Early Israelis were filled with pride in 1958 when a monumental effort to dry the Houla wetlands was completed. For seven years, under Syrian shelling that claimed the lives of 40 people, Israeli and British engineers dried more than 15,000 acres of marshes, hoping to secure a vast piece of land for agriculture. Drying the Houla wetland was perceived at the time as the purest, boldest manifestation of the Zionist ethos of kibush ha-shmamah (“Conquering the Wilderness”).
Before long, Israelis recognized that this complex environmental engineering project was a disaster rather than a feat. The acidic soil was unfit for agriculture. The peat kept self-combusting. Nitrogen compounds, sunken in the marshes for thousands of years, were now released into the Sea of the Galilee, contaminating the water, killing fish and increasing the growth of unwanted seaweed. Flora and fauna, some of them unique to the marshes, were demolished, and several species became extinct. An important habitat for migratory birds was destroyed.
The good news is that in the early 1990s, after years of damage and remorse, the Israeli government and the Jewish National Fund, the same entities that led the campaign to dry the Houla, decided to re-flood it. The success was immense. The birds returned, as did some species that were presumed extinct. With them came the tourists. Today the Houla is a birdwatchers’ paradise. It boasts more than 200 species of birds. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds stop here on their way between Europe and Africa. Due to smart engineering and some feeding tricks, tourists can see and photograph huge cranes and storks, in the thousands, from a very short distance, only a couple of hours’ drive north of Tel Aviv.
I visited the Houla wetlands during Passover with my family. The migratory birds have already flown northwest, leaving behind fish and large otters. Still, the marshes were packed two weeks ago with Israeli tourists steering bicycles and golf carts. The very Israeli lingual mixture of Arabic, Russian, and Hebrew in various accents, punctuated by a symphony of cellphone ringtones, filled the placid paths and the picnic areas.
It was a celebration of the beautiful Israel. It was also a celebration of the reversibility of folly.
Israel turns 65 this week. There is much to celebrate. For a small country that faces a multitude of complicated challenges, Israel is a success story, in so many ways. But successful countries – like successful people – are not immune to folly.
In 1967, Israelis were filled with pride when they conquered the land of the Bible. The return to the land of the Jewish forefathers was a fulfillment of a Zionist ethos.
But as the conquest of the Houla “wilderness” turned disastrous, so did the conquering of the West Bank. So much so, that today most Israelis realize that for their country to survive as a Jewish state that is also a democracy, it must rid itself of the occupation of the West Bank. Most Israelis today realize that holding on to the West Bank in perpetuity means perpetuating the occupation, the rule over another people, and that for Israelis to achieve long-term independence, real independence, they must secure independence for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Most Israelis recognize that although the West Bank is the land of the Bible, holding on to it in perpetuity is an increasingly unbearable albatross around Israel’s neck, on that denies Israel future independence and prosperity.
I was in Israel days after President Obama’s visit. Many Israelis were still talking about the historic speech he gave in Jerusalem, in which he reminded Israelis of the toll they are paying for the occupation. President Obama reminded Israelis that despite all their accomplishments, they are not truly independent. “Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation,” the president said. His words reverberated among Israelis who know that the occupation is unsustainable. Occupying another people, in perpetuity, is not in Israel's true nature.
Reversing the folly that originated in Israel’s indisputable military success of 1967 will take much more than re-flooding the swamps. But for a country like Israel, with inexhaustible reservoirs of resourcefulness and ingenuity, with its can-do attitude, this too is doable.