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Western Press Review: Israel At 50 Remains A Miracle Unfolding

By Don Hill, Esther Pan, Alexandre d'Aragon

Prague, 30 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Israel is 50 years old today and Western press commentary mixes celebration of the "miracle" with assessment of the intractable problems.

NEW YORK TIMES: Israel's understandable preoccupation with security also brought mistakes and excesses.

The New York Times, in an editorial Sunday, spotlighted a vein of hope in the mix. The Times said: "Fifty years ago, in the shadow of the Holocaust, a small, determined band of Jews realized a dream that had spanned 19 centuries of exile and harrowing hardship for the Jewish people. They founded the country of Israel, beginning a remarkable epic of nation-building and survival that is one of the stirring sagas of the 20th century."

The editorial said: "Few new nations have endured so much turmoil in their early years. Israel's founding brought the first of four wars in which outnumbered Israeli forces defeated or held at bay the armies of Arab neighbors intent on extinguishing the Jewish state."

It said: "Israel's understandable preoccupation with security also brought mistakes and excesses. The 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon produced the slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Israel's Christian Lebanese allies, a massacre nearby Israeli forces did nothing to stop. Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank has often been harsh." And added: "But now, for the first time, Israel can also secure its survival through peace. Finding the right balance between strength and diplomacy is the greatest challenge that Israel confronts."

WASHINGTON POST: Israel has failed to gain either true peace or true surrender

Columnist Jim Hoagland, writing today in The Washington Post, says the Israelis still face a long, hazardous journey. He comments: "Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary today in blatant contradiction of the Middle East mind-set of the moment, which emphasizes tactics and short-term needs, not the sweep of history in a region struggling to transform itself.

"Half a century of survival by a small state that its Arab neighbors confidently expected to snuff out in 50 days should foster contemplation by the Israelis and the Arabs of how far they have come together, as well as how far they must still go to attain peace and justice or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

"Israel at 50 -- today is the 5th of Iyar, 5708, on the Jewish calendar -- is a state that has inflicted four crushing military defeats on the Arabs but failed to gain either true peace or true surrender from these conquests or from the daring peace initiative begun by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat in Oslo nearly five years ago."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Israel has become a mosaic

"In the beginning Israel was a joke. And then it became a miracle," commentator Josef Joffe wrote yesterday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung." He wrote: "The beginning was on May 14, 1948, when David Ben Gurion, founder of the State of Israel, proclaimed its independence and six Arab armies marched in to deal with 600,000 Jews who fired back, using British Sten guns."

Joffe commented: "With a per capita income of $17,000 Israel, a one-time breadbasket case, is now, on average, wealthier than European Union countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Or, to draw another comparison, the Israeli economy is larger than the combined national product of its four Arab neighbors.

The columnist said: "Israel was originally intended to combine a nation, a state and a religion into a state of normality that was not the Jews' lot for 2,000 years. What has become of it is a mosaic - the parts of which do not match each other. In Biblical days the country split into Judaea and Israel. Today many a secular, western-oriented Jew dreams of a second partition, with Israel divided between Tel Aviv with its boutiques and software laboratories and Jerusalem with its yeshivas, or religious colleges, and its zealous, pious way of life."

TIMES: Israel is facing a succession of second childhoods

Normalcy for Israel remains elusive, says The Times, London, in an editorial today. The Times comments: "There is much of Israel's past that remains relevant to its future. It will still be a restless, innovative, society in less than hospitable surroundings. It will continue to make sacrifices to support its own. This anniversary has provoked arguments about a post-Zionist Israel. It would be more accurate to describe this shift as Zionism-plus. Israel at 50 is not facing a midlife crisis but a succession of second childhoods. It is unlikely that 'normality', whatever that is, will prove a blessing or burden for Israel in the near future."

EL PAIS: Israel's prime minister must take the first step to stop the Mideast being the center of instability

And from Madrid, El Pais editorializes that any chance for lasting peace depends on the emergence of a more conciliatory Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. El Pais says: "Fifty years ago, a new state was born, that both wanted to be and didn't want to be like others. On the one hand, there was a deep longing in a centuries-old diaspora to have, for the first time since biblical times, a territory, some national state for the Jewish people. On the other, this state would be in a difficult situation: all the Jews, wherever they came from, would have the right to settle in the antique territory of Israel, but the price would be to expel the people already living there, the Palestinians."

It says: "For the next 50 years not to be so dramatic, and for the Mideast to stop being this great center of instability that survived the Cold War, the first step will have to be taken by Israel's prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu. A Palestinian state that would be no more than 6000 square kilometers with terrible development problems, can't represent any serious threat to Israel."

LE SOIR: The problem is also of about one million Palestinian Arabs

Two commentaries -- an editorial in Le Soir, Brussels, and an essay by Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi -- dissect the issue of Israeli identity. Le Soir editorialized yesterday: "In analyzing the question of Israeli identity, it is too often forgotten that here, the debate is not over just the crisis of Jewish Israelis, but also the problem of about one million Palestinian Arabs, also citizens of the state of Israel. The future development of the country, say experts, its very survival, essentially depends on two factors: 1) its integration into the region -- that is, its ability to make peace with its Arab neighbors, and 2) the successful integration of all its citizens, including its Arab citizens, into one country. In other words, the emergence, despite all the differences, of a common Israeli identity."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The more modest vision that remains is of an Israel that resolves its contradictions by embracing them

Halevi, senior writer for the Jerusalem Report and author of "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist", wrote in an essay in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: "If Israelis seem more anxious than celebratory on our 50th anniversary this week, it is partly because we lack the most common understanding of what Israel is supposed to be. The founders of Israel hoped to unite us with their utopian dream of a pioneering socialist state, transforming human nature through collectivist selflessness. But in the end, socialism failed to inspire even the kibbutzniks, who had to hire foreign workers to tend the fields neglected by their own disinterested children.

"Then came the turn of the West Bank settlers, who offered us a messianic vision of the Jews returning to the biblical lands and preparing the way for divine revelation. But redemption of the land meant suppression of another people, and that vision too couldn't inspire us.

"In this place of shattered utopias, the more modest vision that remains is of an Israel that resolves its contradictions by embracing them. We are at once an Eastern and a Western people, a democratic and a Jewish state, a secular entity and a holy land. When Israel learns to celebrate all of itself, it can begin to fulfill the promise of its maddening, exhilarating diversity."