What a Difference a Year Can Make

The situation last year on Rosh Hashanah was completely different from what it is today, the eve of the new Jewish year of 5762.

The situation last year on Rosh Hashanah was completely different from what it is today, the eve of the new Jewish year of 5762. Last year, Israel was a country that enjoyed stable peace agreements with two of its most important neighbors; Israel's economy was booming; its international standing was solid; its armed forces were beginning to think about the possibility of abolishing the draft; and it was starting to display the attributes of an ideal country of immigration as it embarked on utilizing more and more of its resources for the solution of its complex internal questions.

Along came the intifada and turned the clock back to the struggle for survival that the nascent State of Israel waged in 1948. Over the past year, Israel has been a country where life has come to closely resemble the way of life here during the early years of statehood, if not during the years that preceded statehood.

Even if the balance of power between Israel and its various enemies is vastly different today from what it was then, even if the idea that Israel is fighting for its very survival has no basis in fact and is being nurtured by imaginary fears, you experience what you think you are experiencing. And what Israelis have collectively thought they have been experiencing over the past 12 months has brought to the surface the awareness of grave dangers that they have always tended to deny.

The feeling of being vulnerable from every direction and in every sphere has swept the nation and is one of the factors that has returned Israel to the struggle for survival that it waged in the late 1940s. However, another factor that has turned back the hands of the clock is the pretext for the present conflict: The intifada, which began last Rosh Hashanah has reintroduced into the battlefield the flags not only of Israel's War of Independence but also of the events that preceded that war. Why? Because the present military confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian people is not just about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land from the time of the 1967 Six-Day War onward; it is also, and primarily, about the very willingness of the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian people in particular, to make peace with the existence of a Jewish state on the margins of that Arab world.

The past year has graphically illustrated the point that the enemy with whom the Israelis must contend has no moral compunctions and that its present leaders will not settle merely for Israel's removal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but are instead demanding that the Palestinian right of return be exercised within the Green Line.

Israel's Arab minority contains a rebellious generation that has grown up within that community and which is determined to see Israel as a state that represents all its citizens, which means, in effect, the evaporation of the concept of Israel's identity as the national home of the Jewish people.

The unavoidable conclusion that seems to emerge from this situation is that Arab hostility toward Israel is sweeping and infinite, that the Palestinians' opposition to Israel's very existence is absolute and eternal, and that the idea that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be settled by Israel's return to the June 4, 1967 borders is pure nonsense.

The response to those who support this apparently inevitable conclusion is that the events of the Jewish year of 5761, which ends today, have actually proven the utter futility of Israel's continuing to rule another nation and actually refute the view that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are important assets that help reinforce Israel's national security. Each and every day, Israelis fall victim to acts of Palestinian terrorism, despite - and actually because of - Israel's continued hold on the territories. Each and every day, Israelis become increasingly aware of the danger posed by missiles that cannot be stopped by territorial buffer zones. Moreover, last week's terror attack on the centers of American might has dramatically shown the wide range of means that are at the disposal of all those who decide to wreak death and destruction upon their enemies.

The results of the Six-Day War are gradually emerging as one colossal, tragic error, an error that has completely distorted Israel's natural development as a normal country. The occupation of the territories was a military response whose scope matched that of the threat that had hovered, like a Damoclean sword, over Israel's head, prior to the outbreak of that war on June 5, 1967. Moreover, that military response was fitting - and even, to an extent, poetically just - retaliation for Arab aggression and for the threat it had posed to Israel's very survival.

However, Israel was not prepared to merely hold on to the territories for safe-keeping until the launching of peace negotiations. Instead, Israel elected to settle these areas. This kind of behavior made it difficult, but not impossible, for Israel to arrive at a peace treaty with Egypt and was a serious stumbling-block that prevented progress in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Israel's continued hold on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is weighing down the country in moral, security, and economic terms as well as in terms of Israel's standing in the international community. Israel's continued hold on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is also making it difficult for Israel to define its identity and, even with only one minute to spare before disaster, to place the relations between the state and its Arab minority on the right track.

The school of thought that justifies Israel's presence in the territories as a fitting response to the Palestinians' total denial of Israel's right to exist, or as a vital component in the maintenance of national security, is completely ignoring the immense destructive power that Israel's continued presence in those territories could generate against the entire Zionist enterprise of a national home for the Jewish people in its historic homeland.