- - Thursday, March 21, 2013

On June 16, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit Israel. This week, President Obama has become the fifth president to do so, and over the course of three days, he will reaffirm the United States-Israel alliance and underscore the advancements Israel has made in only four decades.

The Israel that Nixon saw would be unrecognizable to visitors today. Nixon’s visit came only months after the Yom Kippur War, a conflict that left an Israeli public shaken and feeling vulnerable. The war’s aftershocks gave way to the most significant political upheaval the then-26-year-old state had seen. Leaders resigned, and the young state reeled. Nixon encountered a country on edge.

Israel embarked on a collective soul-searching in the years that followed and emerged stronger. We didn’t merely survive, we thrived. In our accomplishments, we created a more dynamic and egalitarian society. Upholding its Declaration of Independence that calls for full equality “without distinction of religion, race or sex,” Israel has pursued gender equality with vigor. By 1974, Golda Meir had already served as Israel’s first female prime minister, but the Knesset only had 11 female members. Today, the Knesset boasts 27 female members — a higher percentage of women than in the U.S. Congress. In 1974, women were relegated to clerical positions in the military. Today, they are fighter pilots.

Made up of Israelis from every socioeconomic class, the Israel Defense Forces is not only an army for defense — it is a mechanism for opportunity, education and community development. Young Israelis serve on the battlefield and in the classroom, inspiring at-risk youths and new immigrants to excel.

The past four decades have witnessed immense strides made by minorities in Israel. A nation that never had a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Israel hosts an annual international Gay Pride parade and gives shelter to LGBT Palestinians seeking protection. Arab-Israelis have served in every Knesset since the beginning of the state. In the latest election, 56 percent of Arab-Israelis voted, and there are 11 Arab-Israeli Knesset members representing three Arab parties. Arab and Jewish Israeli students study together, and through programs such as “hand-in-hand,” they are learning about cooperation and coexistence at every stage of their education. Though cases of discrimination still exist, Israel as a society is working toward total equality and egalitarianism.

In 1974, 50,000 Israelis studied in an Israeli university. Today, 125,000 Israelis are enrolled in Israel’s seven universities, three of which are ranked among the top 100 in the world. Their graduates are driving Israel’s commercial and intellectual growth. Moreover, they are pioneering life-saving innovations, such as the portable MRI and the ingestible microcamera, which helped put Israel on the technological and medical map. With nine Nobel Prize laureates since Nixon, Israel is a world leader in science, technology and medicine.

When Nixon landed, Intel had just opened its first design center overseas, in Israel, employing five people. Now Intel Israel employs 7,800 people. Apple has followed suit and has facilities now in Herzliyah and Haifa.

Detractors are quick to point to Israeli settlement expansion in the past 40 years. Indeed settlements have grown, but Israel has also taken remarkable steps in an effort to resolve this issue in pursuit of peace. Since Nixon’s visit, we have returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, an area 3 times as large as Israel, and evacuated all of our forces from Lebanon. In 2005, we uprooted every Jewish settlement from Gaza and four in the West Bank. Israeli leaders have pursued peace from Washington to Madrid to Oslo and made far-reaching peace offers in 2000 and 2008.

Yet we need to remain cautious while pursuing peace, and stay ahead of the threats surrounding us. Facing 80,000 enemy rockets on our borders, with U.S. support, we developed a multilayered missile-defense system that is already battle-tested and proven. In 1974, Israel fought uniformed soldiers on the battlefield. Today, Israel’s enemies don’t wear uniforms, and they are embedded among civilians. Our security needs have become complicated, but we remain prepared to defend our home front.

Forty years ago, Nixon visited Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial, Yad Vashem. Mr. Obama will go there, too, but that is far from his only stop. He will witness the achievements of Israel’s technology sector, explore our history, uphold the Jewish right to our ancient homeland by looking at the Dead Sea scrolls and affirm Zionism by placing a wreath on Theodor Herzl’s grave.

Plenty has changed in 40 years, but Israel is still only scratching the surface of its potential.

Aaron Sagui is spokesman for the Israeli Embassy.