This month President Obama makes his first visit to Israel since he became president. His first term did not begin auspiciously in this regard, with critical remarks on settlements that pre-empted negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, in the following four years, the prospects of peace have seen only a savage deterioration. In Israel, Obama has been regarded as the least friendly U.S. president ever, and in the region the United States is perceived as having lost both interest and clout. The result has been a power vacuum and, with that, a dangerous escalation of tensions.
It may be that Obama will have an unexpected triumph, comparable to President Nixon's opening to China when he had been the vehement red-baiter. The chances of the Palestinians achieving a state of their own look remote, but the Israelis are in a mood to compromise if guaranteed the political, emotional, and military support of the United States. And the Palestinian people, if not the leadership, are more eager than ever to escape the confines of occupation and rule by leaders who take huge sums of international aid and invest them in bombs rather than books, in fear rather than food, and in elaborate mansions for their own families.
The United States is the only force capable of moving the parties to resolve their differences. But that won't happen, yet again, unless the hard and brutal facts on the ground are recognized. This first of two reports will describe the arena, and next week's report will examine what it is that has so long frustrated the best of plans.
Israel, a state that is less than half the size of San Bernardino County in California, lives in a tough neighborhood, one characterized by violence, instability and hostility and one that allows no second chance for those unable to defend themselves. The political environment has been infected by the Arab Spring, and is now swamped by the rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak, and Camp David is no more. Jordan, the other critical border neighbor, is under enormous strain. Israel's once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has disappeared. To the north, Syria continues to be convulsed by armed violence, savagery, and massacres, with more than 70,000 people dead. Despite the Syrian specter of loose weapons of mass destruction and its providing a safe haven for jihadists, the world is doing absolutely nothing.
On yet another front, Hezbollah and Lebanon possess 50,000 rockets and missiles in their arsenal. The Muslim fundamentalists in Iran are hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. All of this focuses the Israeli mind on what might have happened to them in the past and could still if they are not strong enough to defend themselves, especially now that they have to be ready to respond to a crisis on very short notice and be concerned about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
That this is an existential threat to Israel was captured by the Iranian president when he remarked that Israel "is so small and vulnerable that it is a 'one-bomb nation.'" Israel knows that confronting Iran before it achieves that bomb, however difficult, will be much less challenging than dealing with an Iran with nuclear capability.
The security environment continues to deteriorate. In 2012, the Israeli security service reports, there were 578 terrorist attacks in the West Bank, up from 320 in 2011. On the Gaza border, where Israel once had a security presence, 281 rockets were fired into Israel its last full year there; by 2006, with Israel having left Gaza, the rocket barrage number rose to 1,777. The world looks the other way. Israel is expected to bear all this with grace and fortitude. But it can't. Is there any society that would sit on its hands when its citizens are routinely exposed to death, injury, and destruction?
Imagine Washington under missile attack from nearby Baltimore as a way to understand what it is to be targeted by thousands of rocket and missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. And this is a region that seems to be moving from the era of personal dictators to an era of dictatorial Islamic fundamentalism. When Israelis witness the slaughter in Syria and the world looks the other way, they understand what would have happened to them had they not been strong in 1948 and again in 1973 when Egypt and the coalition of Arab states took them by surprise in launching the Yom Kippur War. They are not inclined to let their guard down again.