The courage to lead

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The tragic loss of the US space shuttle Columbia and the death of its crew just moments before their return home sealed in common blood the foundations of the US-Israel alliance.


As we saw at Tuesday's memorial ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, this alliance's roots run far deeper than shared forms of government. The stories of the astronauts, told and retold in their eulogies, bespoke a commonality of values that underlie our natural and inevitable commitment to democracy.


These values inform our actions, engage our imaginations and move us in common directions. At their core is a commitment to liberty, a highly disciplined work ethic that encourages, applauds and enables individual and national exceptionalism, an overarching optimism in humanity's ability to change the world for the better, and a common humility in the presence of an all powerful God.


IAF Colonel Ilan Ramon and his six American crewmembers were the embodiment of these shared values that form the core of the Zionist and American psyches. They represented the best that both countries have to offer. All seven men and women displayed irrepressible patriotism, optimism, curiosity, courage and compassion that attached them body and soul to one another and to the eternal ideals that move both nations and motivate the actions of our leaders and citizens.


US President George W. Bush made clear during his visit with the bereaved families after Tuesday's ceremony that joint exploration of space was not an aberration in US-Israel relations but rather, as Ambassador Daniel Ayalon put it, "the natural next step," for an already rock solid alliance.


Speaking to Ramon's children, President Bush gave voice to the significance of their father's life for this alliance. The President paid homage to the fact that in 1981 their father, together with seven other IAF pilots, destroyed Saddam Hussein's French-built nuclear reactor and that he died just as the President is assembling an army of 150,000 to complete the work that Ramon had so nobly and bravely advanced. "Your father started the job," Bush is quoted as telling the Ramon children, "And I will finish it."


It is important to remember that back in the summer of 1981, Israel was loudly condemned for destroying the Osirak nuclear reactor. The Reagan administration, that was supporting Saddam's regime as a secular counterweight to Iran, was beside itself when Israel cast a strike at its "moderate" Arab ally. The Europeans were of course largely responsible for Saddam's ability to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while fully cognizant that Israel was their intended target. And the Europeans were, not surprisingly, made apoplectic by Israel's audacity.


Here in Israel as well, then opposition leader Shimon Peres was outspokenly critical of the operation. Fear that Peres, who had been leaked information about the plan to destroy the reactor, would misuse his knowledge almost caused then Prime Minister Menachem Begin to scrap the entire idea.


In 1981, Israel risked and absorbed international and local opprobrium to safeguard its national interest. That interest: preventing a hostile rogue regime from acquiring the means to destroy the State of Israel, clearly outweighed any diplomatic advantage that may have been gained by standing on the sidelines and accepting the unacceptable.


Years went by and as a decade closed, American opprobrium turned to admiration and gratitude. In 1991, then US Defense Secretary Richard Cheney remarked that it would have been virtually impossible for the US to have led a coalition to eject Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait if Saddam had been in possession of nuclear weapons.


It is fair to say that while the first Bush administration understood the operational importance of the 1981 strike as it amassed its international coalition to fight the 1991 Gulf War, it still refused to understand its true message. In accepting continued Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist by loudly excluding Israel from its coalition and refusing Israel's requests to retaliate for the Iraqi Scud missile attacks, the first Bush administration ignored the true nature of the war it was fighting.


Another ten years, and the September 11 attacks finally made clear that far from simply manifesting a threat to Israel, a nuclear-armed Iraq constitutes a threat to freedom itself. That is, in threatening Israel, a country based completely on the notions of liberty, freedom and their natural consequence, liberal democracy, Saddam threatens more than a place, he threatens a way of life.


Today, as the US stands poised to eradicate the threat of Saddam Hussein, Israel is beset by a new threat to our way of life and to our lives themselves. Yet this threat is still not understood by the US. Rather, this threat — a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has been embraced by the US and is the apple of Europe's eye.


The Palestinian and Arab rejection of Israel has been so long-lived that sometimes it is hard to believe that it can possibly still exist. From Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia to Iran, the Arab and Islamic world's encouragement the Palestinian war has been overwhelming. Among the Palestinians themselves as well with so many of their European patrons, the war has enjoyed such backing that it is easy to see why one could be tempted to believe that Israel shares the blame for its victimization. After all, it is hard to imagine that so many can be so wrong about so much. It is easy to fall into the trap of accepting that Israel must be forced to pay an unacceptable price of surrendering defensible borders to a terrorist state in order to rationalize the hatred.


But the faces of the 726 Israelis murdered in the past two and a half years by Palestinian terrorists who are trained, funded and lionized by their Arab and Islamic supporters must be enough to remind us that this rejection of Israel's right to exist is real.


The fact that a Palestinian state will be a terrorist state should also be clear. Were this not the case, a messianic peacenik like Labor leader Amram Mitzna would not be demanding that the Great Wall of China be built to separate Israel from his much sought for Palestine in the hope that, so divided, the Palestinians will magically be divested of their ambition to destroy the Jewish state.


The international community's experience with Saddam Hussein's Iraq over the past twelve years is instructive in understanding the threat a Palestinian state would constitute for Israel and to the human will to freedom that the nation symbolizes.


After the Gulf War, the international community, under the aegis of the UN Security Council, placed strict limits on Iraqi sovereignty. And yet, in spite of the sanctions and the UN weapons inspectors and no-fly zones, Saddam has pursued his weapons of mass destruction programs and has increased his support for international terrorism.


Just as Saddam's Iraq was first perceived as a threat to Israel alone but later was revealed as a threat to liberty itself, so too does the specter of a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel threaten humanity.


The virulent anti-Americanism evident in the Palestinian street demonstrations, mosque sermons and official propaganda is evidence of this. But the probable scenario that a US-recognized terrorist state that — like the PLO mini-state in Lebanon in the 1970s — will be a training ground for international terrorism, should clearly give pause to those who recommend its establishment.


The Iraqi experience should completely disabuse the notion's advocates of their faith that the international community can somehow restrain those committed to destruction.


President Bush's vision of a Palestinian society transformed from
a hotbed of extremism and terror into a liberal democracy is a vital goal. But in the meantime, as in Saddam's Iraq, power must dictate policy. The military threat posed by the current Palestinian mini-state must be dealt with in the first instance by military means.


A military operation by Israel to destroy completely the Palestinian terrorist option will be roundly and loudly condemned by the Europeans, accomodationist Israelis and Americans. But, as has been the case with Iraq, time and reality will prove that this policy is the only proper and moral course.


The absolute fusion of the nations of Israel and the US in the aftermath of the shocking loss of the Columbia space shuttle last Saturday distilled a normally murky reality. It showed us that the differences in views of our two countries are more apparent than real. In reality, Israel and the US are cut from the same cloth.


In pursuing our vital national interests, Israel must not fear moving ahead of the US. As it has with Iraq, the US will come to admire us for the courage to act on our convictions, and be grateful for our sacrifices.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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