killed and dozens hurt in the resulting clashes with Israeli troops safeguarding security keypoints and Jewish communities.

Political commentator Aaron Lerner, in a weekly radio broadcast the evening of the rioting, summed up the day's events as follows: "Premeditated murder… Yasser Arafat wanted to see blood and his lackeys took care of the rest. The rioting today was not random. It was orchestrated."

Science Minister Michael Eitan said: "It's too bad that the Palestinian leadership did not learn its lesson from 1948. [Then], it preferred to wage war against the Jews in place of dialogue and co-existence, and therefore it is responsible for what it calls the 'catastrophe' that happened then. Now again, because of its misguided leadership, Palestinian blood is being shed for no reason."

Other observers pointed out that the Palestinian Arabs, too, could have been marking the 50th anniversary of their state-- had they and the Arab states only accepted the United Nations' partition vote in 1947.

Instead, they chose rejection, confrontation, and 50 years of bloody conflict. Rather than reap the considerable social and economic benefits the Zionists had to offer, they--abetted by the rest of the Arab world--have embraced their victim role: the never-ending struggle, the permanent refugee camps, eternal enmity towards their Abrahamic cousins.

Israel accepted a historic compromise when it accepted the sliver of a state offered by the UN. As a result it rejoices this month as a thriving democracy. Netanyahu today offers the Palestinians a historic compromise in the form of limited self-determination (a far more realistic option than Shimon Peres' "new Middle East" mirage). It's the Palestinians turn to grasp the nettle.

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