An American senator's return to Israel

AMERICANS who are strong supporters of Israel have watched the tragic events of the last few months with great concern and pain. My anguish is especially strong because I was just in Israel last summer. It was my first visit since 1965, and I was quite overwhelmed by the progress the Israelis had made in 22 years.

It remains no small feat that a young country that has had to defend its very existence through six wars since World War II has nonetheless managed to maintain strong democratic institutions and a vibrant political life. Against great odds, Israel has built a modern economy and tamed the wild desert.

As a senator from an agricultural state, I was particularly impressed with the innovative techniques Israelis have developed to overcome extreme shortages of water and good soil. When one thinks of the disaster that desertification poses to many third-world countries, one realizes how much Israelis could contribute to international economic development if they were free to devote their energy and resources to pursuits other than the burden of defense.

I was most deeply moved on my trip by the changes that had occurred in Jerusalem. In 1965, it was a divided city of barriers, barbed wire, and guns. Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University were merely empty buildings atop Mt. Scopus. Certain quarters of the city stood in disrepair; access to the holy places was restricted.

In 1987, the barriers and barbed wire were but a distant memory. The Jerusalem I visited is a magnificently rebuilt city in which all three faiths enjoy free access to the holy places. Hebrew University has become a thriving institution of higher learning. And, at Hadassah Hospital, doctors just recently performed their first successful heart transplant operation.

How had West Bank Palestinians fared since my last visit?

In 1965, Palestinians endured a grim existence under Jordanian occupation. Electricity and running water were rare. There were sanitation problems. Unemployment was rampant, and educational opportunities limited. Even under the rule of a brother Arab nation, the Palestinians had no political freedom. Conditions were a great deal worse in Egyptian-occupied Gaza.

Today, the material life of the Palestinians is much improved. Electricity and running water have been introduced. A number of infectious diseases, including polio and typhus, have been eradicated. There is virtually no unemployment, and I counted six universities and a number of vocational and agriculture schools in the territories.

While the standard of living for Palestinians has improved significantly, it is their tragedy that political freedom remains elusive. They did not have it under the British, they did not have it under the Jordanians, and they do not have it under the Israelis.

One can understand the feelings of frustration that must well up in the Palestinian soul. But their rage and their frustration, their sticks and their knives, are wielded against the wrong enemy. How many times has Israel offered to make peace with its hostile neighbors based only on the condition that they recognize its right to exist? How many times have the Palestine Liberation Organization and all Arab countries, except Egypt, said no? Ironically, even when the Egyptians came to the negotiating table, they refused to take back Gaza.

No, the real enemy of the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza are their fellow Arabs who have been perfectly willing to use them as pawns in their own propaganda games.

Certainly in the last few months there have been incidents of excessive violence by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians, which cannot be condoned. But even as we rightly condemn such violence, let us also remember that the strongest condemnation often comes from Israelis themselves. The Israeli people are capable of the toughest kind of self-criticism. It is the basis of their strength as a people and a democracy.

What does the future hold for this troubled land? It is not easy to see how or whether the situation can be resolved. There are as many scenarios as there are analysts, as many pessimists as optimists. Clearly circumstances are changing. This must not be just another ``opportunity lost'' for peace. Perhaps the Palestinians will put down their stones and put on the mantle of peacemaker at the negotiating table. Whatever happens, the Israeli nation will eventually find itself tested on the most fundamental question of all - its survival as a Jewish state and a democracy.

In this difficult and uncertain period, Israel must be able to draw strength and courage from the unwavering support of its American friends. It needs us now when it is under attack from mobs wielding stones and knives as surely as it did when the attacks came from tanks and fighter planes. The battlefield is different, but it is war just the same. We cannot turn away as our friend is attacked and unjustly condemned in the court of public opinion.

I have given much thought these past few months to the Israel I first visited in 1965 and revisited in 1987. It makes me yearn for peace all the more. The Israelis have so much expertise to contribute to the world in the fields of education, health, and agriculture. One can well imagine their great potential and the benefits to mankind if only they were free to live in peace.

Quentin N. Burdick (D) is a senator from North Dakota.

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