A remarkable story about a unique country reaches a new level as Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary Thursday.

Forged out of a passion instilled by a small band of Jews desperately seeking a homeland, Israel maintains the same vitality today that it had when it declared statehood in 1948.Thanks in part to a strong relationship with the United States, which has donated $76 billion in aid since 1948, Israel's shaky birth has turned into stalwart adulthood.

What was a country of roughly 500,000 Jews in 1948 is now a nation of 5 million Jews and 1 million Arab Israelis.

With that growth has come increasing challenges and responsibilities.

Israel is now in a position to give as well as receive. Its position as a Mideast military power gives it considerable sway as to whether war or peace breaks out in the region.

Like all countries that have undergone a metamorphosis from con-centrating strictly on survival to dealing with a vast array of challenges, Israel has become a complex nation. Just as there are hawks and doves and left-wing and right-wing political agendas in the United States, so there are in Israel.

Knowing those close by are dedicated to your destruction does not make it easy for Israel to grant concessions. Trying to bring the various political factions together to form a consensus is a difficult task.

Still, Israel needs to take the lead if there is to be true peace and stability in the Middle East. And it is important for the United States to maintain its close ties so as the Israeli government takes bold steps away from confrontation toward conciliation with its neighbors, it knows it can count on a trusted ally for support.

None of the current challenges, however, should detract from Israel's incredible history. Its perseverance and ideals are not only worth celebrating but emulating.

Few, if any, have undergone the crucible the Jews faced leading up to statehood. The loss of 6 million Jews out of 16 million worldwide in the Holocaust needs not only to be remembered so that it won't happen again, but also is a testament to the power of the human spirit. Despite that and other staggering blows, the Jews persisted in their Zionist dream.

Visionary leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin have given Israel a strong foundation to build upon. Who can forget the historic meeting in Jerusalem in 1977 between Begin and another visionary leader of the Middle East, Anwar Sadat, that led to peace between Israel and Egypt?

That is the kind of legacy that current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those who succeed him need to follow to shepherd Israel into its next 50 years.

To the future of Israel and the Middle East: Shalom.