"There's a fear down here we can't forget hasn't got a name just yet
Always awake, always around singing ashes to ashes all fall down."
--The Grateful Dead, "In the Dark"
Since its birth as a state 65 years ago, Israel has faced one existential challenge after another: hot wars, cold wars, terrorism, and rejectionism; early near-death experiences for the fragile and unlikely Jewish state, surrounded by hostile neighbors; the persistent equation of its very rationale as a state -- Zionism -- with racism and imperialism; and beneath this, the ongoing real racism that never seems to die, a dark form of intolerance that repeatedly rises like the soul of Lord Voldemort: anti-Semitism.
As a state still heavily shaped by the traumatic circumstances of its birth, out of the ashes of the Holocaust; as a people who have come so close historically to annihilation, Israel has a natural and understandable proclivity to feel insecure and to fear the worst. When a state has fought seven wars in 65 years, and a roughly equal number of other military conflicts, it has reason to feel that its survival is constantly on the line, and to spend, tax, draft, and innovate heavily and relentlessly to defend itself. Against the long odds of these formidable challenges, Israel's development ranks by any measure as one of the most remarkable achievements of any post-World War II nation. It is a story not merely of survival but of booming success: the entrenchment of vigorous democratic institutions and freedoms, the flowering of the desert, cutting-edge scientific and technological inventions, and rapid economic development that has propelled this embattled nation of immigrants into the ranks of the world's rich, highly industrialized democracies. Today, Israel ranks 16th On the United Nations' Human Development Index.
Despite the astonishing leaps in Israel's military power and technology, Israel cannot relax. At the moment it is not at war, but it is also not at peace.
But the dominant mood in Israel today is anxiety more than celebration. The principal source of this anxiety is not the ongoing deep internal divisions in what has long been, and has increasingly become, a deeply divided society. Neither is it the gathering international campaign, gaining momentum particularly in Europe, to "boycott, sanction, and divest" from Israel. The root of this anxiety remains what it has always been: an abiding sense of insecurity. Despite the astonishing leaps in Israel's military power and technology (as symbolized by the success of its "Iron Dome" air defense system in shooting down an estimated 90 percent of the rockets launched from Gaza last year against Israeli civilians), Israel cannot relax. At the moment it is not at war, but it is also not at peace. Much deadlier and more accurate weapons lie in the vast arsenals of a Syrian state that is slowly disintegrating in a civil war. Hence the recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian weapons caches that were apparently about to be shipped across the border in Lebanon to Hezbollah.
The Syrian crisis is only a small fragment of a new security reality that confronts the state of Israel. Throughout the Arab world, longstanding pillars of political stability are falling down. As many Israeli strategists see it, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over in Egypt and Gaza, has the upper hand in Tunisia, and could still gain power in Libya, or even possibly in Jordan, where the massive flow of refugees from Syria is badly straining the economy and social order. Or even more radical Islamist forces could conquer power in some places (including potentially Yemen). The Gulf States are nervous. The region is in crisis.And then there lurks what most Israelis regard as the ultimate existential challenge to their national security: the Iranian regime's intense pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. That is a line that Israel's political and military leaders feel they cannot allow this Iranian regime to cross. And President Obama himself, who is hardly eager for any more American military actions abroad, declared, in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, "... when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."
Strangely, however, the one area of relative, or at least transitory, calm in the region is the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Since the second Palestinian Intifada ended around 2005, there has been no broad new violent uprising in the West Bank. Rather, there has been of late relative peace in the West Bank and something new and potentially game changing: Palestinian development. The past six years of government under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been a period of state-building and economic growth unlike anything the Palestinians have seen since the creation of Israel, with economic growth averaging 11 percent in 2010 and 2011 (though slowing to about half that since). The signs of this development are particularly evident in the seat of the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, Ramallah.
Palestinians have begun to taste what peace and cooperation could bring; but they have a bitter taste in their mouths, meanwhile. This is the continuing humiliation and injustice of an Israeli occupation that has swallowed up a steadily increasing amount of land for Israeli settlements and carved up the West Bank into fragmented pieces separated by 10-foot high concrete blast walls, topped by razor wire, and dotted relentlessly by prison-like watchtowers and military checkpoints. The entire look and feel of this presence exudes the inescapable character of occupation as domination and control. Until it is ended, there cannot be peace, and therefore Israel cannot ever feel really secure. That is the great paradox of the occupation.
There is no higher act of friendship that the United States can perform for Israel than to help it find a way to a two-state solution before the option disappears.
Many Israelis feel this is a reason to worry about the long term, but not the present. With the region in turmoil, with peace treaties shaky, with Iran seeking the bomb, with everything that seemed stable at risk of falling down, this is hardly the time to take chances for peace, they say. And so, in the recent Israeli election, the existential question of war, peace, and occupation did not much figure in the campaign.