Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

Can Israel Survive?

Beset on all sides, it stands firm

Jerusalem — In the weeks since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher-supermarket massacres in Paris, thousands of French Jews have contacted Israeli authorities to begin the process of aliyah, the “ascent” of emigrating to Israel. Many are likely to settle in the charming 19th-century “German Colony” of Jerusalem — where you will nowadays hear a lot of people speaking French.

Stopping by a Parisian-style bistro in the German Colony, I meet Meir Schweiger, a modern-Orthodox rabbi of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. As I do with most Israelis, I ask Rabbi Schweiger how he sees the prospects for peace. He recalls how things were in the 1970s and 1980s, after he first moved to the Gush Etzion, a large block of settlements between Jerusalem and Hebron in the West Bank. Back then, he tells me, Jewish settlers routinely went shopping in nearby Palestinian markets. Palestinian businessmen were often well known among settlers and could move freely in and out of settlements with their employees.

Peaceful coexistence started deteriorating in 1987, with the first intifada, and ended altogether in the terrible second intifada of 2000 to 2003, which killed nearly a thousand Israeli civilians and ended only with the construction of a separation wall. Schweiger recounts that the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah militia, went into nearby Palestinian villages to distribute weapons and incite violence. Now, says Schweiger, even those Palestinians who remained friendly to Israeli settlers say that they cannot guarantee their safety beyond the settlements. Attacks against Jewish settlers are routine; when a young Israeli family recently stopped to pick up a Palestinian hitchhiker, he doused them with acid, severely injuring a ten-year-old girl.

In the West Bank, Palestinians now need permits or security escorts to enter Jewish settlements for work or study, as hundreds do every day. That’s still better than the situation in the Gaza strip, where Hamas has been in control for most of the last decade. Because Hamas refuses to give up its missile stocks, and arms daily for war, the Gaza border is closed.

Closed, that is, except for the terror tunnels. At the start of last year’s Gaza war, the Israel Defense Forces discovered and spent weeks destroying a staggering network of tunnels through which Hamas had hoped to infiltrate terrorists into nearby communities in Israel. As I descend into one such tunnel, at its debouche near a small kibbutz close to the Gaza border, my first reaction is disbelief that Palestinians would go to so much trouble merely to kill a small number of innocent civilians. As Rabbi Schweiger ruefully notes, Gazans have taken international charity — in the form of cement — and used it “not for survival, but for destruction, even self-destruction.”

According to Palestinian human-rights activist Bassem Eid, charity is doing far more harm than good. “In my opinion,” he tells me, “nobody is helping.” According to Eid, Hamas’s business model is to profit from the suffering of Palestinians: “The Palestinians have achieved nothing from intifada.” But the international aid keeps pouring in from abroad — billions of dollars in some years, matching the GDP per person of some of the region’s countries — mostly from unwitting taxpayers in Europe and America. Eid is among a small number of Palestinians who advocate an end to international charity, so Palestinians can embrace self-reliance and gain a stake in peace rather than war.

Visiting shops and restaurants in Israel, one often sees Arabs and Jews working together and getting along jovially, as they have throughout history. “But this time,” says one young Israeli, “the difference is that we all know that any of those Arab friends could turn around and kill us, with the right trigger.”

Israel stands, battered but battle-hardened, in many ways more successful than ever. Yet with the Islamist tide rising relentlessly throughout the region, how much longer can it last?

The Israelis stand united and confident, committed to fighting for what they have. That’s more than the Europeans can say, and maybe more than we can say. Still, Israelis are nervous about the future. When here, it feels as if there were always a hurricane just nearby, threatening to make landfall.

Across the Lebanese border to the north, Hezbollah gathers strength in spooky silence, armed with more rockets than most NATO countries. To the northeast, across from the Golan Heights, the Syrian state has all but collapsed, and the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda branch, is vying with neighboring Hezbollah for control. To the southwest lies Hamas, arming again for war while Gaza crumbles. And in the broader Middle East, the modern state system seems to be collapsing as terrorist networks such as ISIS and Hezbollah learn to provide services and control territory while fighting.

At the moment, Israel’s borders are quiet, but this is merely an interregnum in a missile terror war that began in 2005, when Israel withdrew from Gaza and Hamas began its steady stream of rocket fire. In recent years, Hamas and Hezbollah alike have embraced missile attacks as the strategy most likely to terrorize the Jews into abandoning the land. In the first phase of the last Gaza war, Hamas rained hundreds of missiles down on Israel every day and nearly managed to shutter Israel’s main airport.

