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Saturday, 20 June, 1998, 05:55 GMT 06:55 UK
Israel at 50: a fraught triumph
celebrating israelis
On May 14, 1948, when the British High Commissioner, General Sir Alan Cunningham, left the port of Haifa, the British mandate in Palestine came to an end. A few hours later, at a ceremony in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the birth of the state of Israel.

The BBC's Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, looks at the outcome of what a historian once described as 'a Jewish triumph, an Arab tragedy and a British failure'.

immigrants, 1944
50 years of Israel: from immigration...
Fifty years on, the triumph, the tragedy and the failure (now not merely British, but international) persist. But the most salient fact is that Israel is still there. In 1948 even the most ardent Zionist might have hesitated to predict such an outcome.

Born in war, the Jewish state has survived five major conflicts, as well as terrorist attack, economic embargo and international isolation. For deep-rooted historical and psychological reasons, it has not yet shaken off a siege mentality.

But by any objective yardstick Israel's resilience - as miraculous to many of its friends as it is unpalatable to many of its enemies - is by now a well-attested fact of international life.

Many had hoped this year's anniversary would take place in happier circumstances.

Failed hopes

Sinai campaign, 1956
... and war ...
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Back in 1993, when Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, it looked a reasonable bet that, by the time Israel was 50, it would be well on the road to peace with its Arab neighbours. Instead, for most of 1997, the peace process has been in serious trouble.

Furthermore, at the beginning of 1998, domestic politics was in turmoil, as the country's coalition government of religious and right-wing parties stumbled from crisis to crisis - in the process straining the patience not only of Israeli voters, but of Israel's friends in Washington.

As the state of Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front, little warmth in Israel's relations with either Jordan or Egypt, and scant prospect of reviving negotiations between Israel and Syria. The anniversary could even provide radical Islamic groups with a golden opportunity for some further spectacular act of terrorism.

Israel's remarkable achievements

rabin, clinton, arafat
... to peace?
For the Israelis themselves a half-century of existence will be a matter of considerable national pride. Among all the nation-building projects of the 20th century, Israel's is unique.

It was not, of course, quite as heroic as Zionist mythology has maintained - and the new nation was created at a high price, particularly for the Palestinian Arabs. But the achievement was remarkable nevertheless:

The ingathering of wave after wave of immigrants, the rebirth of the Hebrew language, the creation of a formidable fighting machine (and a famous intelligence service, recent failures notwithstanding), the maintenance of a vigorous democracy and press - these are not small achievements for a nation-state creating itself from scratch in a hostile environment.

The need for reform

For thoughtful Israelis, there is still much to be done, and not just in the most obvious area - the achievement of peace with the Arabs.

Many Israelis believe there is, after 50 years, a pressing need for political and economic reform. Israel's current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is the country's first prime minister directly elected by the people - but few believe that the reforms which brought this about have produced a stable and efficient political system.

On the economic front, Netanyahu came to power speaking the language of a committed Reaganite-Thatcherite reformer - but he has yet to deliver.

There are problems of identity because of the secular-religious divide and the difficulties of successfully absorbing immigrants (most recently Russians and Ethiopians).

And for all their closeness to the United States, some Israelis dislike the rapid pace of their country's Americanisation.

But the longer Israel survives, the more confident the country will be about its continued existence - and the more courageous it will be in facing up to its most pressing challenges, at home and abroad.

Put positively, a revival and successful conclusion of the peace process would inject a dose of calm and stability into a vital and volatile region. But the region - and Israel - could still collapse into serious chaos and bloodshed.

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