Israeli Leaders Bucked the West to Establish Israel 60 Years Ago

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - If Jewish leaders had not been willing to stand on their own against the advice of the U.S. and other Western nations 60 years ago, the Jewish State would never have been established, said a man who witnessed the country's birth.

On Wednesday, air raid sirens sounded and Israelis paused for two minutes to remember the 22,437 fallen soldiers and terror victims who have died here since 1860 -- the year that Jews began to settle the land outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

At sundown on Wednesday, Israel will move from mourning its dead to rejoicing in its Independence Day. Flags will be raised from half-staff to full staff and the celebrations will begin.

Arieh Handler, who is 93 this month, was present at the signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948. He may be the only living one of the 200 people who witnessed the event.

Sitting in his Jerusalem home, Handler told Cybercast News Service that he wished people around the world and in Israel understood the impact of what really happened that night.

"At the time, the Americans -- particularly President [Harry] Truman -- asked [David] Ben Gurion to wait, not to declare a state," said Handler, who was an associate of Ben Gurion. (Ben Gurion was Israel's first prime minister.)

Israel had accepted the United Nations partition plan six months earlier, dividing British controlled Palestine into two states -- a Jewish state and an Arab state. But the Arab states rejected the plan.

Although the U.S. pressed the international community to approve the U.N. plan, the State Department worried that the fledgling state would ally itself with the Soviet Union.

Some in the U.S. and in pre-state Israel feared that a new nation populated mainly by poor people -- many of whom had just escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II in Europe -- would not be strong enough to succeed, said Handler.

When the British, who had ruled the area by U.N. mandate since 1923, officially withdrew, Israel went ahead and declared its statehood.

"[Ben Gurion] was of course right, because if at that time [he] hadn't declared the Jewish State, the state would not have been established," said Handler.

"I really felt that it's history -- that I was present in history. I'm a religious person," Handler said. "It was the Almighty who helped us to get to this place."

By the time Handler left the hall in Tel Aviv that evening, Egyptian planes were already trying to bomb Tel Aviv and the Arab army was trying to enter the city.

The Arab Legion was stopped by Israel's own defense forces at the place where Tel Aviv University now stands and where Handler's son is currently a professor, he said.

"The whole night we were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv because we didn't know what was going to happen, whether the Egyptians or the Arabs [would] get in but we knew that [it was] a great day," he said.

The next day, the nascent Jewish State, reborn in its ancient homeland, was attacked by Arab forces from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. By the time a ceasefire was signed seven months later on January 7, 1949, Israel had increased the size of its original territory by 50 percent.

To this day, the Palestinians mark Israel's Independence Day (which also could have been their own if they had accepted the partition plan) as the "Nakba" - the "catastrophe."

Handler, who spent most of the last five decades living in England and working for Jewish and Zionist concerns, returned to live here nearly three years ago.

He said he is mostly concerned these days about social justice, including the gap between the rich and the poor. He said those problems would have been dealt with differently by the country's socialist-leaning founding fathers.

In Handler's opinion, Israel must consider what the U.S. and other countries say, but the nation shouldn't try to make peace with the Arabs by giving away land.

Handler did not want to comment on the current legal troubles of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that are overshadowing the 60th year celebrations. Police questioned Olmert as part of a new criminal investigation last week but the court has refused to release details.

"[In] the world there are some who are in favor of Israel, some who are not in favor of Israel but they do not know what has been created here -- something tremendous. The leaders are not always the best, I don't want to say more about that, but the people who are here -- they are good people," he added.

Celebrations for Israel's 60th anniversary will continue for weeks. President Bush is one of many world leaders marking the event. He is due here next week to celebrate with Israel and is scheduled to address the Knesset.

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