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Israel at 75 is a Modern Wonder with a Palestinian Pain at its Heart

If you will it, it is no dream. Those are the words of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who did more than anyone to promote a vision of Jewish return to the land of the Bible.

I thought of Herzl the other day, during my first journey on the sleek new Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway, which shuttled me from Ben Gurion airport to the Holy City in about the time it took to skip the ads on a podcast.

Opened just before the pandemic, this railway was 11 years overdue, but now that it’s finally working it embodies the best of modern Israel: fast, efficient, ­impressive.

Herzl, an Austrian journalist, died before his vision for an “old-new” Jewish homeland was ­realised, but how he would have marvelled at this new artery that links Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, connecting modern and ancient, secular and religious, carrying vast families of black-hatted Haredim and rippled yoga bunnies back and forth between the nation’s two power centres.

Israel turned 75 on Wednesday. It is one of the most astonishing achievements of the modern age.

Every time I visit Tel Aviv, I still feel a shudder of awe over the sheer improbability of its existence, a thrilling modern metropolis built on little more than ancestral longing and borrowed guns.

Israel at 75 has a GDP per capita notably higher than Britain’s. It is 11 times richer than its neighbour Egypt. It has won more Nobel prizes per person than the US or France. It is a (still) functioning democracy, home to the ­Middle East’s largest gay pride parade. And now it has a lovely high-speed railway, too.

Israel faces profound challenges. Its secular and religious communities are intensely at odds, putting the country’s democratic character at risk. Much of its Arab population remains restless and alienated. Nonetheless, this country is a towering monument to the power of ideas. It is literally a dream come true.

But this is a Jewish story, so there is an enormous catch. Five million catches, in fact.

The Palestinians.

Who to blame for the predicament of the Palestinians, stateless, hemmed into the West Bank, which is under Israeli military control, and Gaza, which is under Israeli military blockade? Well, where to start?

The Palestinians were let down repeatedly over the years by their Arab allies in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, who generally treated them as political pawns, not a sovereign people.

They have been let down by their own leaders, who, in the immortal words of the former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Their propensity for ­violent terrorism has done them no favours, all but destroying the leftist peace movement in Israel.

As ever, Britain has a role too, having governed the region before it became Israel. Yet ultimately it is Israel that occupies and settles land that could – at least in theory – one day form a Palestinian state.

And ultimately it is Israel that must find a way to resolve this painful situation.

Most Israelis aren’t very interested in the occupation any more. It has become normalised. The intermittent spasms of violence rarely affect their daily lives.

They see peace as a fantasy and the Palestinians as a lost cause.

Until two recent reporting trips, I had never even properly visited the West Bank, despite a lifetime of holidaying in the ­region. Having now attended houses of mourning in Jenin and Efrat, having seen the way those ancient hills are Balkanised and partitioned, having witnessed the tears of those who have lost their children, I’m unable to view it as simply as a situation to be “managed”.

Too many lives are being blighted. Even those who see Pales­tinians as a lost cause should care about this, because the politics of occupation corrodes the rest of Israel, amplifying radical, racist voices such as that of the security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

As Israel celebrates its astonishing achievements at 75, it must also pay proper heed to this slow-motion disaster in its midst. The answers are not easy, to put it mildly. In fact there simply aren’t any clear solutions that properly balance Israeli security and Palestinian justice. But Israel must try. And keep trying. If they truly will it, it is no dream.

Article link:
Article source: The Australian / The Sunday Times | Josh Glancy | 1.5.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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