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Israel: Bits, Bytes and Bombs
The New York Times
March 23, 2013

READING the news from the wider Middle East and then watching President Obama visiting Israel triggered this thought: The president looked as if he were visiting an atoll in the Pacific, or maybe New Zealand — but definitely some kind of island state surrounded by roiling seas.

Ari Shavit of the daily Haaretz captured this mood in his column the other day, which began: “A few months ago Amnon Dankner published a sharp, amusing article in the new newspaper Sof Hashavua. He described how Shimon Peres’s innovative technological project causes Israel to detach from the Middle East and sail westward through the Mediterranean Sea, like a sort of floating island. Laughter aside, Dankner nailed the spirit of the time. In recent years Israel has been feeling, thinking and behaving as though it is no longer located in West Asia and can exist as an island that has broken off from it. As if there was no Arab world, no Palestine, no Iran. No Arabs, no settlers, no occupation.”

In fact, while President Obama was in Israel there was a report that chemical weapons were used next door in Syria and rockets were fired into Israel from next door in Gaza. But, at the very same time, Globes, Israel’s business newspaper, published this item: “Accel Partners has completed the closing of Accel London IV, a $475 million fund focused on Europe and Israel. ... Accel London IV will invest in the firm’s core areas of expertise, including consumer Internet, big data, cloud, SaaS and mobile. Accel partner Kevin Comolli said, ‘The fact that Accel London IV was raised in eight weeks and was significantly over-subscribed is a powerful endorsement of Accel London and the market opportunity in Europe and Israel.’ ”

Rockets arrive from Gaza in the morning and venture capital from London in the afternoon. Israel’s ability to live as if it were disconnected from the rest of the region is impressive and necessary. It’s also illusory and dangerous.

It’s impressive and necessary because Israel is the only country in the world today that has nonstate actors, armed with missiles, nested among civilians on four out of five of its borders: the Sinai, Gaza, southern Lebanon and Syria. Beyond them lies a hinterland of states consumed by internal turmoil, and Iran. Yet Israel has managed to juggle bits, bytes and bombs — with high walls that neutralize its enemies and high-tech that nourishes its economy.

But there is a fine line between keeping danger out and locking fantasy in, between keeping your people alive and keeping crazy dreams alive. Israel is close to crossing that line.

The dangerous illusion Israel is dwelling in, argues Shavit, is the notion that “it can live like an autarky with no relation to the environment.” But no nation can do that, he argued, “certainly not a nation in which six million Jews share the land with more than five million Palestinians. Certainly not a nation that insists, even in the second decade of the third millennium, on occupying another nation.”

Indeed, the crazy dream Israel is keeping alive is that it can permanently occupy the West Bank, with its 2.5 million Palestinians, to satisfy biblically inspired settlers, who now hold major cabinet positions, like the housing portfolio, in Israel’s new government. With nearly 600,000 Israelis now living in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the window for a two-state solution “is slowly vanishing from the earth,” notes the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal. Amazingly, polls still show a majority on both sides for a two-state deal, “but there is a deep trust problem” that has to be overcome — fast.

Nahum Barnea, the veteran Israeli columnist of Yediot Aharonot, told me Obama made a real “breakthrough” to the Israeli public with his speech on Thursday. “If he was considered an enemy before, he is now considered a friend,” said Barnea. “Even those who still disagree with him don’t think he has bad intentions toward Israel.”

Obama embraced Israelis with both understanding and honesty. He noted in his speech: “As Ariel Sharon said — I’m quoting him — ‘It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state [and], at the same time to control all of [the land of] Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.’ ”

Which is why Palestinians need to drop all their preconditions and enter negotiations and Israel needs to halt settlements and test and test again whether President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority can deliver. Thanks to their cooperation with the Israeli security services, no Israeli was killed in the West Bank by terrorism in 2012. But Palestinians won’t sustain that restraint without movement toward a Palestinian state. The best way for Israel to deal with the chaos around it is not to put its head in the sand but to collaborate with Palestinians to build a West Bank state that is modern, secular and Westernizing; one where Muslims, Christians and Jews can work together and that stands in daily refutation of the failing Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood models elsewhere. If Israelis and Palestinians do not try everything — now — to make that happen, this will be remembered not as a lost opportunity but the lost opportunity, and no island will escape the storm that will follow.

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