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In Israel, Part Iv


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Want to begin this installment with a joke? It was sent by a reader, in response to something I wrote yesterday. Enjoy:

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An American minister goes to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and is astounded to see in one enclosure a lion and a lamb. Unable to contain himself, he rushes to the director’s office. “I must tell you how wonderful this is,” he exclaims. “Here we are in this violent, hate-filled land, yet I see, as the Biblical prophecy has it, a lion and a lamb lying down together. How do you do it?”

The director shrugs. “Easy. Every morning we toss in another lamb.”

So, where were we? Oh, yes: This is Part IV of this series, whose predecessors are here (Monday), here (Tuesday), and here (Wednesday). Come, now, with our group, to a meeting with Efraim Halevy, the Man Who Kept the Secrets (to quote the title of a book about Richard Helms, the late and legendary CIA director). Halevy was with the Mossad from 1961 to roughly yesterday, ending as chief. He, indeed, knows the secrets–not that he’s sharing all that much.

Let me relate a couple of gleanings:

In his view, we are still in the Middle East of the immediate post-World War I period. Amazing how those often-arbitrary lines have held (sort of).

Syria believes it owns Lebanon (I mean, as a matter of right, in addition to actual practice). Halevy points out that there is no Syrian embassy in Beirut. Why should you have an embassy in your own country?

The Europeans? They really seem to betray no clue as to how to confront Islam–they’d better get with it.

What to do about Iran (that is, aside from the immediate, stark nuclear question): “Talk less, and encourage opponents of the regime”–to wit, the liberals, the students, women, businessmen, some reasonable members of the military.

I ask Halevy about Cleo Noel, the American ambassador who was murdered in Khartoum in 1973 (and a very sore subject–certainly with me). “What do you know about it?” I say. Halevy replies, all matter-of-factly, “Arafat had him killed.” I ask: “Why doesn’t the United States hold that against him?”

He shrugs, and gives the most remarkable answer: “I don’t know.”

Before he died, I talked to Vernon Walters (former deputy director of the CIA, and a million other things) about Noel. He said that he had heard the intercepts–Arafat giving the orders to kill. Here, then, is another confirmation from a High Spook.

I ask Halevy about the CIA’s ability in the Middle East–or lack of it. He is not so dismissive–not at all. In fact, he is stoutly defensive of the CIA, and of George Tenet, in particular. They are doing as good a job as possible, he implies. (Halevy wrote an article–about intelligence inquiries in the U.S. and Britain–for The Economist. Here.) People have to gain some perspective, he continues. Israel occupied the West Bank militarily from 1967 to 1994–that should mean knowing the ground pretty well. “Yet we still have had 1,000 dead–and we are now disengaging.”

Pity the Palestinians: If not for the intifada, “they would have the highest GDP in the Arab world” (not that that’s anything to write home about). At present, 250,000 foreigners work in Israel–a quarter of a million. Imagine (and it’s a tiny country). Israeli employers have had to replace Palestinians, who can no longer work in Israel. The replacements are Thai, Chinese, Romanian, Bulgarian . . .

Jump now to Meir Shitrit, Israel’s transportation minister. He is a longtime pol, a possible future prime minister. He has a spunk, a peppiness, a merriment about him–a pol’s likeability. (I’ve met a few.) He talks very fast and confidently in English (markedly accented); I can only imagine him in Hebrew.

Shitrit is on the left of the Likud, if you can grasp such a thing. He is an enthusiastic land-for-peacer. Likud is a bigger tent than people may realize (and than many want).

Like almost everyone else, Shitrit laments that Arafat failed to sign the Clinton-supervised agreement with Barak. We might be living in a kind of peace today. Instead, carnage, bewilderment, and fear.

As for disengagement, the evacuation–the removal of Israelis living in the places to be ceded to the PLO–will be “the most bitter struggle in Israel’s history.” No less. We got a taste of it after the 1978 Camp David accords, when the Israeli army–in the person of Ariel Sharon, remember–yanked people from their homes in Yamit, kicking and screaming. Egypt had made peace–so Israel traded land. Simple.

Shitrit speaks of Israel’s “Law of Compensation.” I’m thinking, “Talk about 5th Amendment issues! Talk about ‘takings’! Yowza!”

We now travel in a bullet-proof van deep into the West Bank, to an IDF outpost. The bullet-proofness may not be necessary. Then again, it may.

A source here talks of the suicide bombers. Money for them does not come from Iraq anymore, “thanks to the U.S. Army.” It comes from Hezbollah, it comes from Iran (sort of the same difference). “Since Oslo, they hate us–not just me, a soldier wearing a uniform and carrying a rifle. No, my three-year-old, my six-year-old, you.”

He estimates that there are 400 terrorists in the West Bank. That number can’t be depleted, can it? I mean, if you arrested or killed all 400, they would be replaced by another 400, right? “No,” comes the answer. That pool would be replaced by 300. And then maybe by 200. And then maybe . . . This source thinks that suicide-bombing can be kept down, reduced to something on the order of big-city crime (as in Philadelphia). Who knows, really?

