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Israel at 60: One People's Joy Is Another's Ongoing Tragedy
The Washington Diplomat / May 2008

By Larry Luxner

On May 8, the Israeli Embassy will throw a huge celebration in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary of independence. Amid heavy security, singer and guitarist Shuli Natan will perform the 1967 song that made her famous, "Jerusalem of Gold," before an estimated 1,000 senators, lobbyists, Jewish leaders, pro-Israel business leaders, philanthropists and the ambassadors of dozens of countries.

Just don't expect Afif Safieh to show up.

As the Palestinian Authority's top man in Washington, Safieh has no desire to celebrate what Palestinians call the "nakba" — an Arabic word meaning catastrophe.

"The dream of one side has been the nightmare of the other," said Safieh, who's being transferred to Moscow this month after two and a half years as the PLO's representative to the United States. "Israel was supposed to be an answer to what was called in Europe the 'Jewish question.' As a result, we Palestinians are a question waiting for a convenient, satisfactory answer."

One thing neither side disputes is that the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 — which corresponds to the fifth of Iyar, in the Hebrew year 5708 — was a momentous occasion in Middle East history.

On that evening, the British Mandate of Palestine expired, and the provisional government under David Ben-Gurion declared independence at a hastily arranged ceremony in Tel Aviv. The Jews were immediately attacked by five Arab countries, and fierce fighting ensued. By the time Israel's War of Independence ended in 1949, the fledgling Jewish state found itself in control of about 50% more than the United Nations partition plan of 1947 — angrily rejected by the Arabs — had allotted it.

For Jews, especially those who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, this was nothing short of a modern-day miracle — the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy that Zion, the Promised Land, was theirs at last. Jews began flocking to the new state from all over the world, but especially from Arab countries like Iraq, Egypt and Syria, which expelled an estimated 750,000 Jews after the establishment of Israel.

Yet an equal number of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in Palestine, sparking the world's most enduring refugee crisis, dramatic acts of international terrorism and most recently, internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah fighters in the overcrowded Gaza Strip.

"We, the Palestinians, have suffered three successive denials," Safieh told the Diplomat. "The first was the denial of our mere physical existence. A major, founding pillar of Zionist ideology was that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without land.

"The second was denial of our national rights. Until 2008, the paradox of history is that our country is witnessing an accelerated process of colonization, 60 years after the end of the decolonization era," he continued. "And the third is the denial of our pain and suffering. Our wounds and scars have been denied or trivialized. I know of no way to measure pain or quantify suffering. All I know is that we are not children of a lesser God."

While Israel has much to be proud of — after all, its economy is prospering, its people are among the best-educated on Earth and it has more companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange than any country outside the United States — not all of Israel's 7.2 million inhabitants are in a mood to celebrate.

"I don't feel very festive," said Sha'anan Street, the lead singer of the popular Tel Aviv hip-hop band HaDag Nachash, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "Israelis are not too happy. They're worried instead about the next war and how they are going to finish the month."

In a country where one in three children lives in poverty, JTA reports, there's a lot of grumbling about the $28 million the government is spending on anniversary celebrations.

Israeli Ambassador Salli Meridor couldn't be reached for comment, and for some unexplained reason, the embassy declined to make any other high-level officials available for an article on this subject.

But embassy spokeswoman Sharon Vanek played down the possibility of anti-Israel demonstrations outside the mission on International Drive, saying only that "there are different protests all over the place and all throughout the year. We don't see any difference between the protests of the last few months and the ones next month. Usually, there just a dozen people showing up outside the embassy with signs."

While Vanek said "there's no contact between us and the PLO office," she did say the ambassadors of Egypt and Jordan — which have both signed peace treaties with Israel — have been invited to Israel's independence party, and that "we expect them to come also this year."

In the Washington metro area, no less than 300 "Israel at 60" public events will take place between now and the beginning of June, many of them co-sponsored by the embassy and local Jewish organizations.

On May 4, legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman and Israeli cellist Amit Peled perform in separate concerts, while on May 12, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will kick off a week-long exhibit titled "The Art of Reconciliation."

