Sunday, May 31, 2015

On Presidential Judgment and the Lessons of History

The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, and those who led us there are directly responsible for the rise of ISIS and our current quandary of how to respond. . . . [I]t is not the time to just repeat our old mistakes. Rather we should begin with repentance for those mistakes by listening better and humbly seeking better solutions. And that is where all the presidential candidates should begin. – Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners
There are many aspects of modern American politics with which I am unhappy – the emphasis on fundraising and the seeming need for unlimited cash, sound bites and clich├ęd talking points, the ensuing media circus. But if during the upcoming presidential primary season the country engages in a serious re-evaluation of America’s role in the world and the uses and limits of military force, I will remain hopeful. No issue is more important in judging one’s fitness and character to be president than a candidate’s judgment on matters of war and peace, his or her gut-level instincts on how and when American force should be exercised.

This is not to suggest that a candidate’s views on economic and social issues, spending and taxing priorities, the environment, and the Supreme Court are unimportant. These issues are indeed vital to the fabric of our society and will determine how effectively we are governed in the years to come. But economic and social policy is a collaborative effort between the President and Congress, interest groups and citizen pressure; it is impossible for one person to radically alter the social and economic landscape. Only as commander-in-chief does the President have the power and authority to single-handedly affect the lives and futures of millions of Americans and the quality of our relationships to the nations of the world.

I was six years old when Lyndon Johnson made the ill-fated decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Within a few years, as I watched the evening news with my family and saw images of body bags on military transport planes departing the jungles of Asia, I had enough sense to understand that the Vietnam War was morally wrong and based on faulty premises. Even at the age of nine, I knew it was time to bring our troops home. But then America elected Nixon, we commenced secret bombing missions into Cambodia, and the war dragged on for six more years. By the time U.S. forces withdrew and we brought home the last American soldier, another 25,000 American lives had been lost.

Though I believe wars should be fought only as a last resort and after all reasonable alternatives have been explored, I am not a pacifist. I know we live in a dangerous world and must defend ourselves, our interests, and our friends and allies when unjustly attacked. I supported the decision of President George H.W. Bush to invade Iraq in defense of Kuwait in 1991, when an American ally had been attacked and its sovereignty invaded by a neighboring aggressor. The senior President Bush applied well established principles in coming to the aid of an American friend and limiting U.S. involvement to accomplishing its objective – defending our ally and securing a military retreat of Saddam Hussein’s forces. I disagreed with many Democratic Senators, including Joe Biden and John Kerry, for their knee-jerk opposition to that conflict, and I said so at the time.

When America was attacked on September 11, 2001, I like most Americans wanted a rapid and decisive U.S. military response against those responsible. We knew almost immediately that Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda were to blame and, when it was discovered they were being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, I affirmatively supported a quick and resolute attack on Taliban forces there. The defense of a nation by necessity includes the right of retaliation when unjustly attacked. While I did not expect us to be in Afghanistan for 14 years, fundamentally I agreed with the U.S. military mission in that country.

But when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 – and well before then made clear its intentions of doing so – I was opposed from the beginning, as were many of our most trusted allies and many American religious leaders. Once again, some of my Democratic role models, people with whom I generally agree on most issues – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry among them – disappointed me. When on October 16, 2002, Clinton and Kerry voted to authorize U.S. military force against Iraq, I believed then that they were wrong, and that their votes were nothing but acts of political cowardice. Wanting someday to become president, both were scared of looking “soft” on national security and defense.

The vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution of 2002 was far from unanimous, and there were many other Democrats in the House and Senate who possessed the same information as everyone else and rendered a different verdict. Senators Carl Levin, Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, the late Senators Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, all voted no with the same information that led Clinton and Kerry to vote yes. And although he was not in the Senate at the time, another prominent Democrat named Barack Obama also publicly opposed the war in Iraq.

On the single most important question confronted by our political leaders in the past half century – a question of war and peace, of life and death – Hillary Clinton got it wrong and Barack Obama got it right. It was a question of courage and judgment, of understanding the implications of American military actions and learning the correct lessons from history. Obama made the right call based on what he knew then, and he did not look to the polls for guidance. Hillary Clinton and 28 Democratic Senators, 82 Democratic House members, and almost all Republicans were dead wrong.