Israeli soldiers risk a great deal in apprehending these terrorists, says the source. They’re not up in F-16s dropping huge bombs on homes. (Ouch.) “We have to walk quietly, then call the guy out on a megaphone, and then we may have to use dogs,” etc., etc. “Our people get killed,” in efforts to limit damage to innocents.

The suicide bombers do not fit a single profile–but they tend not to be poor and desperate (overtly desperate). They tend to be fanatics. This source describes one suicider he nabbed, a highly educated man, with a fine engineering job, and a beautiful wife–the source mentions twice that she is beautiful–two adorable kids, etc. A lovely, enviable home.

Horrid phenomenon.

As I leave, I meet an unlikely IDF soldier–a blonde, blue-eyed southern belle. A real Dixie beauty, from Birmingham, Ala. She inquires of our group, “Y’all from the States?” She herself is an Israeli who has experienced both countries (obviously). As we talk, she mentions that she has been a kind of liaison to a group called Christian Friends of Israel. Back in Birmingham, she faced anti-Semitism–”but here, the Christians love Israel.”

Funny old world.

Okay, let me fume for a second–it’s an old sermon: There’s no need for these Palestinian “refugee camps.” None. (Besides, they’re not necessarily refugee camps; they can resemble long-established villages or towns.) These endlessly abused people should have been absorbed decades ago. But they are kept in limbo for low political purposes–despicable.

Further: I can see with my own eyes how little space there is in Israel (including Greater Israel). (By the way, one of the most loaded terms you can use here? “Israel proper.”) Jewish communities and Arab communities are cheek by jowl–sometimes the houses abut. Pre-fence, in particular, a suicide bomber had a shockingly easy time of it. In some cases, he needed only cross the street, and boom (literally, I guess).

A fact that gets a lot of play: Until the Six-Day War, the Knesset was within sight of the Jordanian army. That ought to have concentrated the minds of legislators.

Our group troops to Samuel’s Tomb. Up high, you can see all the way from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And suddenly it hits me, with terrible clarity: “push the Jews into the sea.” Before, it was just a metaphor, just a staple of Arab rhetoric. But you can really see it: a drive from the east, push the Jews back, back . . . The image is not at all fanciful.

I might mention, too, that, in the old days, when Jordan controlled this area, you couldn’t visit Samuel’s Tomb–not if you were Israeli, that is. It took Israeli control to give all peoples access to holy sites, throughout the land. After the handover–whenever it occurs, and whatever shape it takes–will we all have access? Christians, Jews, Muslims? Hmm?

To return to the fence: Israelis keep stressing its importance. Before its erection, checkpoints were “doors without walls,” or “gates without fences”–nice way to put it, yes? Of course, Gaza has had a barrier since 1994, and from that land has flowed almost no terror.

A couple of words about settlements, an oceanic subject into which I’ll only wade. “Settlements” can be a little misleading. You may think of huts or lean-tos thrown up, by zealots. Actually, many of these places are towns, or bedroom communities, well entrenched. In the suburbs–the settlement/suburbs–around Jerusalem, you don’t have religio-nationalist crazies huddled around some fire; you have thousands of normal people, including lefties who simply want a good deal on housing and a pleasant life.

Take Ma’ale Adumin. The place is large and immaculate, looking almost Californian. How do you dismantle it? Or, to put it another way, how do you make White Plains disappear, or Weehawken? Almost certainly, Ma’ale Adumin is here to stay–will remain part of Israel in any final disposition.

But not another Ma’ale, little, quaint Ma’ale Efraim–it’s farther out. In all likelihood, it’s a goner, come Judgment Day. But it, too, might upset your idea of “settlement.” It is a pretty, irenic little town, with parks and schools and shops and kids playing basketball. Norman Rockwell could have painted it.

Yes, yes, I’m a land-for-peacer–you have to trade it for genuine peace (and the “genuine” is the tricky part). But when the time comes, we shouldn’t pretend that nothing has been lost. All around Ma’ale Efraim there is desert. And these people came and built this beautiful little town, where there was nothing–they didn’t push anyone off. And when they have to leave, it will be sad, to all but the most ideologized and hard-hearted.

Standing in it, you sort of think of it being abandoned (or its people being wrenched away). All the houses left standing, and the shops, and the schools–a ghost town. You can hear the people wailing (and see them resisting). You can imagine Arafat’s cronies coming in and taking the best houses. You sort of wouldn’t blame the people for razing them first–rather than leaving them as a welcome gift.

An Israeli friend–not a left-winger–says, “I’d give up my house for peace. For real peace? For an end to violence? For coexistence? For normalcy? You bet.” Who wouldn’t?

The problem is, what if you give it up, and no peace comes? What if you make a worse problem for yourself?

All right, folks, we’re in the home stretch. Last installment tomorrow. I’m going to pack it. Will be interesting, I hope. See you.



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