Missile terrorism poses a unique threat to the state itself, a threat out of proportion to its civilian toll. During the 2006 war with Hezbollah, which fired more than 100 missiles every day at Israel’s northern cities, a million Israelis were forced to live in bomb shelters for weeks. If enough Jews had then decided to leave the land entirely, the Islamist vision of wiping Israel from the map might at long last have been realized. This time, when thousands of Hamas missiles filled the skies, Israel had the Iron Dome missile-defense system in place. Iron Dome cannot intercept all incoming missiles, but it still proved a game-changer. Rather than descending en masse into shelters as missile sirens blared in Tel Aviv, Israelis tell me, they stood watching on rooftops and during wedding receptions as the interceptors’ contrails streaked upwards, cheering as one brilliant explosion after another lit up the sky.

But Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, perhaps 20 times as large as that of Hamas, would overwhelm Iron Dome. And Hezbollah’s Iranian masters are everywhere in the ascendant — and on the cusp of attaining nuclear weapons. Israel’s hopes lie increasingly with a de facto alliance of Arab states — including principally Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — that also see Sunni extremists such as ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood as existential threats. Those states are increasingly wary of America because, in the apparent hope of achieving any nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama has been willing to accept and indeed strengthen Iranian hegemony over large swathes of the Middle East, including four Arab capitals, in addition to letting Iran keep all the elements of a nuclear-weapons program.

Congress looks set to insist on imposing sanctions unless Iran dismantles its nuclear-weapons program — something the Iranians have not the slightest intention of doing, not least because Obama has already agreed to let them keep it. A major clash is brewing between Obama and pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, dramatically raising the stakes on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress in early March, just days before elections in Israel. Obama is pressuring Democrats to boycott Netanyahu’s speech, a horrible message for an American president to send at a time when anti-Semitism around the world is reaching levels not seen since the days of the Nazis.

There are glimmers of hope for reconciliation, but they lie in a different direction than is commonly supposed. As the Israeli politician Naftali Bennet likes to point out, most of today’s Israeli–Palestinian violence originates in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew, rather than in the West Bank, where Israel remains engaged.

Today’s West Bank is indeed a much more hopeful place than Gaza. As I cross Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank for the first time, I’m a bit nervous passing signs that warn of mortal danger ahead. But when I arrive in the bustling city of Ramallah, I am quickly at ease. It’s a place full of normal people going about their business, like anywhere else. The street executions that are common in the ISIS and Hamas territories are nowhere to be seen. It’s not impossible to imagine people of all kinds, including Jews, passing peacefully and safely through this area, as they did not long ago.

Some 70,000 West Bank Palestinians have permits to enter and work in Israel proper, and only a vanishingly small number of them have been linked to terror attacks. Eleven Israelis were stabbed on a bus in Tel Aviv recently, and Netanyahu is right to fault Palestinian leaders for inciting violence over such insane grievances as whether the government of Israel should permit Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. But life in Israel goes on — in the streets, at the markets, and on the bustling sidewalks that over a million Arabs and 7 million Jews share every day.

The Israeli elections slated for March are likely to turn on humdrum domestic issues as much as on national security. Israelis are increasingly indignant that everything seems to be more expensive here than in other countries — including even food products made in Israel. Like many Americans, most Israelis don’t seem to understand that redistributionist policies are expensive, and after imposing them, they rail against the expense by demanding still more redistribution. On security issues, however, there is increasingly little daylight between Israel’s parties. An ill-conceived “peace process” and Obama have seen to that.

During my visit to a spectacular planned city that is being built (with Qatari money) outside Ramallah, I have a chance to ask Bashar Masri, a prominent Palestinian-American businessman, this question: If a two-state solution is implemented, would Jews be able to live safely on the Palestinian side of the border? “Of course,” Masri says, with a brimming smile. “We would welcome them with open arms.”

Back in the German Colony, I relate my question, and Masri’s answer, to Rabbi Schweiger. He responds with a look of incredulity, as if wondering what I could possibly expect him to say.

– Mr. Loyola is a former legal counselor for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola, a former White House environment-policy adviser and speechwriter, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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