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Israel’s Big Day, Under Sun and Cloud
The New York Times

JERUSALEM — The paradox that is Israel — wealthy, dynamic and safe, yet mistrusted, condemned and nervous — was on full display on Wednesday as the country mourned its fallen soldiers and began celebrating its 64th Independence Day.

Commentators on the left and the right stuck to their scripts, with the left asserting that the country’s treatment of the Palestinians and its regional saber rattling have made it isolated and stagnant, and the right glorifying Israel’s accomplishments: high-tech innovations, long life expectancies and democracy.

President Shimon Peres, in an interview with the newspaper Maariv, summed up the sense of wonder that has driven Israel’s belief in itself, describing the poor odds of the Zionist militia against the Arab world in 1948.

“Israel, mathematically or tangibly, should not have been established,” he said. “Prior to the War of Independence, there was no chance. We were 650,000, they were 40 million. They had seven armies, we had barely 5,000 soldiers.” He added: “So tangibly we were on the brink of collapse, but we won anyway, thanks to hidden powers. Ever since, for all of my life, I have tried to understand those immeasurable powers.”

Yet in the same interview, Mr. Peres warned about Israel’s direction, saying that without peace with the Palestinians, its economic prowess and future would be imperiled.

“Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products,” he said. “And in order to export, you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts. There is already an artistic boycott against us — they won’t let Habimah Theater enter London — and signs of an undeclared financial boycott are beginning to emerge.”

Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank drew more international condemnation this week after the government retroactively legalized three Jewish outposts there. The Palestinians described the move as another example of why there is no peace. For the two-day commemoration of Memorial Day and Independence Day, Israel closed access to the country from the West Bank.

The Arab revolutions of the past 16 months have also felt threatening to Israel, and talk of regional peace, already fading in recent years, has nearly disappeared from the national agenda. Instead, there is a sense promulgated by the government that Israel needs to hunker down, improve its defenses and wait for the storms to pass.

Egypt announced this week that it was canceling its supply of natural gas to Israel, and while both governments publicly described it as merely a business dispute, it was clear that deep political antagonism was behind the decision as Egypt moves away from the policies of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Moreover, the Egyptian Sinai has become a source of enormous concern for Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week calling it a “kind of Wild West,” and the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, saying Israel should consider massing more troops along that border, because Egypt has become an even greater concern than Iran.

That led Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi of Egypt to warn that his country would defend its territory. “We will break the legs of anyone trying to attack us or who comes near the border,” he said.

A senior Israeli official said that Egypt’s direction — anti-Israel, Islamist — was clear, and that there was little Israel could do to change its course. Similar arguments have been waged here in the past few years about Turkey, once a friend of Israel and now one of its leading critics.

Zvi Bar’el, a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs for the left-wing newspaper Haaretz, took issue on Wednesday with that Israeli analysis, saying that the problem was Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, and that commercial concerns could not make that go away.

“Both Egypt and Turkey have never given up — neither in exchange for gas nor for military equipment — their desire to persuade Israel to conduct its policy in a manner that would enable them to maintain relations with it, without undermining their relationship with their citizens and with the countries of the region,” he wrote. “Israel, which considered these relations a seal of approval for continuing its policy in the territories, lived with the illusion that the money index would solve everything.”

But the bulk of the commentary on Wednesday, as befits a national day of celebration, was self-congratulatory and laudatory.

There were the numbers from the Central Bureau of Statistics: 7.9 million people live here, 10 times the number at the country’s founding, with 14 big cities. Seventy percent of the inhabitants are native-born, compared with 35 percent in 1948. Israel’s gross domestic product per capita would fit well into Western Europe. The economy is sound.

There was also discussion of what is considered here to be unfair criticism from abroad. Ben-Dror Yemini, a centrist commentator at Maariv, devoted his column to writing a letter to Theodor Herzl, the 19th-century Austrian journalist who was the father of Zionism, with advice if he could visit to see what had become of his vision.

Mr. Yemini recommended to him that he leave aside loyalty to his profession and not read newspapers, because they are filled with negativity.

He added, “Did you know, dear visionary, that Europe, where you realized that the Jews would have no future, gives more research grants to Israelis than to any other country on earth?” And, “Did you know that the yield per acre here is the highest in the world?”

Mr. Yemini wrote: “If we believe academic publications, international institutions and newspapers, Israel is a terrible place that manufactures and exports violence to the whole world, a country that spends all its time oppressing, a country that is at the top of the list in corruption and human rights violations.

“If we were to examine reality, the picture is completely different. Israel is one of the safest places in the world, life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, the percentage of people with quality higher education is one of the highest in the world, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the lowest number of casualties in comparison to any other conflict in the world.”

He said that all of this was especially impressive given that Israel was built by immigrants and had faced conflict for decades. His view was echoed by a poll conducted for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot — but so was the skepticism and concern of others. Eighty-eight percent of Israeli Jews polled said they were proud to be Israeli, yet a vast majority — 77 percent of secular Jews and 62 percent of religiously observant ones — said Israel lacked cohesion and suffered from divisions.

Still, asked whether Herzl would have been pleased, 63 percent said the state had come out “just as he intended.”

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