In just two generations, the modern state of Israel has come a long way. Its bustling high tech, agricultural, and military economy would doubtless amaze Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, leaders of the previous Israeli state (circa 1020-922 BC).
David, alas, might be just as startled to find the battle with the Palestinians (Philistines) still going on three millennia later. And he might be baffled that Israel is the military goliath of the region, with Palestinian youths throwing the stones.
Such ironies abound as the young-old nation proudly but uneasily celebrates its first half century.
On one side there are visions of what might be accomplished in the Mideast if governments reached not just genuine peace but regional cooperation. Studious economists such as the International Monetary Fund's deputy managing director, Stanley Fischer, have modeled remarkably promising scenarios. They picture the region's oil, technology, banking, agricultural, low-cost labor, and, yes, water resources sensibly integrated to provide rising levels of prosperity, education, and trade. The potential: not just lands of milk and honey but of know-how, rising wealth, and culture.
Clouding such visions are the dark shadows of history. Many of the post-cold-war world's current frictions are teeth set on edge by the sour grapes of memory. Chief among these is the unthinkable inhumanity of the Holocaust, whose echoes still reverberate in French, Swiss, and eastern German political affairs, and staunch US support for Israel. They echo, also, in Israel's skeptical, "never again" belligerence toward its Arab neighbors.
Israel's preemptive tactics also appear in pressure on the US not to mend fences with Iran, and to thwart Russian and European trade with Iran. And Israel is understandably worried about the self-proclaimed new Nebuchadnezzar in Baghdad.
The tragedy in this bright but shadowed 50th birthday scene is that just two years ago both Israel and its immediate neighbors were moving resolutely in the direction of regional peace and prosperity. Slowly, at times reluctantly, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had come to choose a future of carefully guarded cooperation with Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinians, and Syria over a future of expansion and warfare. He had the relieved backing of a solid majority of Israelis.
Now, that approach of cautiously building trust has been scrapped, or at best delayed, while expansion and the iron fist are tried again.
Ultimately that won't work. In their next half century, Israelis deserve a real peace, not the five wars, sporadic shellings, and suicide bombings of the first half century. Overwhelming nuclear deterrence, more settlements on heights in the West Bank, and a long twilight struggle against terrorists and missiles builders won't ultimately provide that peace. The Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Ezer Weizman, Rabin route of tough, verified moves toward trust is needed once more. Then modern Israel will survive and prosper, as the storied kingdom three millennia ago did not.