U.S. troops in Iraq
I do not base any of this on 20/20 hindsight, but on what was known at the time. It is why I believe that the question asked recently of the 2016 presidential candidates – “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?” – is precisely the wrong question. As James Fallows noted recently in The Atlantic, this question is too easy and tells us nothing about a candidate’s foreign policy instincts, underlying values, or thought process. It is sort of like asking, “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?”

I am more interested in understanding how the candidates assessed the evidence then. How did they view the possible benefits and risks of invading Iraq based on what we knew prior to March 19, 2003, when the first bombs fell on Baghdad? Decisions are always made in real time, not in hindsight. Understanding your thought process when it counted is the only way voters can truly assess if your instincts and judgments are to be trusted in the future.

Of course, mistakes are made and no one gets everything right all the time. So, the next important question is one Fallows articulates well: “Regardless of whether you feel you were right or wrong, prescient or misled, how exactly will the experience of Iraq – yours in weighing the evidence, the country’s in going to war – shape your decisions on the future, unforeseeable choices about committing American force?” (James Fallows, “The Right and Wrong Questions about the Iraq War,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2015). In other words, what are the lessons of our recent history? How will the lessons learned help the United States more effectively engage with the international community, properly assess American interests abroad, avoid costly and unnecessary conflicts, and lessen the risks to future generations?

I would like to see the candidates struggle honestly with these questions, with what they have learned from the recent past. I want to know how they perceive the limits of force and America’s proper role in the world; and the benefits, risks, and long-term consequences of military engagement. I cannot trust any candidate who insists that the Iraq War is regrettable based only on what we know now. It is not acceptable to state, as did Marco Rubio recently, that invading Iraq “was not a mistake because the president was presented with intelligence that said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was not based on faulty intelligence. There were plenty of people, including U.S. intelligence analysts and military strategists, who thought better of invading Iraq, and who predicted precisely the consequences of the resulting post-invasion occupation. There was no shortage of foreign leaders, protestors, reporters, and intelligence experts who questioned the wisdom of the American invasion, and who believed United Nations weapons inspectors should be allowed more time to determine and certify that Iraq’s WMD program was effectively non-existent.

On February 14, 2003, less than one month before U.S. forces invaded Iraq, chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix publicly declared that Iraq was cooperating with the inspections teams. And while there remained questions concerning what had happened to a small portion of Iraq’s aged chemical weapons stockpile, it was well known that nearly 95% of that inventory had been verifiably destroyed in the 1990s. Whatever existing weapons program Iraq had in 2003 – and as it turned out, it was non-existent – was certainly not a threat to the United States to justify a military invasion lasting eight years and costing over $2 trillion. Containment may be less dramatic, but it generally comes with far less death and destruction.

London anti-war protest, February 15, 2003
President Bush did not make an objective judgment about the use of military force based on the facts presented to him at the time. He was not misled by his advisers and intelligence officials. The invasion of Iraq was a foregone conclusion well before it happened. The WMD excuse was the public justification for the war used to obtain a UN Security Council resolution and congressional authorization. But it was not why we went to war. That decision was pre-ordained even before 9/11, when as widely reported a close circle of Bush advisers, including Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, pressed for a war with Iraq from the moment Bush became President. These men and others wished not only to depose Saddam Hussein, a known menace and despot, but to install a government more friendly to U.S. interests and to impose a democratic model which they hoped would spread across the Middle East.

On the day of the 9/11 attacks and its immediate aftermath, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, among others, made the case to the President that Iraq should be part of any military response, even though there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement for 9/11. Only when it was clear that a reason for the invasion had to be based on something the American people could accept, something that at least implied that Iraq posed an imminent threat and justified the unprecedented action of pre-emptive war, did the WMD rationale take priority. And the intelligence, as we now know, was selectively scoured and used to justify the desired result.

While members of the administration claimed that the war would be short and swift and U.S. armed forces treated as liberators, the difficulties and costs of the post-invasion occupation were ignored. In the run-up to the Iraq War, experts inside and outside of the Bush Administration made clear that occupying Iraq would be extremely difficult and costly. A November 2002 report by the National Defense University contended that occupying Iraq “will be the most daunting and complex task the U.S. and international community will have undertaken since the end of World War II.” Experts at the Army War College warned that the “possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious.” And when Lawrence Lindsey, the White House economic advisor, dared suggest that rebuilding postwar Iraq would cost upwards of $200 billion – a laughably low estimate as it turned out – he was publicly reprimanded and subsequently dismissed.

