Connecticuts from Venus, Israels from Mars

There’s just no escaping Israel in the news, is there — even when it’s news that’s literally from out of this world.

Earlier this week I was reading The Associated Press account of the landing of NASA’s Mars rover, Spirit, on the Martian surface, when suddenly this sentence jumped out at me: “Engineers believed Spirit landed smack in the middle of Gusev Crater, a basin the size of Israel just south of the Martian equator.”

The size of Israel? Presumably that means the Gusev Crater is approximately 12,834 square miles, the area of Israel as cited in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

But hold on; that figure doesn’t take into account all the territory in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, which if included would nearly double Gusev’s dimensions. Nor does it take into account that much of the world, especially its Islamic precincts, would interpret the phrase “a basin the size of Israel” as meaning a vast crater that covered about half of the entire Martian surface.

Obviously someone at AP quickly cottoned to the fact that using Israel as an example when making comparative size distinctions was not the wisest thing to do; it disappeared in subsequent versions of the story written by science reporter Andrew Bridges and was replaced with the sentence: “Spirit made an apparently flawless landing in Gusev Crater, a Connecticut-sized basin scientists believe once contained a brimming lake.”

The problem is that Connecticut’s area is some 8,041 square miles, which would make it just a little over half the size of Israel. That’s a pretty big stretch of territory to get wrong. Perhaps Bridges thought Connecticut was bigger, or conversely, was thinking about the area of Israel as outlined in the 1947 U.N. partition resolution.

Still, I could understand Bridges getting a little confused about Israel’s dimensions. The borders of the Jewish state have been a matter of debate, dispute and confusion from even before its founding, and nowadays, the “size of Israel” seems to vary from day to day.

Nor does the prospect of determining exactly how big a crater “the size of Israel” really is seem an easy question to answer in the near future.

Not just because the Oslo accords have broken down, the road map is leading nowhere, the Geneva initiative is a joke, the Palestinians still haven’t given up their deluded strategy of using terrorism to force Israel to its knees, the settlement movement stubbornly clings onto its dream of a Greater Israel and Ariel Sharon talks more about unilateral disengagement than actually doing anything about it.

The causes for uncertainly over Israel’s true dimensions may lie far deeper. For example, in a typically provocative essay published in The Jerusalem Post last year, the brilliant novelist/essayist A. B. Yehoshua suggested the whole concept of establishing clearly defined borders for a Jewish state runs against the grain of traditional Jewish culture.

“This is what Zionism means — realizing Jewish sovereignty within defined borders,” wrote Yehoshua. “But what is obvious and natural for any other nation was an innovation and upheaval in the Jewish essence, which is overwhelmingly the history of a people without borders or of people crossing borders: a history of non-sovereignty. Jewish identity inherently lacks borders; it wanders around the world, a traveler between hotels. A Jew can change countries and languages without losing his Jewishness, a blend of nationalism and religion.”

Now, I don’t know how big AP’s science reporter thought Israel is or should be. Speaking personally, as someone who considers himself part of the Israeli center, I’d like a Jewish state that encompasses as little of the West Bank and Gaza, and as much of the Golan Heights, as possible.

But just to play it safe, from now on if someone asks me just how big Israel should be I’ll just answer no more — but no less — than the Gusev Crater.

Calev Ben-David is the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.