The Magazine

At Last, Zion

May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Milan Kundera once defined a small nation as "one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear, and it knows it."

The United States is not a small nation. Neither is Japan. Or France. These nations may suffer defeats. They may even be occupied. But they cannot disappear. Kundera's Czechoslovakia could -- and once did. Prewar Czechoslovakia is the paradigmatic small nation: a liberal democracy created in the ashes of war by a world determined to let little nations live free; threatened by the covetousness and sheer mass of a rising neighbor; compromised fatally by a West grown weary "of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing"; left truncated and defenseless, succumbing finally to conquest. When Hitler entered Prague in March 1939, he declared, "Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist."

Israel too is a small country. This is not to say that extinction is its fate. Only that it can be.

Moreover, in its vulnerability to extinction, Israel is not just any small country. It is the only small country -- the only period, period -- whose neighbors publicly declare its very existence an affront to law, morality, and religion and make its extinction an explicit, paramount national goal. Nor is the goal merely declarative. Iran, Libya, and Iraq conduct foreign policies designed for the killing of Israelis and the destruction of their state. They choose their allies (Hamas, Hezbollah) and develop their weapons (suicide bombs, poison gas, anthrax, nuclear missiles) accordingly. Countries as far away as Malaysia will not allow a representative of Israel on their soil nor even permit the showing of Schindler's List lest it engender sympathy for Zion.

Others are more circumspect in their declarations. No longer is the destruction of Israel the unanimous goal of the Arab League, as it was for the thirty years before Camp David. Syria, for example, no longer explicitly enunciates it. Yet Syria would destroy Israel tomorrow if it had the power. (Its current reticence on the subject is largely due to its post-Cold War need for the American connection.)

Even Egypt, first to make peace with Israel and the presumed model for peacemaking, has built a vast U.S.-equipped army that conducts military exercises obviously designed for fighting Israel. Its huge "Badr '96" exercises, for example, Egypt's largest since the 1973 war, featured simulated crossings of the Suez Canal.

And even the PLO, which was forced into ostensible recognition of Israel in the Oslo Agreements of 1993, is still ruled by a national charter that calls in at least fourteen places for Israel's eradication. The fact that after five years and four specific promises to amend the charter it remains unamended is a sign of how deeply engraved the dream of eradicating Israel remains in the Arab consciousness.

The contemplation of Israel's disappearance is very difficult for this generation. For fifty years, Israel has been a fixture. Most people cannot remember living in a world without Israel.

Nonetheless, this feeling of permanence has more than once been rudely interrupted -- during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War when it seemed as if Israel might be overrun, or those few weeks in May and early June 1967 when Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran and marched 100,000 troops into Sinai to drive the Jews into the sea.

Yet Israel's stunning victory in 1967, its superiority in conventional weaponry, its success in every war in which its existence was at stake, has bred complacency. Some ridicule the very idea of Israel's impermanence. Israel, wrote one Diaspora intellectual, "is fundamentally indestructible. Yitzhak Rabin knew this. The Arab leaders on Mount Herzl [at Rabin's funeral] knew this. Only the land-grabbing, trigger-happy saints of the right do not know this. They are animated by the imagination of catastrophe, by the thrill of attending the end."

Thrill was not exactly the feeling Israelis had when during the Gulf War they entered sealed rooms and donned gas masks to protect themselves from mass death -- in a war in which Israel was not even engaged. The feeling was fear, dread, helplessness -- old existential Jewish feelings that post- Zionist fashion today deems anachronistic, if not reactionary. But wish does not overthrow reality. The Gulf War reminded even the most wishful that in an age of nerve gas, missiles, and nukes, an age in which no country is completely safe from weapons of mass destruction, Israel with its compact population and tiny area is particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Israel is not on the edge. It is not on the brink. This is not '48 or '67 or '73. But Israel is a small country. It can disappear. And it knows it.