Commentary Magazine


Israel's Moment of Truth

It might appear that things have never been going better for Israel, or worse for those who wish it ill.

Consider: the Jewish state has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and five agreements with the Palestinian Authority (PA), its “partner for peace.” With Syria, high-level negotiations now under way appear so promising that both sides have publicly predicted they could be wrapped up within a few months. Other diplomatic ties are stronger than ever: Israel has a powerful regional ally in Turkey, enjoys growing links to such giants as India and China, and is generally shedding the near-pariah status that hobbled it in the recent past. The connection to the United States is warm, deep, personal, and reciprocal.

Should diplomacy fail for any reason, moreover, Israel can fall back on its military strength. As the only country in the Middle East participating in the much-bruited “revolution in military affairs”—essentially, the application of high-tech to armaments—it has built so great a lead in conventional arms, including planes and tanks, that several Arab states have basically conceded they cannot compete with it on that level. Instead, they have directed their attention higher (to weapons of mass destruction) and lower (to terrorism). But even in those arenas, Israel is far from helpless: it has a missile-defense system, the Arrow, in the works and, for deterrent purposes, weapons of mass destruction of its own, as well as formidable anti-terrorist capabilities.

Security matters hardly exhaust the list of Israel’s advantages. Economically, it enjoys today a percapita income of $18,000, placing it a bit ahead of Spain and a bit behind Canada—in other words, in the big leagues. Better yet, it has shown a very impressive annual growth rate since 1990. Thanks to its “Silicon Wadi,” Israel is a high-tech giant, with a computer and Internet sector larger in absolute terms than that of any other country in the world outside the United States. Demographically, the birth rate of 2.6 children per woman among Israeli Jews is one of the highest in the West, and the country also remains a magnet for immigration; with 5 million Jews, it is quickly gaining on the United States as the place with the largest Jewish population in the world.

Finally, there is the political scene. Unlike its neighbors and rivals, Israel benefits from a lively and robust civic culture in which everyone has his say, party lines are (notoriously) fluid, and no one defers to politicians. And yet, however colorful and argumentative the public forum, when it comes to key security issues the major parties find much common ground. In last year’s elections, for example, the two candidates for the post of prime minister differed on the tone and pace but hardly at all on the substance of the peace process: yes, they concurred, the Palestinians should do more to live up to their promises, but no, their failings in this area were not reason enough to cut off negotiations.

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By contrast, Arabs—and Iran, too—seem to be faring less well. Arab countries are, in the words of a UN official, “particularly exceptional in being the highest spenders in the world on military purposes”: they devote 8.8 percent of their GDP to the military, versus 2.4 percent for the world as a whole. Nevertheless, despite all this spending, Arab conventional forces are in decline, To be sure, a few states (like Egypt) have access to advanced American arms, but their lack of technical proficiency means that they are nearly always consumers and not producers of military hardware, paying for completed goods that others have to teach them how to operate.

Allies? The Soviet Union is gone, and no one has come close to replacing it. The Arab states darkly suspect the United States of engaging in conspiracies against them, and these suspicions—as, most recently, in the case of the Egypt Air crash off Massachusetts—impede closer relations with the world’s only superpower. Arabs also lack an effective counterpunch to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and have failed to respond to the growing cooperation between Turkey and Israel in a way that would advance their own interests.

Outside Israel, the Middle East boasts—if that is the right word—the world’s highest quotient of autocratic regimes, not to mention an inordinate number of rogue states, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Libya. A culture of deference and intimidation remains dominant everywhere; movements for democracy and human rights are feeble. Arab states are particularly vulnerable to Islamism, a totalitarian ideology in the tradition of fascism and Marxism-Leninism. While Islamists have suffered reverses in recent years, they are still the major opposition force in countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, threatening the stability of government after government.

