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It must be strange to be Israeli

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It must be strange to be Israeli

September 22, 2011

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By Philip Kraske

"The fact that we are not foreigners in this country, that we have rights in this country that go back 'only' 4,000 years, I will say this loud and clear," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his then-upcoming speech in the United Nations.

No doubt Susan Rice , America's ambassador to the UN, will hear these words and thank her stars that the American Indians' wrath still has 3,900 years to run before coming home to roost.

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It must be strange to be Israeli. Present-day Israelis must run hot and cold about their historical responsibility to retain and flourish on land that belonged to their ancestors. After all, several Pacifics of water have passed under the bridge in 4,000 years, and it is unlikely that Mr. Netanyahu's genetic investment in the Holy Land exceeds that of, say, the average Beirut fruit vendor.

Still, after all that time and every possible calamity including their systematic massacre in World War II, Jews are finally in Jerusalem again. A great event. You would think that practically any arrangement with their historical enemies that allowed them to keep the land in peace would be acceptable. Israelis must hear their ancestors whispering, "Take the deal! Sign now while you can! So what if it's not the whole of Judea and Samaria and only half of Jerusalem? What's a few lousy streets? We've got the part we most wanted, and we've got coastlines on the Mediterranean and a port on the Red Sea. A hundred years ago in Russia, we would have given anything for the 1967 borders."

But to Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues, half a loaf isn't a loaf, and half of Israel isn't Israel. Hence the long, halting war of attrition against their enemies. For that's just what it is: attrition, a holding pattern by whatever trick necessary to buy time while the bulldozers hem Palestinians into ever-smaller spaces and life becomes so miserable and insecure that they eventually pull up stakes and leave. And it works: thousands emigrate every year. But you have to wonder what on earth Israelis are thinking when it comes to the millions who don't leave and have no intention of doing so.

Israelis don't want Palestinians to become a country; the reasons why are well known. But doesn't cutting loose of the costs of occupation -- both monetary and moral -- hold some attraction as well? And wouldn't Palestinian statehood be the easiest way to do it? And aren't there worse things, like grinding intifadas, rivers of money diverted from development for the military and security services, and intractable enemies in the neighborhood?

But Israelis clearly don't think on these lines, and their attitude begs the question: Just what are they going to do with the Palestinians? Occupy them forever? Ship them all off to Jordan during the Super Bowl and hope nobody notices? You would think that after all this time an answer would be evident. But it isn't. The Palestinian question is a black hole of denial that Israelis refuse to deal with.

That's what I mean: it must be odd to be Israeli. They zip along on modern highways and participate in the Olympics and the Eurovision song contest. Meanwhile, the guys on the other side of the Wall -- that crudest instrument -- limp through potholes, bear poverty and unemployment, get thrown out of their East Jerusalem homes, put up with Israeli soldiers rummaging through their baby carriages, and simmer with anger over a situation that only gets worse.

But it doesn't matter. For one reason or another, countries have their blind spots, their denials. The problems are evident, the answers abundant and attainable, and yet it is the rarest of politicians that is able to take action. Since the Reagan Administration, Americans have run massive budget deficits every year with only a few exceptions during the second Clinton Administration. Everyone knew it was the wrong thing to do, everyone knew that people wanted the government services, but nobody wanted to adjust taxes to cover them.

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Here in Spain, severance pay for workers is 45 days per year worked, a Franco -era rule that no longer keeps companies from firing workers -- the intention back then -- but ruins them if big layoffs are necessary. It also dissuades companies from hiring workers on any other than temporary basis, and is a major reason for Spain's 20-percent unemployment rate. But change it? Impossible. The recent move to lower it to 22 days -- still higher than the European average -- met with strikes by workers who call 22 days "free dismissal." So nothing changes.

Israel's tortured history just goes to prove that old adage: Be careful what you pray for because that old joker God just might give it to you. Does an Israeli feel the frisson of history when he opens a hardware shop on land that his ancestors worked in 2011 B.C.? Does he sell his first screwdriver and think that the heartbreak and bloodshed of war and the oppression of his neighbor have been worth it?

Man is an extraordinary being capable of every contradiction, but even so, it must be strange, really strange, to be Israeli.


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I was born in Detroit in 1959, though I lived my formative years in Stillwater, Minnesota, a town just south of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, or at least one of the villages he based it on. I graduated from Stillwater High in 1977 and from the (more...)

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