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AS THE PASSIONS of Shatila and Sabra slowly become part of history, and negotiations get under way to evacuate all foreign troops from Lebanon, Israelis are beginning to ask themselves what the war they undertook this summer has accomplished. Even those who opposed the "Peace for Galilee" mission from the start admit one clear cut fact: by removing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon, Israel has insured the security of its borders from outside aggression for the foreseeable future. With the siege of Beirut, Prime Minister Begin closed a circle he began at Camp David. Begin has created peace--albeit a tenuous one--with Egypt, knocked out the Iraqui nuclear threat, decimated the Syrian air force, frightened Jordan and neutralized Lebanon. Never have Israelis been so safe.
But a new danger is now haunting the Jewish state, a danger from within that could prove more lethal for Israel than all the Arab forces combined. Israelis, for so long sure of their cause, have started to doubt their moral worth. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jaffa, Jews are throwing rocks and shooting at...other Jews. These violent confrontations are not just the product of discord over Lebanon and the refugee camp massacres. More long term problems--such as the fate of the occupied territories and tension between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews--have also engendered passion. But the events of this summer were surely the catalyst for the Israeli malaise.
Originally, the Lebanon venture was designed to create a 25-mile butter zone north of the Israeli border cleansed of the PLO. Israelis accepted this goal unanimously, or almost. When the Begin government decided to push through to Beirut, opposition made itself heard. What right did Israel have to play policeman for the entire Middle East? For the first time, the Jewish state had initiated a conflict, and the survival of Israel was not even at stake.
Six months after the initial attack, the majority of Israelis still approve of the war. For all the questions raised, most recognize the strategic gains won by expelling the PLO from Lebanon. The PLO is, according to its charter, at war with Israel and has vowed to destroy the Zionist nation. Israel went into Lebanon not to conquer a neighbor but to rid itself--and its neighbor--of a dangerous enemy.
The massacre of innocent Palestinian refugees in Shatila and Sabra cuts deeper. While the official committee of inquiry has yet to make public its findings, it is possible that some members of the Begin cabinet, including the Prime Minister himself, will be forced to resign. It would be folly to speculate on what actually took place during the slaughter, but a few things are clear. The Israeli military authorized the Phalangists to enter the camps. And some people reacted very slowly to reports of the ongoing disaster. Most Israelis believe their troops had the implicit duty to assure the safety of all civilians, a duty the high command officially assumed when the Israeli Army entered West Beirut the day after President-elect Bashir Gemayel's assassination.
Still, it was the Phalangists, not the Israelis, who avenged in their particular way the murder of their leader. Yet neither President Amin Gemayel, not his Muslim allies or adversaries requested an investigation. They brushed aside this repugnant fiasco--there had been worse ones during the civil war--which attracted attention mostly because of the massive media presence in the area and to a lesser extent because of the passiveness of Israeli soldiers. So may be the fingers have been pointing in the wrong direction.
SOMETHING, though, has changed in Israel. Begin would easily be brought back to power if elections were held tomorrow and most Israelis condone the war. But for the first time, questions were asked and doubts continue to linger. In 1956, 1967 and 1973, Israelis were steadfast in their conviction that their country was on the proper course and had only done what was necessary to insure survival. Now, no one is really sure.
This doube has served to underline other tensions within Israel. The settlements that Begin continues to create in the occupied territories are like needles in a collective Israeli flesh. Each new settlement puts greater strain on Jewish-Arab relations. As tempers flare, the government feels forced to take security measures. Arab mayors who sympathize with the Palestinian cause are fired, schools are closed when students voice their discontent and the homes of Arabs believed to be friendly toward the PLO are torn to the ground. Many Jews recognize these injustices. So Israeli society is becoming divided between those whose anti-Arab paranoia demands rule with an iron fist and those who fear morality is being compromised.
Beyond the fact that Arabs are practically second Israel--in all honesty, a recent development-the territories question deserves consideration for purely strategic reason. Because of the high birth rate among Arabs, they will probably out number within Israel by early next century if the maintained. No Israeli leader seems likely to give back the Golan or the Old City of Jerusalem. But elsewhere, a return to slightly modified pre-1967 borders is necessary if Israel wants to avoid the establishment of a veritable police state.
The Arab population in Israel is not the only problem dividing the country. In-fighting among Jews--the Ashkenazim, who originate from Europe and the Sephardim, who come from Arab and North African countries--has increased dramatically in recent months. Late in December, for example, a policeman fatally shot a Sephardic youth in a Tel Aviv slum. The incident sparked threats by Sephardim directed toward Ashkenazim, including slogans like "Ashkenazim to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau" painted on walls in upper-class Ashkenazim neighborhoods.
About 60 percent of Israel's 3.4 million Jews are Sephardim, but a disproportionate number of them are represented in the lower economic strata. The Sephardim claim they are being discriminated against by the Ashkenazim who run the universities, hold most of the important government posts, and have a higher standard of living. Such charges hinge on subtleties, so their validity is difficult to judge. But a wedge is inserting itself between Israelis and must be removed in order to avoid ethnic chaos.
WHEN ISRAEL was created in 1948, its founding fathers were concerned that their new country would eventually become a nation state like all others. To them, Israel had to remain on a moral pedestal, almost above reproach, in a constant search for perfection. It was an impossible dream, but one that has lasted until today. Now though, Israel with its political scandals, militarism and petty bickering, is showing signs of being no more of an ideal nation than any other democracy. Realistically, such an evolution was to be expected.
The summer of 1982 may be remembered in history as the time Israel passed from adolescence to adulthood. The illusions of a child are left behind. But the Jewish state remains special, an oasis in a desert. Its citizens have built a working democracy from scratch in a region that has no others. Israelis must treasure that democracy, protect it with all their will. For if they don't, the growing pains that are Lebanon, Shatila and Sabra, the repression of Arabs and the feud between Ashkenazim and Sephardim could turn into a plague.
Let the debate about the war continue, let the investigation of the massacre run its course. And give Arabs in Israel the chance to express themselves, permit the Sephardim to voice their discontent. Stifling discord, ignoring the problems that any democratic society inevitably encounters will only prove counter-productive and make the Israeli fruit rotten. That is the danger from within.
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