Nor are Arab economies doing well. The recent jump in oil prices, however welcome to producers, cannot obscure some dismal realities, principally a per-capita annual income among Arabic-speaking peoples that does not rise to one-tenth of Israel’s. Yes, Kuwait weighs in (just like Israel) at $18,000; but in Yemen the annual per-capita income is $270; more to the point, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria all hover in the neighborhood of $1,000. A paltry 1 percent of world equity flowing to emerging markets these days ends up in Arabic-speaking countries. When it comes to high technology, the Middle East is a black hole, with few sales and even less innovation. As the historian R. Stephen Humphreys has noted, “with the partial exception of Turkey and of course Israel . . . there is not one Middle Eastern manufactured item that can be sold competitively on world markets.”

Demographically, the Arabs and Iran have too much of a good thing: a birth rate so high that schools cannot maintain standards, and economies cannot manufacture enough jobs. The demographer Onn Winckler has named population growth as the Middle East’s “most critical socioeconomic problem.”

Taken together, all these factors seem to suggest that Israel has at long last achieved a definitive edge over its historic enemies. Such, indeed, appears to be the view of Israeli leaders themselves. Thanks to Israel’s position of strength, Prime Minister Ehud Barak now speaks confidently of an “end to wars” and of his country’s being finally accepted as a permanent presence by its neighbors. These sentiments are widely echoed both in Israel and in Washington.

And yet—two trends suggest otherwise. The first has to do with Arab strengths, the second with Israeli weaknesses. In both cases, the phenomena I will be discussing are only partly material in nature, lying more in the realm of such elusive and intangible qualities as internal spirit and morale. But these are precisely the qualities that in the end can decide the fates of nations and peoples.

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Some improvements in the Arab position, whether actual or imminent, have long been recognized: greater control over a huge portion of the world’s oil and gas reserves, steady acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, movement toward economic modernization (notably in Egypt). Progress in any or all of these areas can seriously threaten Israel’s qualitative edge and its security in the medium term—unless, of course, Arab enmity toward the Jewish state has dissipated in the interim. But just here is where the greatest reason for concern resides.

Historically, Arab “rejectionism”—that is, the refusal to accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish state in its historic homeland—has been based on one or another local variant (pan-Arab, pan-Syrian, Palestinian, or the like) of nationalism, a European import into the Middle East. It has suffered from two disabilities: limited reach and factionalism. But in recent years, as the rejection of Israel has taken on a less secular and more Islamic complexion, it has also gained a deeper resonance among ordinary Arabs, with Israel’s existence now cast as an affront to God’s will, and has also benefited operationally from a somewhat greater degree of unity (Islamists are surprisingly good at working together). The net effect has been not to moderate but, on the contrary, to solidify and to sharpen Arab antagonism to Israel—vocal rejectionist elements now include pious Muslims and Islamists, Arab nationalists, despots, and intellectuals—and to give fresh impetus to the dream of destroying it.

The point cannot be made often or strongly enough that, in their great majority, Arabic speakers do continue to repudiate the idea of peace with Israel.1 Despite having lost six rounds of war, they seem nothing loath to try again. In one of the most recent in-depth surveys of Arab opinion, conducted by the political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut, 1,600 respondents, divided equally among Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians, stated by a ratio of 69 to 28 percent that they personally did not want peace with Israel. By 79 to 18 percent, they rejected the idea of doing business with Israelis even after a total peace. By 80 to 19 percent, they rejected learning about Israel. By 87 to 13 percent, they supported attacks by Islamic groups against Israel.

This is the view of Israel that dominates political debate in the Arab world and that is conveyed to the public in every arena from scholarly discourse to the popular media to nursery-school jingles. True, some Arabs think otherwise. The late King Hussein of Jordan spoke eloquently of the need to put aside the conflict with Israel and to get on with things; his son and successor appears to be of like mind. Some Arab army officers would undoubtedly prefer not to confront Israel’s military forces any time soon. Kuwaitis and Lebanese Christians, sobered by occupation, now mostly wish to leave Israel alone. And there are business leaders who believe, as one Arab banker succinctly put it, that “the whole purpose of peace is business.” But these elements, overall, represent but a minority of the Arab population, and have not shifted the underlying hostility.

