Forty years ago I traveled to Israel to spend the summer working on an archaeological dig at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. When our group arrived we were put to work at the base of the southern wall in the shadow of the Al Aqsa Mosque.
We spent about two months clearing the dirt and debris and in the process uncovered the topmost level of the monumental steps by which people entered the Temple complex in Jesus Christ's day. Today you can see those steps and much more when you visit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.
We also traveled throughout Israel exploring many sites mentioned in the Bible. That summer remains among the highlights of my life. I met people from around the world and saw places I had only read about in books. It was quite an adventure.
Israel garners a lot of attention in the news. Is that warranted? Why should we even care about this place that, for many, is so far away?
Country's expansion after enemy attack
Had Israel not annexed the territory it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, I probably would not have made the trip I was on. Certainly there would not have been an archaeological excavation at the Temple Mount. Before 1967 the Arab nation of Jordan controlled that area, and Jews were not allowed there. Jerusalem was a divided city, and certain sections were off limits.
But with the 1967 war this all changed. Israel's borders were expanded, giving Israelis some "breathing room" to defend themselves against their enemies. Israel fought one more all-out war, the near fatal Yom Kippur War of 1973, wherein Egypt nearly defeated the Israeli Defense Force. The Israelis, aided by America, rallied and won that war, and years later they signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
Since that time a tenuous relationship has existed between the Jewish state and Palestinians who continue to seek the return of lost lands as part of a final settlement.
The lack of a permanent treaty and establishment of a single Palestinian state is at the heart of the ongoing dispute in the region. Many expect a push at the United Nations this autumn to declare the existence of a Palestinian state, which would place Israel in a major dilemma.
Renewed call for pre-1967 borders
Since January the Middle East has been in turmoil, with leaders ousted in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Others may yet follow. The so-called "Arab Spring" has not created new democracies. Rather it has destabilized the region in a manner not seen since the creation of the modern Middle East at the close of World War I.
The Obama administration is carefully watching these events. Its members want to come down on "the right side of history," even if they may not grasp what that "history" might be. President Obama has not made any positive progress with the Arab world since his much-vaunted speech in Cairo two years ago. His recent call for Israel to return to pre-1967 borders with "agreed-upon swaps" of land is ill-defined.
What would a return to pre-1967 borders mean? In key areas, Israel would be only about 10 miles wide, allowing enemy armored forces to easily cut the country in half in time of war. Israel's one large airport near Tel Aviv would be just a few miles from enemy territory, exposing departing and arriving flights to missile attacks.
Syria would again control the Golan Heights, a high plateau overlooking northern Israel and an advantageous area from which to fire on or attack exposed cities and towns below. And the Old City of Jerusalem would again be under Muslim control, cutting off access to Jewish and Christian holy sites—or at least making them unsafe for Jews and Christians to visit.
Israel knows it must have defensible borders. Its troops must have room to maneuver and protect its people. The Israelis have no room to make mistakes. Just one could be fatal. They know that they, not unreliable allies, are responsible for their survival.
Israel understands it must negotiate an agreement that provides for a Palestinian state alongside a defensible state of Israel. And the Israelis have confirmed that Jerusalem must remain their united capital. They will settle for nothing else. They're in the land to stay and will not be moved.
Some benefits of expanded Israeli rule
What have the Israelis done with the land they gained in the 1967 war? They opened the land and made it productive. It has been cultivated to grow crops that not only feed the nation, but provide exports to the world. You can drive though these areas and see the progress that stable democratic government has brought to the land and its inhabitants, Jew and Arab alike. More than 1.5 million Arabs actually live in peace and freedom within Israel—a fact seldom reported.
I have seen the benefits Arabs living in Israel enjoy. Travel through the Jordan Valley, to Jerusalem, to Nazareth and Galilee and you will see the signs of prosperity where mutual cooperation is maintained.
There is another benefit gained in the more than four decades since the 1967 war. It is the rich knowledge of the archaeological finds that have opened up the history of the land. The Bible, along with many of its characters, has been confirmed historically by these finds. The field of Bible archaeology has exploded, and the world is better for that.
I earlier mentioned that the dig I worked on at the Temple Mount would not have been possible were the area still controlled by Muslim Arabs. Likewise, to the south of this area, in what is called the City of David, various digs have unearthed the history of the city, confirmed the ancient Jewish presence and affirmed the accuracy of the Bible. We would know little of this rich history were it not for the openness fostered by the State of Israel.
Israel a crucial focal point
Walter Russell Mead spoke to Israel's role in a recent piece at The American Interest. Israel matters to America like no other nation on earth, he wrote. "The people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul . . . The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.
"It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race . . . The restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted" ("The Dreamer Goes Down for the Count," May 25, 2011, emphasis added)
The existence of Israel does matter in today's world. It is larger than a Palestinian refugee problem. It is even more than the survival of one ethnic group over another. The ancient land occupied today by the remnant of mainly one tribe of the biblical nation of Israel is the site of God's story of eternal salvation for all the tribes of mankind. It is the culminating spot where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will show Himself once more for the good of all people and bring all nations before Him in judgment.
Today Jerusalem may be a "heavy stone for all peoples" (Zechariah 12:3), but one day it will become a place where people dwell in peace, for "Jerusalem shall be safely inhabited" (Zechariah 14:11).
Over the years I have made several visits to Jerusalem. In spite of its current troubles I have always felt safe. I've been able to place my hand on the Western Wall and walk around the Dome of the Rock. I've been able to see all its fabled streets and buildings, taking in all its history. I've been able to do this because it has been a free and united city. That is the way it should always be.