An Israeli soldier died in an exchange of fire with Palestinians in Shechem (Nablus). The incident was the lead story for several hourly news bulletins. Once the army released his name, we heard the time and place of his funeral, and interviews with army and civilian friends and family members. The next day's newspapers put his picture on the front page, and his life story inside.
The death occurred in the midst of an operation to seize stores of weapons and explosives, and bad guys said to be preparing for attacks against Israelis. This is a nightly event guided by intelligence, often obtained from Palestinians seized earlier, throughout the West Bank.
Reports are that Hamas and its allies are increasing their efforts out of a concern to do something big that will scuttle preparations for George W. Bush's Israeli-Arab conference in Washington.
So far the statistics about Palestinians accomplishments suggest that the intifada is declining. Six Israeli civilians have died as the result of Palestinian violence, and the most recent death of a soldier is only the second so far in 2007.
Some say that the figures indicate that Palestinians have given up the struggle. However, daily firings of mortars and rockets out of Gaza suggest something else, as do seizures of suicide-belted Palestinians trying to get through Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, as well as numerous other indications of unceasing efforts at mayhem.
Those who admire the IDF call it a world class SWAT operation (Special Weapons and Tactics). Critics who are sympathetic to the Israeli cause conclude that some of the shortfalls in last year's war in Lebanon was due to the military's emphasis of training for small unit fighting in Palestinian cities, as opposed to the kind of conditions encountered in Lebanon.
Nightly incursions iinto Palestinian cities account for some of the success in reducing our exposure to Palestinian violence. Other credit is due to the barrier between much of the West Bank and Israel, the road blocks throughout the West Bank, and the fence around Gaza. None of these win applause among international or local humanitarians, but other Israelis are not inclined to argue with success. Those inclined to forget the hellish months of 2002 and 2003 encounter reminders from organized families of the victims.
We continue to argue. Does the reduction in casualties mean we can take more chances for peace? Or does the reduction in casualties mean that we have been doing things right and should continue?
More than 500 roadblocks throughout the West Bank, plus the major barrier, do a lot to cripple Palestinian transportation and its economy. And the West Bank is prosperous compared to Gaza.
Such conditions do not promote Palestinian sympathy for Israelis. Indications are that Prime Minister Olmert is inclined to relax controls in the West Bank, but a number of his ministers, as well as military advisers urge caution. And the Palestinian side of the conversation is not forthcoming in compromising its own extensive demands, or working diligently to control those who prefer violence.
The military buried its soldier several hours after he died. We will hear news of his life and his death for at least another day. Yom Kippur will bring forth memories of many more who died in 1973. Some will try to go beyond the stories of death in order to move forward discussions about peace, but it will be a difficult task.
Remember Senator George Aiken (R Vt). At one of the low points in Vietnam, he urged that the American administration declare victory and withdraw its troops.
The President and his General of the moment have said that things are going well enough to allow the beginning of troop reductions, and the transfer of greater responsibility to the Iraqis. However, Iraqi political leaders must move with increased diligence toward the consensus required for democratic nation-building.
By starting to withdraw American troops, the President is saying that the Iraqis must take responsibility for their country. Someday, it will be all theirs.
Other ranking military officers, as well as prominent Democrats, and run of the mill skeptics are expressing their doubts.
(See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/14/washington/14military.html)
Among their points are that American troops are already under great pressure to accomplish their tasks amidst the violence directed against them and among the Iraqis. Reducing their numbers will make their tasks impossible. Beyond these tactical problems, there may be no way that American leadership, or American prompting of Iraqis currently in key positions, can produce what the President wants. Sunnis and Shiites, along with Kurds and others have been at one another for centuries. They are not about to kiss and make friends at American urging, especially when financed, armed, and stirred to action by supporters and exploiters from Iran and Syria, with additional sources in the wilds of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Sudan. The Turks are on alert for what may be coming their way. And who knows what the North Koreans are contributing to the brew?
I am reluctant to depart from my usual modesty to put myself in the middle of world events, but there are small lessons from two of my recent letters. One chided Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for his remarks about Jews and others outside of his ultra-Orthodox community. It brought forth a Jewish Kulturkampf. Arrayed against those who view the Rabbi as an unfortunate remnant of the Dark Ages, are those who feel that his critics do not comprehend the Talmud and other holy sources.