As Fallows noted in the January 2004 issue of The Atlantic, the problems confronted by American forces in Iraq immediately after the invasion, the breakdown of public order, increased sectarian violence, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, were raised and willfully ignored in the planning stages leading up to the war:
Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.

Fallows also discussed the ill-fated decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, a determination that directly contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and indirectly facilitated the rise and success of ISIS, which includes many of those dismissed Baathist security forces:
The case against wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than a selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day. Manpower that could have helped on security patrols became part of the security threat. Studies from the Army War College, the Future of Iraq project, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few, had all considered exactly this problem and suggested ways of removing the noxious leadership while retaining the ordinary troops. They had all warned strongly against disbanding the Iraqi army. The Army War College, for example, said in its report, “To tear apart the Army in the war’s aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society.”
Moreover, even assuming the intelligence had been accurately assessed concerning the WMD program, the notion of a pre-emptive attack against a sovereign nation that posed no imminent threat to the United States or its allies, and for which a policy of containment was in place and working, was wrong, un-American, and morally unjustified. Hillary Clinton got this point wrong. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker – every Republican with the exception of Rand Paul – continue to miss this point. It does not bode well for the future. But at least Hillary has admitted that her past judgment was wrong.

That the Iraq War was a mistake in hindsight, however, is now widely recognized even by many of its early proponents, Jeb Bush’s recent obfuscation on the issue notwithstanding. It is a welcome, if somewhat surprising development that many on the right, including most of the Republican presidential candidates, have acknowledged that the decision to invade Iraq “based on what we know now” was a mistake. According to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, the Iraq War has cost the United States over $2.4 trillion in untaxed revenue, resulted in the deaths of 4,500 Americans with another 40,000 seriously wounded. The war has led to heart-wrenching tales of post-traumatic stress disorder, veteran suicides, and loss of morale. Iraq has turned into a failed state as an estimated half-million of its people have died. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which everyone agrees is a good thing, has nevertheless allowed Iran, which is four times as large and powerful, to extend its influence in the region. Though President Obama’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq deserves some of the blame for Iraq’s current mess, none of it happens if the United States refrains from committing its worst foreign policy blunder in 50 years.

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. What was most egregious about the push for war in 2002-2003 was the Bush Administration’s disdain for disagreement, its unabashed confidence in its own judgment, its willingness to dismiss the opinions of many of our allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East, a willingness to act unilaterally if necessary, and the failure to critically examine and assess the evidence, risks and benefits of war.

I would welcome in the upcoming presidential primary and election season a lively debate and discussion about the lessons of the Iraq War, the proper use of military force, where and when, if ever, America should be engaged in nation building. I would like to see the candidates discuss whether it was a good thing, and responsible leadership, for the United States to have spent trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for those wars – without raising taxes to pay for them, or asking for any sacrifices from the American people (other than those who volunteered to serve in our armed forces). We need a true debate over America’s priorities, the resources diverted for every bomber, every fighter jet, and how that affects directly the lack of investment in our public infrastructure, our schools, and our environment.

For several months before we invaded Iraq, many people raised perceptive questions about the impending war, questions that remained unanswered in the rush to war. While nobody lost any sleep over the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign, the proper question was never, “Is Saddam good or bad?” The more appropriate question, asked by many of us opposed to the invasion at the time, but ignored by the majority of our leaders and much of the media was, “What happens after we overthrow Saddam?” We cannot simply invade a country, depose its leader, destroy its infrastructure, and leave its people in squalor. If we do not wish to engage in nation building, we need to stop engaging in nation demolition. How we respond to new threats is open for debate. But if we fail to learn the proper lessons of history, we are destined to repeat our past mistakes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Eleven Days in Israel: Reflections and Observations

Old City Jerusalem
For the first 20 years of my life, Israel was but a biblical reference, a land of ancient history, of equal importance to Christians and Jews for events recorded long-ago by scribes and scholars in the books that now constitute the Holy Bible – the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I knew little of Israel’s modern history or the circumstances of its founding in 1948. I was only eight years old during the Six-Day War in 1967 and only slightly more attentive to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It would be another decade before I contemplated the historic causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not until the 1980’s did these events become significant to me, when I developed an interest in this fascinating land of stark contrasts, of beaches and deserts, crowded cities and wide-open spaces, the secular and the religious, peace and conflict.

