Israel Maintains Hope Through Despair

As we enter the year 5763, the mood of the Jewish people is justifiably dark indeed.

It has been a year of increasing violence in the Middle East, growing anti-Semitism in Europe, hostility toward Israel, and a general air of crisis and ominous headlines — a shared misery of collective despair.

The statistics speak for themselves. So far, 611 Israelis have been killed since the intifada began, with over 3,700 wounded. Contrast this to the days just prior to the collapse of the Oslo accords. In 1999, there were no bombings (including suicide, car, etc.), only one in 1998 and four in the first nine months of 2000. In addition, there have been more than 1,400 Palestinian deaths since the intifada began.

The Israeli economy, booming just a few years ago, is on the ropes. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Israel had been 2.2 percent in 1999 and 7.4 percent in 2000, but the economy declined by nearly 1 percent in 2001 and by nearly 3 percent in the first half of 2002. Some estimates suggest that these figures are deceptively optimistic and that the Israeli GDP has actually dropped by 10 percent since the start of the intifada. Unemployment is now over 10 percent. Tourist arrivals were up 3.6 percent in 2000, then fell 50 percent in 2001, and were down approximately another 30 percent in the first half of this year. Immigration to Israel dropped almost 28 percent in 2001, and so far in 2002 it is down over 30 percent.

But not all the news is bad. First, Israel is not collapsing. Despite all the pressure of ongoing terrorism and the failing economy, Israelis are holding together. And American Jews are standing firm in Israel’s support. Moreover, the political situation is not without a few significant glimmers of hope.

The past year saw the critically significant, albeit inadequate, Saudi peace initiative adopted by the Arab League. This was a breakthrough, one that must not be permitted to fade into obscurity. It represented the first time that virtually the entire Arab world agreed to accept Israel’s right to exist in security and to normalize relations in exchange for the 1967 lands. The Saudi initiative stands as a possible beginning for a new regional Arab-Israeli relationship, should events and American leadership permit a return to regional diplomacy.

There is also a glimmer of hope on the Israeli-Palestinian front. With all the profound difficulties that remain, serious negotiations have now begun concerning gradual Israeli withdrawals in return for Palestinian performance in controlling terrorism. The Palestinians have clearly made a serious attempt to cooperate with Israeli security in order to gain Israeli withdrawals, despite continuing sporadic violence. Many Israeli officials recognize that some of the new members of the Palestinian Cabinet are indeed more professional, serious and competent than their predecessors. This progress may have disappeared by the time these words are published, but the fact is, there has been a steady, if largely unnoticed, glacial progress throughout the summer.

As Jews enter the New Year, there are small but important openings on which to find some optimism that the coming year will be a happier time. Despite the serious disillusionment, polls on both sides hint at some small light at the end of the tunnel. In one, 73 percent of Palestinians say that they favor reconciliation with Israelis when a final status agreement has been reached. Over 60 percent of Israelis, with all of their frustrations and intense focus on the end of violence, support the negotiated establishment of a Palestinian state.

In another poll, 80 percent of Palestinians support a large-scale, nonviolent protest movement, and 56 percent would participate in this activity. Similarly, an overwhelming 78 percent of Israeli Jews believe that the Palestinians have a legitimate right to seek a Palestinian state, provided they use nonviolent means. Also, 56 percent feel this way about the Palestinians’ right to oppose the expansion of settlements. If the Palestinians were to move from violent to nonviolent protest, a majority of Israeli Jews would favor making concessions to the Palestinians, including phasing out the checkpoints between Palestinian towns (61 percent) and being more flexible in negotiating the borders of a future Palestinian state (as high as 60 percent). About two-thirds say that the Israeli government should not try to stop Palestinians from organizing large nonviolent demonstrations.

The violence has consistently proved to be the stumbling block, and no viable prospects will emerge as long as it continues. But despite the many assaults upon it, the Jewish world would benefit by beginning to think in terms of hope instead of despair and disillusionment. The American Jewish community could make a major contribution in this regard by making it clear to all who seek its advice, especially in the American government, that only through more direct U.S. involvement can these hints of progress be transformed into real achievement.

On June 24, President Bush laid out a vision of an accord that he hoped could be reached in three years, a vision in which Jewish Israel would live in peace, side by side, with Arab Palestine. The United States can contribute to implementing this vision by actively seeking measures to not only control the violence, but which will lead to a serious diplomatic process.

With the New Year, American Jews would do well to recommit themselves to supporting Israel more strongly than ever. But support for Israel in 5763 must mean more than supporting policies that only temporarily stop the violence. Israel needs policies that will lead towards a permanent reconciliation. One means of doing so is to recognize the notions shared by a large proportion of Israeli Jews: that there can be no resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict by military means alone, and that the United States must be closely involved in that resolution. By reaffirming their dedication to backing Israeli efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution, American Jews will demonstrate their faith and confidence that Israel — and, by extension, all Jews — can still achieve a better day.