A subsequent letter closed with the line that we should not rush the Messiah. This is an expression meant to urge that we do not act rashly. For some readers, it was an opening to greater things. They wrote about the Messiah and the Devil, the true reading of the Book of Revelations, and the fate of Jews and others who do not comprehend what the Almighty has been doing for all these years, and what will occur from here onwards.
As others have said before me, the Middle East is not the Middle West. And the Middle West might not be all that peaceful for those opening an abortion clinic, or parading in behalf of gays and lesbians. My own efforts to understand events have revealed a bit of the tinder that can be ignited.
In the era of blogging, Jews and Christians exited by faith, or the lack thereof, can make their points via computer keyboards. Intense Muslims use rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs, and cars loaded with explosives.
We must not forget 9-11. The President did not initiate his country's problems with the Middle East. The United States acquired great responsibilities long before he sought to lead it. Now he is stuck with awesome tasks. Until the end of days, historians will be pondering if he made things worse, or did something right.
Jim Hoagland has a useful commentary on the challenge that Tony Blair faces as the most recent aspirant to be a peace maker in the Middle East.
Among his points is that the Palestinians and the Israelis must realize that they are small change compared to the larger conflicts centered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Implicit is that we must settle our disputes so that the world can get on with the bigger ones of Arab/Muslim militancy and population growth.
Elsewhere in the press are items about the reservations in Cologne about a mosque that will rival its cathedral; and a right wing Dutch political party that wants to outlaw the Koran.
Hoagland suggests that one of the keys to dealing with our small problem is for George W. Bush to press Israel into making difficult compromises.
That is the kind of proposal that will cause us, and the rest of the world, to start again on the wrong foot.
Israel has offered painful compromises, most recently and most prominently in the summer of 2000 at Camp David, and even more painfully a bit later in the Egyptian resort of Taba. Now Prime Minister Olmert and his advisers are returning to the same basic proposals, despite the domestic problems associated with the latest seven years of Palestinian violence. Olmert seems willing to concede almost all of the West Bank, the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, shared control over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, and compensating land from within Israel for those portions of the West Bank that Israel will retain.
Who is pressing the Palestinians to make difficult compromises? Israel's offers were not good enough for Arafat in 2000, and now the soft spoken Mahmoud Abbas is demanding more, and sooner than Olmert is willing or able to provide. Abbas also continues to express the Palestinian dream of refugees from 1948 and their children returning to homes that no longer exist, and he is not able or willing to assert security on that portion of the West Bank that he controls. The problem of Gaza is knottier than in the past, given Hamas control. The missiles are still being fired in the direction of Sderot.
Americans and others who express disappointment in Israel are leading themselves and the rest of us astray. They will get nowhere. Israeli leaders have offered reasonable proposals. They are not willing to commit suicide for themselves or their population. The ball remains in the court of the Palestinians. It has been there for the better part of 60 years. They have to do more than demand ever more generous terms from Israel.
The Germans will build their mosques; the Dutch will continue to enjoy their multi-cultural society and other goodies; Palestinians will continue to dream; Israel will continue to struggle, most likely prosper, and some Israelis will feel guilty for the misery of the Palestinians. Our ancestors wrote the Books of the Prophets, which criticized the rulers, the rich, and the mass of the population for being imperfect. Wisely, other ancestors never let the Prophets govern.
We have seen signs that Israel is like the other nations. Our own skinheads paint Nazi symbols in synagogues, beat up religious Jews, non-Jewish foreigners, Jewish and non-Jewish homeless and drug addicts. No surprise that they are Russian immigrants, who came under the Law of Return due to Jewish grandparents.
Politicians are pondering yet again a change in the Law of Return. It is not likely to happen before New Year 5768, and probably not before 5769, or 5770. Every once in a while something causes us to discuss the Law of Return: when an immigrant has gone bad, or when a messianic rabbi or secular Jew (often from overseas) spots another cluster of people in the Third World who think of themselves as Jews and want to come home. When the Law of Return gets on the table, politicians compete over which kind of potential immigrant should be let in or kept out. It becomes easier to leave things as they are.
Meanwhile, I extend the conventional blessings for this New Year. I will wait patiently for the next New Year. Let us not rush the Messiah.