A small country the size of New Jersey that sits along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a land of antiquity and modernity, beauty and creativity, pulsating energy and nervous tension. There is a rich vibrancy to life here, where every square inch is seemingly embroiled in history, politics, religion and philosophy. Is it any wonder the world is disproportionately attentive to Israel?

Andrea and I arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on a Friday in late March. For the next eleven days, our lives were transformed. We felt a little like the fictional Yael in A Damaged Mirror: “The wonder of it touched everything around her, casting a golden glow over even the most mundane events. Nothing seemed impossible, and nothing seemed entirely real.”

We rented a car and drove to Haifa, catching our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast ocean of brilliant blue stretched to the horizon. That evening, we drove across town to the University of Haifa, where daughter Hannah resides this semester. The university’s campus sits along a ridge high atop Carmel Mountain, with panoramic views of the urban landscape and its surroundings. A diverse city with a healthy mix of Jews, Arabs, and Druze, Haifa felt to us a little like San Francisco, with its steep hills and winding roads bordering a vast ocean. It was a quiet, peaceful place that took advantage of its natural beauty.

View of Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens
For the next eleven days, we traveled through northern Israel and spent time in Israel’s three major cities – Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem – each with distinct characters and histories. We explored the rugged beauty of the northern coast, the rock formations at Rosh ha-Nikra near the Lebanese border, and the ancient Crusader cities and fortresses of Akko and Caesarea. We visited major Christian sites near the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee and took a jeep tour of the Golan Heights, where we rode along the River Jordan, stopped for lunch at an Israeli winery, and gazed at the mountains of Syria and Lebanon in the distance. And we walked around the mystical city of Tzfat, with its narrow alleyways, steep inclines, artist colonies, and historic architecture.

Tzfat (Sefad)
Tradition, culture, and history are everywhere in Israel, with three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – deeply imbedded into the Israeli landscape. While wandering the streets of Tzfat, and in portions of Haifa and Jerusalem, we saw Hasidic men and boys dressed in black as Orthodox women pushed baby carriages, often followed minutes later by women dressed in hijab, or traditional Muslim garb. In Jerusalem, we stood and prayed at the Western Wall, where I inserted a written prayer for peace into a crevice of the Wall, between rocks dating back more than 2,000 years. I wandered into the sheltered portion beneath the Temple Mount and observed a group of deeply religious, ultra-Orthodox men davening as they rocked their bodies back and forth with copies of Torah in hand, a touching display of spiritual conviction.

On Good Friday, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and observed emotional scenes of Christian pilgrims paying their respects to the crucified Christ. I watched silently as a group of women succumbed to their knees and bowed in prayer, their faces touching the Stone of the Anointing, where tradition holds Jesus was prepared for burial. This particular Friday was also the first day of Pesach (Passover), a national holiday in Israel celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. As we walked outside, we were met with the Muslim call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Oh, the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, so vibrant and full of life; it is here one feels at the center of the world and of history.

Stone of the Anointing in Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Israel is a land of many paradoxes; an ancient land in a modern country, a land of friendly people, of peace and tranquility, in a region filled with conflict; a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy in a Jewish state. Although everyday life here is not much different from life in the United States or Europe, reminders of Israel’s uniqueness abound in the occasional military checkpoints, which we passed after driving through portions of the West Bank on our way to Jerusalem from the Golan Heights and, three days later, Masada and the Dead Sea. Security is visible but not overbearing, and I was struck by how young were the IDF soldiers we observed gathered at bus stops or patrolling the streets of the Old City with Uzis and M16’s slung over their shoulders.

International travel helps broaden one’s perspective, for it helps you see the world through different lenses. While traveling through Italy two years ago, and again in Israel last month, it becomes apparent that the United States is just another country; a respected country, and an important one, but not the center of the universe that most Americans imagine. In talking with our tour guides – Oded in the Golan Heights and Gil for two days in Jerusalem – we were surprised at the lack of indebtedness and trust Israelis (or at least these two particular Israelis) express for the United States. The Iranian nuclear negotiations were particularly on the minds of Israelis when we were there, and we heard much talk from Oded and Gil of how the United States and Europe do not sufficiently appreciate the risks posed by a nuclear Iran, which they viewed as a far greater threat to Israel than ISIS and other strands of Islamic extremism.

