Think “Israel” and what comes to mind? Surely the first thing to cross the minds of most readers will be my country’s decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.
To others, the mere mention of the word Israel conjures up images of a mystic land: a land promised to the Israelites by none other than God Himself, a land where a man named Jesus performed miracles and walked on water.
Did someone say camels? Of course! To some, Israel is an exotic land somewhere far, far away: a place where nomadic tribesmen shepherd their camels through dunes as far as the eye can see.
When I think of Israel, I think of my home, a land that is as vibrant and diverse as it is creative. Every time I land at Ben Gurion Airport after a long sojourn abroad, I am amazed at how much it has changed in my own lifetime.
From our humble rebirth in the tragic aftermath of the Holocaust, we have evolved from a largely agrarian nation of the Third World to a developed nation in just 64 years. Whereas Israel was once the land of Jaffa oranges and raisins, today it is, as one New York Times bestseller coined it, the “start-up nation,” the land of Intel microchips and nanotechnology.
In just over six decades, our population has grown more than nine-fold from roughly 800,000 in 1948 to just over 7.8 million today.
With immigrants and refugees from 120 countries and an Arab minority numbering some 20 per cent of the population, Israelis are proud to celebrate our different ethnic backgrounds, languages and traditions. We are equally proud of our country’s thriving democracy and robust society, one that has given birth to a highly educated community of scientists, researchers and others who continue to file the third greatest number of registered patents per capita in the world.
These strides are all the more remarkable if one examines just how far we have come in the last 20 years. Since the 1990s, our economy has grown by 270 per cent despite several global economic downturns, a deadly five-year terror campaign that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and two major wars with the terrorist Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, respectively.
During the last five years alone, Israel’s economy has grown 21 per cent, the second highest rate of any OECD nation, and unemployment is at its lowest ever at 5.4 per cent — and this at a time of global recession. If all goes well, the recent discovery of large natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea should see Israel go from a resourceless nation to a net exporter of fuel by 2018.
These leaps have been nothing short of miraculous. Yet much of the world continues to relate to my country through the negative headlines that they read, our longstanding conflict with the Palestinians and other neighbouring states, and stereotypes that distort reality. That is why we must broaden public discourse to encompass what Israel really is: an innovative nation that has much to offer — both regionally and internationally.
This is especially true in today’s context as the Middle East continues to undergo a tumultuous transformation for which no one knows the outcome.
Iran continues to enrich uranium in its quest for nuclear weapons, while the Assad regime is in the midst of slaughtering thousands of civilians in Syria. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, meanwhile, is threatened by the growing clout of fundamentalist groups in that country and the Palestinian leadership continues to opt for unilateralism over a return to the negotiating table.
This is tragic — not only for Israelis who continue to face the prospect of terrorism and conflict with our neighbours, but also for the Palestinians, who have spent much of the last six decades trying to destroy our country instead of building the institutions and civil society that would lead to the creation of their own state.
Still, the last few years have seen some notable signs of progress. The easing of travel restrictions and the dismantling of roadblocks have allowed the Palestinian economy to flourish into one of the fastest growing in the world, and law and order has returned to the streets of the West Bank. One major obstacle, however, remains: As long as Hamas continues to wage terrorist attacks and refuses to recognize Israel, the Palestinians will be divided and peace will remain a mirage.
Israel shares the Palestinian people’s dream of statehood. That dream, however, must be based on the principle of two states for two peoples — one state for the Jewish people and another for the Palestinian people — and not of one state on the ashes of the other.
The first step, however, is to sit down face-to-face. If Israel has accomplished so much in 64 years without peace, just think what Israelis, Palestinians and the region as a whole could accomplish with it.
Joël Lion is Consul General of Israel to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Israeli independence day is tomorrow.