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A Message from Israel

"The ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran."

9:10 AM, Sep 21, 2010 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Democracy in Israel is not only personal and vibrant, but also grave, because the stakes are so enormously high. Recalling Jonah’s paradox, the leaders we elect are confronted with grueling decisions.

Consider the case of terror.  Israel today is threatened with two major terror organizations: Hamas in Gaza and, in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Both are backed by Iran and both call openly for Israel's destruction. And, over the past five years, both have acted on that call by firing nearly 15,000 rockets at Israeli towns and villages.

Next imagine that you’re the prime minister of Israel. You know that in order to keep those thousands of rockets out of Hamas’s hands you need to blockade Gaza from the sea. The policy is risky—people may get hurt, especially if they're armed extremists—and liable to make you very unpopular in the world.  But you have to choose between being popular and watching idly while a million Israelis come under rocket fire. You have to choose between popular and being alive.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has nearly quadrupled the rockets in its arsenal. They're bigger, more accurate rockets, with a range that can reach every Israeli city, even Eilat. Worse: Hezbollah has positioned those rockets under homes, hospitals, and schools, confident that if Israelis try to defend themselves from those missiles, they will be branded war criminals.

Imagine, again, that you're Israel's prime minister. Do you wait until Hezbollah finds a pretext to fire those rockets or do you act preemptively? Do you risk having the much of the country being reduced to rubble or having that same country reduced to international pariah status?

The terror threat is a very poignant example of the quandary of statecraft in Israel, but an even thornier case is posed by the peace process.

Yes, the peace process, with its vision of two peoples living in adjacent states in a relationship of permanent and legitimate peace. What could be so hazardous about that?

Well, let’s return to that Kafkaesque scenario in which you wake up one morning and find yourself transformed into Israel's prime minister.

You know that to create that neighboring state that you’re going to have to give up some land, but not just any land, but land regarded as sacred by the majority of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years. You know that a great many of your countrymen have made their homes in these areas and that numerous Israelis have given their lives in their defense. You know that Israel has in the past withdrawn from territories in an effort to generate peace but that it received no peace but rather war. And, lastly, you know that many Arabs view the two-state solution as a two stage solution in which the ultimate stage is Israel’s dissolution.

What, then, Mr. or Ms. Prime Minister, do you do?

You could opt for maintaining the status quo, with the risk of deepening Israel’s international isolation or you could specify a vision of peace that significantly reduces its perils.  You could, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done, insist that the future Palestinian State be effectively demilitarized, without an army that could bombard Israeli cities or an air force that could shoot down planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.   You could insist that the Palestinian State reciprocally recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and so put an end to all future claims and conflicts. 

Even then, of course, Israel will be running incalculable risks, for what if the Palestinian state implodes and becomes another Gaza or Lebanon? What do you do if, a week after the peace treaty is signed, a rocket falls on Tel Aviv?

More than Gaza, more than peace, the ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran.

This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for Israel’s annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom.

Iran does all this without nuclear weapons—imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing. And imagine what you, awakening once again as the Israeli Prime Minister, will decide. Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?

The issues of terror, the peace process, and Iran evoke strong emotions in this country and around the world, and often spark criticism of Israeli policies. Yet it’s crucial to recall that those policies are determined by the leaders elected through one of the world’s most robust and resilient democracies. Recall that the people of Israel—not of Europe, not of the United States—bear the fullest consequences for their leaders’ decisions. 

There is no escaping the responsibility—as Jonah learned thousands of years ago—and that responsibility is borne by our leaders and by the majority of the people they represent.  Israel today faces decisions every bit as daunting as those confronting Jonah, but we will not run away. There is no gourd to hide under or fish to swallow us whole. Terror, the peace process, Iran—our Ninevehs—await. 

Support us as we grapple with these towering challenges. Back us in our efforts to defend ourselves from terrorist rockets. Uphold us if we have to make painful sacrifices for peace or if we decide that the terms of the proposed treaty fail to justify those sacrifices. Stand with us as we resist Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Respect the decisions we take through our democratic system and respect the risks that we, more than any other nation, take.

The message of the Book of Jonah is one of personal and collective atonement, but it is also a message of unity and faith. “In my trouble I called to the Lord,” proclaims Jonah, “VaYa’aneini” – “and He answered me.”

Let us—Israelis and the American Jews—united by our faith, our peoplehood, and our common love for democracy. Let us assume responsibility for our decisions, crushingly difficult though they may often be, and appreciative of the quandaries our leaders face. When we call out, let us answer one another with the assurance that no challenge—no paradoxes, no Ninevehs—can defeat us. 

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