In addition, dozens of award-winning Israeli films from "Beaufort" to "Aviva My Love" will be screened at area theaters, and on June 1, singer Neil Sedaka will entertain dignitaries at the annual Ambassador's Ball.

The biggest event, however, takes place earlier that day on the National Mall, in what's being promoted as "Israel at 60: A Capital Celebration." Popular Jewish singer-songwiter Regina Spektor has been invited to perform at the outdoor event, which will be hosted by actor Mandy Patinkin. Also on stage will be the Israeli band Mashina and Sesame Street "muppets" Oscar the Grouch and his Israeli cousin, Moishe Oofnik.

"We expect 20,000 people to show up — Jews, non-Jews, Americans, Israelis and others," said spokeswoman Vanek. "It's going to be a fun event on a Sunday afternoon."

On Capitol Hill, a group of lawmakers including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) have introduced a resolution recognizing Israel's 60th anniversary and "reaffirming the bonds of close friendship and cooperation between the United States and Israel."

In addition, the Democratic Israel Working Group and the House Republican Israel Caucus are spearheading a series of weekly floor speeches to honor Israel's 60 years of existence "and the contributions the Jewish state has made during the past six decades."

Local Israel at 60 celebrations end with the June 2-4 AIPAC Annual Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center. Billed as "the pro-Israel community's pre-eminent annual gathering," the event is organized by the powerful and controversial American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"For more than half a century, AIPAC has worked to help make Israel more secure by ensuring that American support remains strong," says the organization's website. "From a small pro-Israel public affairs boutique in the 1950s, AIPAC has grown into a 100,000-member national grassroots movement described by the New York Times as 'the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel.'"

Among other things, AIPAC takes credit for securing "critical foreign aid" for Israel, which totals $2.42 billion in 2008 and provides additional military and refugee assistance. That comes to at least $336 for every Israeli man, woman and child — far more than what any other country receives. Says Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend that we have in the whole world."

But in recent weeks, a new lobbying outfit, dubbed J Street — as in the Jewish version of K Street — has risen up to challenge AIPAC's primacy on Capitol Hill.

"We want to ensure that Israel has a second 60 years of peace and security," said J Street's founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. "For Israel to have that second 60 years and make it to 120, it must establish its permanent and internationally accepted boundaries in relation to its neighbors. That has to be the top priority for Israel and for those of us who care about Israel. It can't go another 60 years in this condition."

Ben-Ami told the Diplomat that J Street has a budget of $1.5 million. This pales in comparison to AIPAC's $50 million budget, and the well-funded Zionist Organization of America, which opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We started J Street to find the middle ground between the two types of groups likely to be rallying [for or against Israel] on the 60th anniversary," said Ben-Ami, who lived in Israel for several years and was President Clinton's deputy assistant for domestic policy. "One group will say 'Israel right or wrong' and blindly accept the way things are. The other option is to be anti-Israel. But there's a very large group of American Jews who fall in the middle, and to me, that's the most important group."

J Street's advisory board includes a number of prominent diplomats such as Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and David Kimche, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Ben-Ami, who calls his organization "a mainstream, centrist group, not a leftist Jewish group," says that as many as 75% of American Jews support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It poses a long-term risk to the very enterprise of a Jewish democratic state as envisioned by the people who set it up," he said. "That's clear from the demographics and the ever-changing military capatiblities of those who seek to do it harm."

The PLO's Safieh says he believes American politics "will be enriched and liberated by the emergence" of J Street.

"I believe that within the American Jewish community, those who support an authentic, genuine two-state solution form an even larger percentage than the national average," he said, adding that it's about time AIPAC's "pretense of monopoly" on the Jewish community is challenged by a more liberal group.

Ironically, a farewell reception for Safieh and his wife Christ'l is to take place at the Washington Club on May 14 — the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence.

"History is often made up of accidents," the witty Safieh responded when asked if the timing of his going-away party was intentional. "If it was a coincidence, it's because this corresponds to my day of departure. In fact, that issue will be part of my farewell speech."

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