Others may see Israel in terms of black of white, but to me it is a country in shades of grey, of nuances and riddles, more complex now then it was when I first knew it as a young reporter in 1966.
In those days, it was a young country led by Jews from Europe and built on the hopes and sacrifices of young kibbutzniks who ploughed the land and fought its wars. The Arabs saw it as their land of course, and Israel, faced with their unrelenting hostility, was uncertain of its future. The number of Israeli Jews leaving the country for greener pastures outnumbered the foreign Jews arriving to become citizens of the new Jewish homeland. So in many ways Israel was seen as the underdog.
The following year, the Six Day War changed the equation. The vastly outnumbered Israeli armed forces fought off the combined armies of its Arab neighbours, seized the Arab half of Jerusalem, and occupied the Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza strip, which had been controlled by Jordan and Egypt. I covered the war from Cairo, and I was as surprised as the Egyptians at the speed and efficiency of the Israeli Air Force and armored forces that rolled over the badly led and poorly motivated Arab troops. Suddenly, Israel was no longer the underdog. It was a proven military power backed by the United States and bolstered by the acquisition of a clandestine nuclear arsenal. Foreign Jews flooded into the country. Israelis mingled with Palestinians in the newly occupied territories, and began building Jewish settlements there. It was a time of uneasy coexistence, when Israelis and their conquered subjects got to know each other better. As late as the spring of 1973, I could take my family to the occupied West Bank to shop for fruit and vegetables in the Palestinian town of Qualqilya, enjoy tea in the rose gardens of Ramallah, or drink pamello juice in historic Jericho without worrying about our safety.
But Egypt and Syria remained implacably hostile. When they struck back on Yom Kippur in the 1973 War, I was the CBS News correspondent in Tel Aviv, living with my wife and children. The Egyptians punched across the Suez Canal into the Israeli occupied Sinai, while the Syrians rolled across the occupied Golan Heights until they were finally brought to a halt on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The Israeli forces had been caught off guard, and it was touch and go at first. Israelis stood in the streets and cheered as American supply planes ferried in supplies of ammunition that helped save the day. I felt their relief.! & amp; amp; lt; /SPAN>
Life in post-1973 Israel has been a roller coaster of soaring hopes and deep disappointments. After the 1973 War, I came to the conclusion that there is no simple solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The land they dispute is a small sliver of Holy Land squeezed between the desert and the sea. Both sides believe the land is theirs. Both believe they have history and God on their side.
I felt that the best the Israelis could do was to manage the conflict, and stave off another round of fighting as long as possible.
For a while, after Egyptian President Sadat made his historic trip to Jerusalem to bury the axe with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, I thought I might be wrong. I wondered whether peace - real peace, not the so-called "peace process" that has been bandied about for decades - might be possible. Some Palestinians under the leadership of Yassir Arafat slowly began to accept the possibility of living side by side with Israel in two separate but peaceful states. The Israeli right wing began to realize that its dream of an Israel on both banks of the Jordan was unsustainab! le beca use of simple demographics; the Palestinian population was growing faster than the Israeli population - even though Israelis continued to build and expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories that are a major obstacle to peace.
The Oslo agreement of 1993, in which the PLO recognized the right of Israel to exist in peace and security, was another high point. But in the years that followed, hopes for peace were shattered by a spiral of violence fuelled by Palestinian suicide bombs and rockets and overwhelming Israeli repression. The Palestinian intifadas and the Israeli Defence Forces anti-terrorist campaigns left little room for peace negotiations.
How does the future look from Israel now, at age 60? It lives behind a barrier it is building to keep suicide bombers from sneaking in the back door from the West Bank. In the south, it regrets having given up control of the Gaza Strip to Palestinians who elected a government hostile to Israel and which continues to fire rockets at nearby Israeli towns. To the north in Lebanon, it faces the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia, who pounded northern Israel with rockets in 2006, and who won a psychological victory when the Isr ael army invaded southern Lebanon but failed to wipe them out. Farther away, but within medium range missile distance, the Iranians, whose president denies the holocaust, are pursuing a nuclear development program that might give it the means to produce nuclear warheads in a few years.
Meanwhile, President Bush is talking up the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before the end of the year -- but is doing little to make it a realistic hope. The moderate wing of the Palestinians, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, wants to negotiate, but it complains that the Israelis keep building and expanding settlements in the territory that could become part of a Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has even less support in Israel than Mr. Bush does in America, seems to be paying only lip service to the President's hopes for peace.
Where does all this leave Israel? In my opinion, more of less where it was when I first arrived 42 years ago. Its future does not look promising. It is in a stalemate with a basically hostile Arab and Muslim world, and the best it can do is to manage a situation that offers no easy solutions. The only thing I feel sure about is that neither the Palestinians nor the Jews are going to leave that sliver of land they uncomfortably share. Eventually they will have to learn to live together, but God only knows how long that will take.