Fifty-five years is not a very long time in historical terms, especially when talking about a people who have been around for thousands of years.
But the balance sheet of those 55 years has certainly been impressive.
Not everything went the way our founding fathers had hoped for. They believed in peace, but Israel was invaded by seven Arab armies the day it was founded, and there have been six wars since then -- the latest being Yasser Arafat's "Al-Aksa intifada."
The basic reason for all those wars was that the Arab world refused to recognize the Jewish people's right to a national homeland in an area they consider to be exclusively their own. But as we look back, the drama of the Jewish people has made the rebirth of the State of Israel -- in spite of all the obstacles -- an epic poem without precedent or comparison in the annals of history.
Some things were obviously lost on the way -- though not altogether: the spirit of egalitarianism, for instance. And some would say that there is insufficient concern these days for social justice, though others would reply, correctly, that Israel allocates proportionately more for social and welfare payments than any country in the West.
So, why are there still so many poor people?
Which brings me to the first challenge that Israel faces on its 55th anniversary: How to reform its economy and do away with its historical and often politically motivated baggage of bureaucracy so as to make the economy grow and at the same time improve the lot of the underprivileged?
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently trying to do just that. But his -- actually our -- chances of success will depend first on the determination of the government as a whole to overcome the opposition of vested interests and second on two factors that are largely beyond our control: ending the international economic recession and changing the political and security situation.
Which brings us to the other major challenge facing Israel today: peace and security.
America's important victory in Iraq has removed a major threat to the peace of the world -- not least, of course, to Israel. If, indeed, the United States will pursue President Bush's declared aim of fighting all those who engage in or support terror -- Syria, Iran and Libya rank first and foremost among those -- the Middle East may actually become a less-dangerous neighborhood.
But we are not yet there, and lest one forgets, Arab Islamist terror, like fascism and communism before it, is not out to reform but to destroy. Therefore, for the world to breathe more easily, those who preach and perpetuate terror must be destroyed.
Next to America, Israel is one of the terrorists' most hated targets, because it represents the values and principles most obnoxious to them, including democracy, human rights and equality for women.
Major parts of the Palestinian national movement still are an integral part of the international brotherhood of evil and violence, though, hopefully, the United States victory over Saddam Hussein will persuade them to abandon violence and give peace a chance.
There is a lot of talk these days about the "road map." Will it work? Won't it work? It's too early to tell.
There are some parts in this road map that suggest that more than one cook had a hand in it. And surely the non-American members of the "Quartet" (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) not only have their own political and economic interests in the Middle East, but the way they behaved in connection with Iraq should make one wonder about the role they should play in the peace process.
At the heart of the road map lies the expectation that in a few short years from now, there would arise a "democratic, viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel." But what if it will turn out to be just another undemocratic, brutal, aggressive rogue state like so many others in the region?
Indeed, one of Israel's most urgent diplomatic and strategic challenges will be to persuade Israel's American friend and ally that while Israel is willing to make major sacrifices for peace, it will never agree to endanger the physical security of its citizens or compromise the 2,000-year-old dream of the Jewish people.
In other words, before there can be any movement on the largely uncharted terrain of the road map, there will have to be a real change in the Palestinian leadership. New names are not enough. New deeds are required. And there must be an absolute end -- "forever," as Bush has said -- to Palestinian terror, violence and incitement.
No less important, Israel should not be required to agree a priori, even in principle, to Palestinian statehood unless the Palestinians abandon once and for all the "right of return," which is another term for annihilating Israel by flooding it with hundreds of thousands of "refugees."
All of the above aren't just political preconditions. They are natural prerequisites to give the road map any realistic chance of success.
Basically, the United States and Israel have the same strategic interests and the same aims -- though there could be differing attitudes on one or more issues. Considering the vast amount of mutual goodwill and the understanding that Israel enjoys as to its vital interests with so many parts of American public opinion, not least the administration itself and Congress, such differences should not be allowed to develop into unnecessary and unhelpful disagreements.
All said, and in spite of the fact that the chances for peace may be more propitious than they have been since before the Oslo debacle, for a long time to come Israel's security will still depend on its ability to defend itself and on its close strategic alliance with the United States.
Indeed, the close ties between the United States and Israel may be deemed an important American strategic interest as well, especially in light of the unstable internal situation in some of America's traditional Arab allies -- not a few of them, as recent events proved, being fair-weather friends at best.
Zalman Shoval was twice Israel's ambassador to the United States from 1990-1993 and 1998-2000. He is a former Likud Knesset member and currently serves as a part-time diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
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