“ISIS does not have the tools to threaten us,” explained Gil, a former sniper for the IDF who is now among the most sought after tour guides in Israel, having led tours in the past for the King of Jordan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Gil and Oded expressed little concern over ISIS and the complex alignment of conflicting interests in the Middle East. To them, Iran was the only force with which Israel was concerned, because Iran is the only country at present that poses a legitimate threat. When I pointed out that the United States had a multitude of interests, long-term and short-term, military and diplomatic, that were far broader than those of Israel, they acknowledged my point and appreciated my challenge to their more narrowly-focused lenses. But their perspectives were understandably shaped by a sense of immediate history and existential fear that does not easily dissipate, and assurances of U.S. support do not satisfy them, whether such assurances come from an American visitor or a U.S. Secretary of State.

Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery - Jerusalem
I must confess I was less prepared for Gil’s and Oded’s skepticism of American resolve and whether the United States could be relied upon to watch Israel’s back. Having never remembered a time when the United States was not strongly allied with Israel – at least in domestic U.S. politics, to be perceived as anything less than a die-hard supporter of Israel is a good way to lose an election – it was interesting to hear these two Israelis, one a secular Jew from the Golan Heights, the other an observant Jew from Jerusalem, express lingering resentment over official U.S. neutrality in the region during Israel’s early years, and the State Department’s policy tilt in favor of the surrounding Arab countries and American oil interests. They reminded us that the French were more reliable allies than America until after the Six Day War in 1967, and that American military and financial support only developed when Israel was finally perceived as a useful ally in the Cold War in the early 1970’s. It explains in part Israel’s fierce independence on matters of security.

Tel Aviv coastline as viewed from Jaffa
On the Palestinian conflict, the Israeli elections (Benjamin Netanyahu had just won re-election a few days before our arrival), and the Orthodox-secular divide in Israeli society, it was apparent that neither Gil nor Oded nor Israelis generally are of one mind on these topics. In reading the English editions of Haaretz while in Tel Aviv, I was impressed by the vibrancy of the country’s political discourse, and at how sharp-edged were the published opinion pieces in criticizing the current Israeli government over its willingness to alienate the U.S. administration, its refusal to pursue a two-state solution and to meaningfully modify the policy of expanded settlements in the West Bank. Oded had described Israel as divided between “secular Ashkenazi elites from Tel Aviv” on the one hand, and a combination of Sephardic, religious, and Russian Jews on the other. When I told the owner of a Jerusalem restaurant at dinner one evening that we were eventually heading to Tel Aviv, he joked, “Yes, when I wish to leave the country, I head to Tel Aviv.”

“We must think differently, look at things in a different way,” said Yitzhak Rabin. “Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” In north Tel Aviv, we visited the Israeli Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which had an impressive multi-media exhibit documenting modern Israeli history and highlighting the life and death of the late Israeli Prime Minister. I was inspired and saddened by this exhibit, for rarely in history does one find a leader with the vision and intelligence of Yitzhak Rabin. A military hero, the first Israeli Prime Minister to have been born in Israel, a man of toughness and tenderness, Rabin understood that, for Israel to thrive as a Jewish state and a democracy, it must find a peaceful solution – a two-state solution – to the conflict. He understood as well, that to achieve peace requires a willingness to negotiate with your enemies, not your friends; and that a “diplomatic peace is not yet the real peace,” but “an essential step in the peace process leading towards a real peace.”

Rabin knew that for Israel to remain a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people, a place of refuge for the Jewish diaspora, it was essential that it not annex over 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To do so would risk making Israel a bi-national state deprived of its Jewish character – essentially the end of Zionism – or it would violate Israel’s democratic traditions and require the permanent oppression of an entire people based on ethnicity and nationality. Rabin rightly refused to accept either option. I am afraid that, ever since his assassination in 1995 at the hands of an ultra-Orthodox extremist, Israel has not had a leader of Rabin’s stature, respect, and backbone. I do not know how or when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end, but as long as Hamas controls Gaza and Netanyahu remains Prime Minister of Israel, a peaceful solution appears impossible.

