Israel’s real importance is not in its military might, but in its shining example.As Israel marks its 58th birthday this spring, it is worth contemplating the importance of this small and embattled country as an ally of the United States. Throughout its short history, Israel has fought five major wars, yet no American soldier has ever had to fight and die for Israel. However, Israel’s real importance is not in its military might, but in its shining example.

In a region where democracy is undergoing serious birth pains, Israel has firmly established a strong democracy that serves as a beacon of light in the darkness of Middle Eastern politics. And although Israel’s Arab neighbors may not openly admit it, many of them want to have what Israel has: a vibrant democracy based on the rule of law with a strong and independent judiciary that protects the rights of all of its citizens.

From its very inception, Israel’s leaders recognized that the rule of law is a central tenet of any democracy. The first challenge to this fundamental concept actually occurred in the first weeks of Israel’s existence. On June 20, 1948, the radical Jewish militia, the Irgun, tried to re-arm its fighters with weapons brought to the harbor of Tel Aviv on a ship called the Altalena. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, immediately understood the threat to the sovereignty of the new government and ordered the weapons to be seized and the Irgun to be dismantled and absorbed into the new Israeli army. The Irgun refused the order, and the battle commenced.

In the midst of Israel’s first battle for survival against the surrounding Arab countries, who were dedicated to the destruction of the new Jewish state, here was Jew fighting Jew on the beaches of Tel Aviv. At the end of the battle, the Altalena was sunk and the Irgun was dismantled. Although 19 Jews were killed, the new democracy was preserved and so was the concept of the rule of law.

Last summer, the world once again witnessed the strength of Israeli democracy. The government of Israel, headed by prime minister Ariel Sharon, implemented its decision to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Although it was painful to watch as Jewish soldiers evacuated Jewish settlers, it was also refreshing to see the strength of Israeli democracy in action.

Israel’s neighbors in the Palestinian Authority were also watching the Gaza evacuation. There is no doubt that they, too, want a society based on the rule of law as opposed to the chaos that currently exists in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Within Israel, democracy is flourishing. Israeli Arabs – of whom there are more than one million – participate equally with their fellow Jewish citizens in the governing process. In the elections in March, 11 Arabs were elected to the Knesset. Arabs also participate actively in government as both elected and appointed officials. Two examples are Rifat Turk, the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, and Salim Joubran, who sits on Israel’s Supreme Court.

Israel also has a strong, independent judicial system, which vigorously protects the rights of all its citizens, both Jews and Arabs. Indeed, in contrast to most other countries in the Middle East, Israeli courts are also places where non-citizens can assert claims – whether it be for protection of their civil rights or to assert interests in property – against both Israeli citizens and against the state of Israel.

Perhaps the most vivid example of the independence of the judiciary, and of its willingness to limit the actions of the government, was the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in June 2004, mandating a change in the routing of the security barrier which will separate Israel from certain areas of the West Bank. In order to decrease the terrorist threat posed by the dozens and dozens of suicide bombers, who have come from the West Bank and have killed by now nearly 1,000 innocent Israelis, Israel ordered the erection of this security barrier.

Representatives of one of the Palestinian communities affected by the barrier brought an action, asserting that it violated their rights by separating their homes from their farmlands. In agreeing with this argument, the Supreme Court required that the government change the direction and location of the barrier – including the removal of some portions which had already been built – to take a smaller percentage of Arab land. The Israeli government has accepted this ruling, and the lawyer for the successful Palestinian plaintiffs praised it as a “very courageous decision.”

In its 58th year, Israel is still facing serious threats to its very existence. The president of Iran has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” Palestinian terrorism is still a daily threat to Israeli citizens as the Palestinian Authority headed by Hamas refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Yet despite these dangers, this embattled ally of the United States serves as a model of democracy to all those in the region who desire freedom. There is no doubt that the day will come when the people of the Middle East will set aside their differences and recognize the value of the democratic way of life. In the meantime, through its example, America’s ally, Israel, is showing the way.

(Originally appeared in the South Bend Tribune)