An incident from the sports pages makes the point. Only a few months ago, Israeli athletes ventured on a first-ever official match to an Arab capital—the capital not of a front-line “confrontation state” but of the tiny and moderate Persian Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar. The experience turned out to be, as Agence France-Presse aptly characterized it, “a bruising ordeal.” Forced to live in nearly complete isolation from other athletes, the Israeli champions had to enter and leave their hotel via a side door. Among the flags of the competing nations, Israel’s alone was not raised in public. Huge crowds turned up to jeer at the Jewish athletes, and the media touted their presence as “an occasion to express the Arabs’ rejection of all that is Israeli.”

Twenty years of relations between Egypt and Israel since the treaty of 1979 testify bitterly to the same state of affairs. Formally there is peace, but Cairo permits, even sponsors, a vicious propaganda campaign against Israel that includes the crudest forms of anti-Semitism, and it is rapidly building up offensive military forces that could be deployed against the Jewish state. In effect, what Egyptian authorities are telling their people is this: for all sorts of reasons we have to be in contact with Israelis and sign certain pieces of paper, but we still hate them, and you should, too. In Jordan, where the government does not play this double game, things are in some ways worse: the best efforts of two kings have failed to induce in the Jordanian populace a more peaceable and friendly outlook toward Israel.

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Fueling the dream of Arab rejectionists is the immensely important fact that within Israel itself (that is, within the old 1967 borders), the Jewish proportion of the population has fallen from a one-time high of 87 percent to 79 percent today, and is inexorably trailing downward. In 1998, of Israel’s total population growth of 133,000, only 80,000 were Jews, with Arabs making up the bulk of the remainder. From such statistics, some demographers predict a non-Jewish majority in Israel by the middle of the 21st century.

But the Jewish nature of the “Jewish state” will shift in the Arabs’ favor long before they reach majority status there. At present, were Israeli Arabs to be represented in the Knesset in proportion to their numbers, they would already hold 24 out of its 120 seats. Even with the seven seats they now occupy, as the analyst Eric Rozenman has noted,

the Arab electorate and Arab Knesset members . . . have helped override Jewish majorities on such vital matters as the creation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s coalition in 1992 and approval of the Oslo and Oslo II accords in 1993 and 1995 respectively. All seven Israeli Arab members voted for both agreements; the former passed 61 to 50, with nine abstentions, the latter passed 61 to 59.

These trends will undoubtedly persist, Rozenman writes, especially as Israeli Arabs become “energized by a new Palestinian state next door (and perhaps also by an increasingly Palestinian Jordan).” By the time the numbers of Arabs approach or even exceed parity with the Jews, “the state might still be democratic, but the civic atmosphere, the public culture, would not likely be Jewish in the tacit, general sense it is today.”

The growing power and enfranchisement of Muslims in the United States provide further grounds for Arab optimism. Not only is the American Muslim community approaching the Jewish community in absolute size, it is also making strides in education, economic well-being, and political savvy. If the old pro-Arab lobby was hampered by its dependence on oil money, retired American diplomats, and left-wing Christian Arabs, dynamic new organizations like the American Muslim Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are another matter altogether. Although foreign policy is hardly their only cause, “Palestine” remains the single most mobilizing issue for American Muslims, and the position articulated by Muslim organizations on this issue is almost uniformly extremist—against negotiations with Israel or accommodation with it in almost any form.

Not only are these extremist Muslim organizations intent on making themselves heard, but the Clinton administration, at least, has openly welcomed them at the highest levels. At a dinner she hosted to break the fast of Ramadan this past December, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told her guests: “I want to be sure that the legitimate concerns of Muslim-Americans are taken into account when shaping the programs, activities, and reports of this Department.” Seated before her was a Who’s Who of American Muslim radicals.

Is it any wonder that many Arabs, knowing such facts, or hearing such heady words from the lips of the American Secretary of State, should become newly imbued with a sense of confidence about the future? And that sense can only be bolstered by what they see happening on the other side, within Israel itself.

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Once renowned for its self-confidence, bravery, and purpose, Israel today is a changed society. Whatever the undoubted strength of its military machine, few in a position to know the heart and soul of the country try to hide the fact of a widespread demoralization, even within that military machine itself. As a retired colonel summed it up neatly, “the Israeli public is really tired of war.”