Arab East Jerusalem as viewed from Old City
On matters of security, Israelis are of one mind, for the security issues in Israel are substantial. When one sees first-hand how little physical distance exists between the western borders of the West Bank and the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, a narrow strip of land that contains a great portion of Israel’s population, infrastructure, and technological capability, it is easy to understand why preventing the Palestinians from obtaining any offensive military capability in the West Bank is an issue for which there is no compromise. But there are many other issues for which compromise is possible, and the continued expansion of West Bank settlements by the current Israeli government is a roadblock to any attempt at peace.

It is a shame that the Palestinians have not had a leader of high-stature who could build a non-violent movement for Palestinian statehood; for it is clear that most Israelis want peace and that the region is fatigued from the endless conflict. Polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, as do a majority of Palestinians according to a Hebrew University study in 2013, and many Israelis perceive and are discomfited by the injustices and inequalities of the Israeli occupation. But when your life and the lives of your family are at stake, it is understandable that theories of justice and idealistic visions of peace take a back seat to immediate security.

The closer one looks at and studies the region and its history, the less black-and-white the issues become. Driving through the West Bank on our way from the Golan Heights, we observed Palestinian slums unlike any I have seen – rundown shacks with no electricity or running water, one after another forming small enclaves of despair. Although the Israelis must accept responsibility for the gross inequalities and injustices as long as they are the “occupying” power, the Palestinian Authority is also to blame (Hamas in Gaza is another matter still) for its long-standing corruption and failures to accept past negotiated solutions.

Politics and history were naturally on my mind in Israel, but there is so much more about this place that it is easy to forget at times that any conflict exists or has ever existed. Israelis go about their daily business much like the rest of us, more concerned with the economy and the stock market, their children’s schooling, and issues of work-life balance.

Old Jaffa
Saturday in Tel Aviv allowed us to rest and relax on the beach and soak in the sun and fresh ocean air. We walked around Old Jaffa that evening, watched an outdoor display of Israeli-couples dancing to various waltzes, stepped inside St. Peter’s Church, which was built in 1654 and was once visited by Napoleon, and ate at one of the many seafood restaurants along the center city coastline. The next day, following our tour of the Rabin Center, we ate lunch at a Tel Aviv mall and then walked around Carmel Market, experiencing a slice of everyday Israeli life.

And we loved the food. Israeli breakfasts in particular are quite impressive, with salads, fruits and nuts, several types of eggs and fish, and breads (except during Pesach). The food in Israel is fresh and locally produced, with plenty of vegetables, fish from the Mediterranean, and standard Middle Eastern fare everywhere you go. And the service was almost always friendly and helpful.

Although I was warned that Israeli drivers are “crazy” and aggressive, I found driving in Israel far less stressful than my many travels along the I-95 corridor in the United States (or God forbid, the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia). Roads are well maintained – again, unlike in the United States, where potholes and poor construction frequently abound. I sensed that Israel prioritizes the quality of its public infrastructure and accommodations, something we Americans could learn from. The public restrooms in Israel were impressively clean and equipped everywhere we went, even in Old City Jerusalem on a crowded Friday. Compared to New York’s Penn Station, or most public restrooms in densely-populated American cities, Israel had its act together.

The River Jordan in the Golan Heights
Eleven days was not enough time to have seen and done everything we desired, but it was enough to discover that Israel is an intoxicating country. To have touched the Sea of Galilee, stood next to the River Jordan, prayed at the Western Wall, and inhaled the salty air by the Dead Sea, are experiences I will remember for a lifetime. To have walked the narrow alleyways of Tzfat and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; to have driven and walked through and around this fascinating country, in which every inch of ground is full of history and tradition, was exhilarating. Yes, I will return to this land and its people. I will continue to contemplate its future, study its past, and hope for peace. I will watch with interest as Israel continues to balance the competing demands of its Zionist ideals, democratic traditions, and growing influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life. Will Israel make room for a more modern, liberal expression of Judaism in this country of history and tradition? Can it find a way to accommodate the desire for peace with the need for security? Can it remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts?

Israel will forever be a land worth protecting and preserving. And it will remain a living symbol of the hope for peace among nations, and tranquility between the world’s religions, peoples, and cultures. Shalom, my friends. Shalom.

Near the Western Wall, Old City Jerusalem