Huffpost WorldPost
David Harris Headshot

Want to Understand Israel?

Posted: Updated:

Almost every responsible political leader today expresses a desire to contribute to peace in the Middle East.

Easier said than done. A real effort to promote peace requires an understanding of what motivates the parties to the conflict.

I can't say I quite get what makes the Palestinians tick. If they truly want a two-state agreement with Israel, they sure have a strange way of pursuing it, rejecting every proposal put on the table since 1947.

But I do believe that anyone who genuinely seeks peace should consider four key factors that inform the Israeli worldview.

First, geography.

The throwaway line these days is that geography no longer matters in an era of long-range missiles. Not so fast.

As the late Sir Isaiah Berlin famously quipped, "The Jews have enjoyed rather too much history and too little geography."

Israel is a small country, about the size of New Jersey or Wales, and barely two-thirds the size of Belgium. To put it into a Middle East context, Egypt is approximately fifty times larger than Israel, Saudi Arabia a hundred times.

And there's more. Until its 1967 war for survival, Israel's borders, which were nothing more than the armistice lines from the 1948 War of Independence, were nine miles at their narrowest point, near the country's midsection and most populous area.

When President George W. Bush first saw that narrow width from the vantage point of a helicopter, he was reported to have said, "There are some driveways in Texas longer than Israel is wide."

Topography matters too.

When the towering Golan Heights were in the hands of Syria before the Six-Day War, for example, Jewish villages and farms below were regularly targeted by Syrian shelling. Ask my wife. She was a volunteer in a kibbutz there. With the Golan Heights in Israel's hands, those villages and farms no longer have to rush their children into underground shelters on practically a daily basis.

In other words, how to address Israel's legitimate security concerns in a peace deal is not by any stretch a simple proposition.

Second, history.

Notwithstanding Arab claims to the contrary, the Jewish people have been linked to this region for over three thousand years. The bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is central to the historical narrative. The Jewish people were born here, their sacred texts emerged here, their temples were built here, and, even when forcibly exiled, they never stopped dreaming of their return. It is a story, quite frankly, unlike any other in the annals of mankind.

To read the Hebrew Bible is to come across Jerusalem and Zion literally hundreds of times.

The metaphysical and physical link between the Jewish people and its wellsprings of history and holiness must be acknowledged -- in the same way perhaps as Muslims see the tie between Islam and Mecca and Medina.

Third, psychology.

Some dismiss Israel's preoccupation with security as obsessive. How can it be, they ask, that the country with the strongest armed forces in the region feels so beleaguered, so under the gun?

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen typifies this approach. Regarding Israel's concern about Iran, he wrote: "Closure [on a past that holds the insistent specter of annihilation] is the overcoming of horror. It is the achievement of normality through responsibility. It cannot be attained through the inflation of threats, the perpetuation of fears, or retreat into the victimhood that sees every act, however violent, as defensive."

The "inflation of threats"? The "perpetuation of fears"? Is that all there is to Israel's current situation? Hardly.

While Cohen has sought more than once to recast Iran as a misunderstood country, Israelis hardly share his optimism about Tehran's intentions.

What is any nation to make of calls for its destruction from another nation that is hell-bent on acquiring the tools to achieve its goal?

And when the threatened nation is Israel, surely, the alarm bells go off -- and with good reason.

After all, Israel has a history. So do the Jewish people. And it teaches that there are those who wish to do harm and mean what they say. They are not to be neglected or minimized.

That history also teaches that, all too often, Israel and the Jewish people have stood largely alone in facing the danger. Pledges of help are more often made than kept. Relying on the good will of others has proved a risky proposition. The files are replete with empty promises and unfulfilled commitments.

So yes, Israel has every right, indeed obligation, to take Iran's nuclear ambitions seriously -- just as it has every right, indeed, obligation, to take seriously the 40,000 missiles in Hezbollah's arsenal in Lebanon and the desire of Hamas in Gaza to emulate Hezbollah's example.

Are the words of Hamas and Hezbollah, which cry out for Israel's annihilation, simply to be ignored, filed away in the drawer of rhetorical excess?

For that matter, should Israel be comforted by the fact that its presumed peace partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has said that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state and entered into a reconciliation agreement with Hamas?

And given recent events in Egypt and Syria, should the view of the neighborhood from Jerusalem necessarily look rosy and reassured?

In sum, are those who have themselves been targeted for destruction more than once simply to assume it cannot be tried again and instead get a good night's sleep?

And fourth, yearning.

The survivors of the exiles, the pogroms, the inquisitions, the blood libels, the ghettos, and the death camps don't need lectures about why they should seek "normality" and position themselves on "the right side of history." After all, wasn't Israel established in such large part precisely to create, at long last, a new condition for the Jews? Normality -- nothing more, nothing less.

And yet, it hasn't entirely come to be, at least not yet.

The fears are there not because they can't be forgotten, but because the threats endure. And the threats can't be ignored because the Jewish people's genetic code includes an early warning system, which tells them that the Iranian regime and its friends just might mean what they say. That the spinning centrifuges and those liquid-fuel and solid-fuel rockets just may be meant for seven million Israelis. And that, given half a chance, Hamas and Hezbollah would act on their desire for a world without Israel.

Israel doesn't need UN resolutions, editorials or speeches about the imperatives of peace. It needs credible, committed partners in the search for peace. When it has such partners, as history has amply shown, Israel will go to great territorial lengths, even at risk to its own security, to achieve a solution.

Of course, at the end of the day, Israel's partners don't have to buy its narrative any more than Israel has to buy theirs.

Yet Israel is asked to recognize their needs -- the needs of dignity, justice, and respect. And that is indeed a legitimate request for the process of conflict resolution.

So they, in turn, need at least to take into account the Israeli worldview, as Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, peacemakers both, did to their everlasting credit.

Then, perhaps, in the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore." Nothing could be more central to the Jewish mission.

To learn more, visit ajc.org.