Fatigue takes many forms in contemporary Israel. The pervasive feeling that they have fought long enough, and that the time has come to settle, leads many to express openly their annoyance with the need for military preparedness and the huge expense of maintaining a modern armed force. They weary of the constant loss of life, they want escape from the fear that terrorism imparts, they yearn to close down an atavistic tribal war—and peace treaties promise a quick way out. (As one Israeli put it to me, “My grandfather, father, myself, and my son have all fought the Arabs; I want to make sure my grandson does not also have to.”) Among young people, draft evasion, hitherto all but unknown, has become a serious problem, and within the army itself, morale is hardly what it once was, as the IDF’s decidedly unheroic recent record in Lebanon has revealed to all, including the Hezbollah enemy.

At the same time, Israel’s soaring economy has given many citizens a taste for the good life that cannot be easily reconciled with the need for patience and fortitude—and, especially, sacrifice—in confronting a seemingly unchanging enemy. Middle-aged Israeli men are increasingly unwilling to go off and “play soldier” on reserve duty for several weeks a year when they could be at the office increasing their net worth or enjoying what that net worth makes possible. For those with an active social conscience, a number of long-deferred domestic problems—persistent poverty, a faulty educational system, worsening relations between secular and religious—seem much more deserving of attention, and of state expenditure, than does grappling endlessly with Israel’s opponents.

Finally, Israelis are tired of the moral opprobrium their country has long suffered—at the United Nations, in Western academic circles, and in editorial boardrooms. Indeed, in an extreme reaction to this ongoing moral ostracism, some of the country’s foremost intellectuals have, as it were, defected: they have accommodated sizable chunks of the Arab side’s version of the Arab-Israeli conflict, promulgating them as important new truths. Thus, to cite an especially influential expression of this line of thinking, the school of “new historians” in Israel argues that the Jewish state is guilty of an “original sin”—the alleged dispossession of Palestine’s native inhabitants—and can therefore be considered to some extent illegitimate. Others, known as “post-Zionists,” have characterized Jewish nationalism—Zionism—as, if not racist, then at best an outdated and parochial ideology, and one which should no longer form the basis of Israel’s public life.

Such ideas, first incubated on the far Left and in the prestige universities, then spread to students, artists, and journalists, and are now the stuff of television documentaries and educational textbooks. As of the current Israeli school year, ninth graders no longer learn that Israel’s war of independence in 1948-49 was a battle of the few against the many but, to the contrary, that the Jews enjoyed military superiority over the Arabs. They also learn that many Palestinians fled the country in those war years not to clear the way for invading Arab armies thought to be on their march to victory, but out of well-founded fears of Jewish brutality and terror.

In a front-page report on the introduction of these books into the schools, the New York Times rightly characterized them as marking a “quiet revolution.” That revolution has by now reached the consciousness of politicians, business leaders, and even military officers; its impact can hardly be exaggerated. Thanks to the inroads of post-Zionism, as Meyrav Wurmser has observed in the Middle East Quarterly, Israeli society “is now facing a crisis of identity and values that strikes at the basic components and elements of [its] identity: Judaism and nationalism.” Without those two components, clearly, little remains of the Zionist project.

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What are the implications, for politics and diplomacy, of Israeli fatigue, and of the intense self-absorption that is its corollary? What strikes one above all is how little attention Israelis are paying these days to their Arab neighbors. Sick of fighting, bent on building an Internet economy, they seem to have decided that Arabs feel the same way, and want the same things, they do. (In psychology, the term for this is projection.) According to a survey conducted by the Jaffee Center at Tel Aviv University, fully two-thirds of Israelis now agree with the following dubious assertions: that most Palestinians want peace; that signing agreements will end the Arab-Israeli conflict; and that if forced to choose between negotiations and increased military strength, Israel should opt for the former. Prime Minister Ehud Barak perfectly sums up this outlook in his repeated invocation of a peace that will “work for everyone,” the unspoken assumption being that Arabs no less than Israelis seek to resolve their century-old conflict on harmonious terms.

