Israel at 60: Surveying its Strengths and Challenges

TEL AVIV — According to the Jewish calendar, Israel turned 60 on Thursday — but since the day begins in the evening according to the lunar calendar, the big fireworks and street parties took place Wednesday night. Many other celebrations have been going on for quite some time, with events organized by Jewish groups all over the world. And more is yet to come, including a planned May 14 visit by President Bush to mark the anniversary of the Jewish state’s establishment.

Anyone who wonders why a country should celebrate its 60th anniversary so extensively probably doesn’t take into account that every decade Israel has marked since its establishment has led many to ask if the country would still exist in another 10 years. This time around, it was the Atlantic’s May cover that asked “Is Israel finished?” In order to make the point visually, the cover sports a Star of David painted in the Palestinian colors of red, black and green, ensconced in a PLO flag.

Another reason why this 60th anniversary is perhaps rightly considered special is that some of Israel’s founding “generation of giants” are still actively shaping the country’s fate — most notably, of course, the indefatigable Shimon Peres: His memories of a lifetime of service span the country’s history, but it was for good reason that the Jerusalem Post reported headlined a holiday interview with him “Peres looks forward to tomorrow.”

Obviously, Israelis and their friends have used the anniversary to highlight the country’s achievements; equally obviously, critics have seized the opportunity to emphasize its shortcomings. The most frequent criticism leveled at Israel is that it has failed to make peace with its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians. A lack of good intentions on Israel’s part is usually blamed for the persistence of the conflict. However, the Economist was right to argue in a recent “birthday special” with the unflattering title “The dysfunctional Jewish state” that “one factor that gets less attention than it should is quite mundane, and yet extremely influential: the Israeli electoral system.”

The Economist argues that while Israel’s pure representative democracy means that none of the country’s many ethnic and religious groups is disenfranchised, this system produces governments that have to rely on unstable multiparty coalitions, which necessarily operate in ways that make it extremely difficult to deliver the concessions needed to further the peace process. The suggestion therefore is that the “best 60th birthday present Israel could give itself is a new political system.” Other challenges facing the Jewish state also are highlighted in the 10 segments of the Economist special report, which thus offers a compact, critical, yet largely fair and superbly informative, survey of Israel at 60.

Meanwhile, Israel’s most prominent domestic critics at Ha’aretz tried hard to present themselves at their Zionist best for the anniversary, offering an editorial with the reassuring headline “Israel is stronger than its ills” — but of course, that also gave them a chance to list some of the country’s most vexing problems.