Israel Is Losing

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

I talked recently with an American who had just returned from more than 20 years in Israel. We did not talk for the record, so I will withhold his name and what he does for a living. But I will say he is somewhat well-known in Israel and that he loves it dearly but he has left, probably permanently, because he cannot take life there any longer. He is a nonstatistic -- a living victim of terrorism.

How many others there are like him I cannot say. He has the most valuable of all commodities in this world, an American passport, and with much regret and with questions about his courage, he used it to get out. His business had gone to hell, his life was always in danger and he simply could not take it any longer.

In the perpetual war against Israel, its enemies are winning. The economy is awful. Parents do not want their children to go out. The beach is presumed safe, but not a cafe or restaurant. A commute on a bus (I have done it) is gut-wrenching. You watch everyone. What does a suicide bomber look like? The last one, the one who blew up a Haifa restaurant, was a 29-year-old woman, a law school graduate. She killed Arab and Jew alike. Even safe places are no longer safe.

So I cannot blame Israel for striking back. It assassinates Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and militants. It razes the homes of suicide bombers. It has Yasser Arafat bottled up and may deport or kill him. It has bombed purported terrorist camps in Syria. But nothing Israel has done has brought it peace and security.

If you read the Israeli press, the despair is palpable. To some, especially those on the left, Israel has become virtually a dysfunctional society. The government can't protect its people. Corruption is endemic. Religious zealots have inordinate influence, and their vision, a Greater Israel, compels the building or thickening of West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements. With every suicide bombing, the rational course -- a withdrawal from Palestinian areas -- seems like weakness rather than wisdom.

Israel must return to the so-called Green Line -- the border before the 1967 Six Day War. It must dismantle most of the settlements. It must do this because occupation is corrupting and, in the long run, impossible. The more Israel expands or retains settlements, the more it gets stuck in a quagmire where the enemy is everywhere. From September 2000 until recently, some 17,400 attacks were recorded in the territories -- and 40 percent of all fatalities. Even when terrorists struck in Israel proper, they invariably came from the West Bank.

Yet Ariel Sharon recently decided to include two major settlements on the Israeli side of the fence that is being built to separate the Jewish state from the West Bank. By extending the fence to encompass the settlements, Sharon is only ensuring the continuation of his problem. He needs to get out.

For a people of the book, for a country created by history as well as by men, Israel acts as if nothing that went before has any bearing on what is happening now. But history admonishes Israel. The only places where a Western culture has successfully transplanted itself are those where great population pressure and genocidal methods were used to extirpate the indigenous peoples. This is what happened in the United States.

Genocide is out of the question. Neither the world nor Israeli morality would permit it. Yet Israel keeps lengthening the odds against itself. Instead of withdrawing to where Jews are a clear majority, it continues to cling to settlements where Jews are outnumbered. Every settlement, every day of occupation, puts Israel in greater and greater danger. Each settlement is a provocation. The deportation or killing of Arafat will do nothing but make him a martyr and exacerbate the chaos. The man himself is only a symptom of Israel's problem.

The idyllic Zionist dream is in tatters. No one wants to go to Israel. On the contrary, people want to leave. For every suicide bombing, countless others are thwarted -- 22 in the past month, according to Zeev Schiff, the esteemed military correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz.

Israel lashes out. It has now bombed Syria. What next? Iran? This is not strategy. It is fury. I can understand. But I can understand, too, why, after more than 20 years, that man I met left Israel. You could say he lost his nerve. He would say he lost hope.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company