Of course, at some level Israelis know full well about continued Arab rejectionism: the signs are too conspicuous for even the most ostrich-like to be truly clueless. But they have clearly chosen to de-emphasize or even ignore the phenomenon. How else to explain the absence of a single full-time Israeli journalist reporting from an Arab capital, or the fact that Hilal Khashan’s meticulous survey of Arab opinion, with its thoroughly dismaying news, received no attention whatsoever in the Israeli press when it appeared last summer? “These are only words. Let them talk,” is how Shimon Peres, speaking for many of his countrymen, has airily dismissed the undeniable evidence of Arab feelings and attitudes.

Peres’s disdainful remark encapsulates a delusional but widespread Israeli assumption: that peace in the Middle East is Israel’s for the making, and that if Israelis want to end the long-drawn-out struggle, they can do so on their own. They can “solve” the Palestinian problem by acceding to the creation of a state in the West Bank and Gaza; they can eliminate anti-Zionism by helping to funnel money to the Arabs, who will use their newfound affluence to become good neighbors (and never to amass more powerful arsenals); or—in the post-Zionist scenario—they can win Arab hearts by dismantling the Jewish attributes of the Jewish state.

Whatever the preferred tactic, the underlying premise is the same: that the key decisions of war and peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict are made in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv rather than—what is in fact the case—in Cairo, Gaza, Amman, and Damascus. Under the spell of this fantasy, Israelis now seem prepared to execute what will amount to a unilateral transfer of hard-won territory—to Syria in the north, to the Palestinian Authority in the center of the country—in the hope that their troubles will thereby disappear. Indeed, they sometimes appear prepared to go to extreme lengths to induce their Arab interlocutors to accept the gifts they mean to confer on them.

Listening to the Israeli prime minister and the foreign minister of Syria as they inaugurated a new round of talks in December 1999, for example, one might have thought that Israel was the party that had instigated—and then lost—the Six-Day war of 1967, and was now desperately suing Damascus for terms. Barak spoke pleadingly of the need “to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace,” and of creating, “together with our Syrian partners, . . . a different Middle East where nations are living side by side in peaceful relationship and in mutual respect and good-neighborliness.” By contrast, the Syrian foreign minister blustered like a conqueror, insisting that Israel had “provoked” the 1967 clash and demanding the unconditional return of “all its occupied land.” The very fact that a prime minister had agreed to meet with a mere foreign minister, breaching a cardinal protocol of diplomacy, was signal enough; that the foreign minister of Syria lacks any decision-making power whatsoever further confirmed who in this encounter was the wooer, who the wooed.

When it comes to Lebanon, Israelis appear to have convinced themselves that the unilateral withdrawal of troops from their “security zone” in the south will cause their main Lebanese opponent, Hezbollah, to leave them alone, despite repeated and overt statements by Hezbollah leadership that it intends to continue fighting until it reaches Jerusalem and that it “will never recognize the existence of a state called Israel even if all the Arabs do so.” More, Israelis seem persuaded that the prospect of their withdrawal from Lebanon is one of the things that have the Syrians worried, quite as if the best way to scare your enemy were to threaten a retreat.

On the Palestinian track, the ostensibly more muscular party—Israel—has pointedly refrained from requiring that the ostensibly more vulnerable party fulfill the many obligations it has undertaken since 1993, with the result that the PA has neither turned over criminals and terrorists, nor ceased its unrelenting incitements to violence, nor restricted the size of its armed forces.2 The PA’s logo brazenly shows a map of a future Palestine stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—a Palestine, that is, not alongside Israel but instead of it. To all this, the Israeli body politic appears to pay no heed.

The newspaper Ha’aretz reports that Israeli negotiators have already conceded in principle to the Palestinian Authority day-to-day control of parts of Jerusalem. At the very end of 1999, when Prime Minister Barak took the unprecedented step of releasing two Palestinian prisoners who had killed Israelis, his action was met, predictably, not with Arab gratitude but with noisy demonstrations chanting aggressive slogans—“Barak, you coward. Our prisoners will not be humiliated”—and by the demand that Israel now let go all of the estimated 1,650 jailed Palestinians. No doubt, the demonstrators will eventually get their way. Israelis are on their own road to peace, and no “partners,” however hostile, will deflect them from it.

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Today’s Israel, in sum, is hugely different from the Israel of old. For four decades and more, the country made steady progress vis-à-vis its enemies through the application of patience and will, backed when necessary by military courage and might. From a fledgling state in 1948 invaded by five Arab armies, it established itself as a powerful force, overcoming oil boycotts, terrorism, and the enmity of a superpower. But by the time of the Oslo accord of August 1993, the signs of exhaustion were becoming increasingly manifest; by now they are unmistakable.

As recently as the 1996 national elections, a lively debate took place in Israel over Palestinian noncompliance and over the wisdom of handing the Golan Heights back to Syria. By the time of the 1999 elections, with very little having changed on the ground, those issues had disappeared. Perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the population still adheres to the old Likud view that Israel should keep control of the territories until the Arabs have shown a true change of heart. Today, the main debate is over timing and tone, not over substance. Symbolic of the new consensus is the fact that the Third Way, a party that was exclusively focused on retaining the Golan Heights under Israeli control and that took four Knesset seats in 1996, vaporized in 1999, winning not a single seat. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the reputed arch-hardliner, signed two empty agreements with Arafat and, on the Syrian track, was ready to concede virtually everything Hafez al-Assad demanded. As Ehud Barak has correctly noted, “there are only microscopic differences between the things Netanyahu was willing to discuss and those discussed by [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin.”

Many who bemoan the weakness of current Israeli policy are tempted to place the onus on Washington. But (to put it symbolically) how can one become exercised over Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a Palestinian state when, only weeks earlier, Shimon Peres had already specified a date for such a state’s inception? Israelis are perfectly capable of choosing leaders prepared to resist American pressure, and they have done so in the past. The collapse of a meaningful opposition party in 1999—Menachem Begin won two elections as prime minister in 1977 and 1981, but last year his son and political heir had to withdraw from the race because his support was so trivial—rebuts the notion that weak politicians are doing the bidding of Washington; rather, they are doing the bidding of their electorate. No, it is inward to the Israeli spirit that one must look for the roots of the present disposition to ignore repeated Palestinian flouting of solemnly signed agreements, to turn the Golan Heights over to a still-fanged Syria, to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon, and to acquiesce in huge American sales of military equipment to an unfriendly and potentially threatening Egypt.

Israel today has money and weapons, the Arabs have will. Israelis want a resolution to conflict, Arabs want victory. Israel has high capabilities and low morale, the Arabs have low capabilities and high morale. Again and again, the record of world history shows, victory goes not to the side with greater firepower, but to the side with greater determination.

Among democracies, few precedents exist for the malaise now on display in Israel. Imperfect analogies include the atmosphere of pacifism and appeasement that pervaded significant sectors of opinion in France and England in the 1930’s, the United States during the Vietnam period, and Western Europe in the early 1980’s. But none of these situations quite matches Israel’s in the extent of the debilitation. Even more critically, none of those countries lived with so narrow a margin of safety. France succumbed to the Nazis, but was able to recover. England nearly succumbed, but had time to rally with American help. The United States lost a long, bloody war in Vietnam, but the nation as a whole was hardly at risk. In Israel the stakes are far higher, the room for error correspondingly minute.

This is not to say that the Jewish state is in immediate danger; it continues to have a strong military and a relatively healthy body politic, and democracies have demonstrated the capacity to right their mistakes at five minutes to midnight. But one shudders to think of what calamity Israel must experience before its people wake up and assume, once again, the grim but inescapable task of facing the implacable enemies around them.

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Footnotes

1 For details, see my “On Arab Rejectionism,” COMMENTARY, December 1997.

2 The threat to Israel’s security already posed by the PA’s military is the subject of Yuval Steinitz’s “When the Palestinian Army Invades the Heart of Israel,” COMMENTARY, December 1999.

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