Politics & Policy

In Israel

Friends, I’ve been in Israel for a week, and would like to share some notes with you–in a multi-part Impromptus. Sort of like my scribblings from Davos, if you remember those. I’ll comment on things large and small, grave and amusing, profound and trivial. I will make no attempt to be comprehensive, not even about this trip, to say nothing of the Middle East, or of Israel. This is just Impromptus, after all.

I was with a group of journalists under the care of AIPAC, the dread American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Some readers will therefore want to discount everything I say, which they certainly may do–in fact, they might as well click elsewhere now. Longtime readers will, I hope, know that I keep my journalistic head, regardless.

We met with government officials, with politicians (left and right), with journalists, and with private citizens. We also did some conventional touring. Among our meetings was a session with a PLO big. AIPAC does that: take you around to the PLO. This is nothing, because, of course, Arab groups routinely facilitate meetings for you with their enemies.

As for the current brouhaha involving AIPAC, I will simply say that the allegations seem to me garbagey, and the motives of the leakers dubious. If someone is guilty of something–by all means, charge him. But there is no charging going on, not so far–just insinuating, conspiracy-theorizing, and smearing (to use a favorite Kerry word, alas).

For an intelligent article on the matter, see Saul Singer, here.

Anyway, settle in, if you will–we’ll go to Israel, center of much of the world’s attention. Israelis would prefer to be normal, barely noticed, left alone. This is still a distant dream.

‐At the airport (in Tel Aviv), a big sign welcomes you in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Russian. The Arabic script is, of course, the most beautiful. (When I was in Paris, as a youth, I’d see those beautiful graffiti on the walls–graffiti in Arabic–and wonder, “Hmm–what do they say?”)

And . . . I had never seen this before, anywhere. The handcarts, for your luggage, are free. As Yakov Smirnov said about some other place: What a country!

‐Already, I am wrapped in clichés. Every visitor to Israel says, “I can’t believe how close together things are. The people, friendly or not, are on top of one another. The distances are insignificant. Everything is right in your face”–well, it’s true. When the ‘67 borders are pointed out, guns (and other equipment) hostile to Israel seem directly up your snout. AIPAC wants you to see this, of course–but what if it’s true, regardless of who is doing the pointing out?

‐On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we’re passing cotton fields. I did not think that Mississippi would be part of the tour.

‐We meet with David Horovitz, editor of The Jerusalem Report. Or, hang on: In a couple of days, his appointment as editor of the Jerusalem Post will be announced. He is an important journalist (obviously), and the author of several books, including Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism. He came from England 20 years ago, and has the fluency–the extreme fluency–that seems inherent in Brits.

He makes the simple point that Israel has fought war after war, and if it had lost any one of them, “we wouldn’t be sitting here today.” The last four years, however, have been the worst in Israel’s history. (I am relating Horovitz’s views.) Since 2000, there have been 130 suicide bombings, which constitute a mere 10 percent of all attempted bombings. Think of it: 90 percent have been thwarted.

No place in Israel is immune to terrorist attack, nowhere does an Israeli feel safe. Hebrew University, where a huge number of Arabs live and work? Blown up, by a terrorist-worker.

Security is heavy, and hardly noticed after a while, because it’s normal. Entering a café or restaurant, pregnant women “have their tummies tapped.” Why? Because Palestinian women, pretending to be pregnant, have brought bombs into public places, succeeding in the murder they intend. In time, a pregnant Israeli is barely aware that her tummy’s being tapped. This is what life now is.

Every citizen–every family–has its personal security policy. How do you define your comfort zone (if comfort there can be)? Some Tel Avivians won’t go to Jerusalem. David Horovitz himself doesn’t care to go to the West Bank to see his sister. But, again, there is no haven; any area can be hit.

A sort of peace existed–this is still Horovitz–in the middle and late 1990s, but Arafat blew it up (to use a perhaps unfortunate metaphor). He ordered the “second intifada,” hoping to achieve his objectives with terror. At last, Israel has done what every Israeli–left, right, and center–hates: erect a fence. And this has made an immense difference. Countless lives have been saved, though attempts on lives go on, and, of course, once in a while those attempts are successful.

Does Arafat want peace? Does he want two states? Some bright analysts think so, some don’t. Some think that Arafat does not want to go down in history as the Palestinian leader who legitimized Israel–because time is on his side (he believes), and eventually Israel will have to succumb. So why give it any kind of blessing?

But that is only one view.

Horovitz speaks of an acquaintance, a plumber, who is–pardon the expression–”a good Palestinian.” What is a good Palestinian? “He doesn’t want to kill me.” That is a low threshold–but a critical threshold, in this part of the world. As the plumber sees it, Islam sanctions suicide bombing. But he himself is opposed to it. Does that make him a bad Muslim? He worries about that.

Now, this is only one individual, but the case is interesting, in my opinion.

Is the Palestinian-Israeli situation complicated? (I am jumping around here quite a bit, I realize–but get used to it. Thank you.) We’re told, constantly, that it is complicated. This is a fundamental preachment. I have heard it all my life.

But how complicated is it, really, despite blizzards of facts, events, and interpretations? After all is said and done–after the yak-yak ceases–it seems to me to come down to a single, awful question: Are the Palestinians–and Arabs generally–willing to coexist? Willing to let Israel be?

When they are, there will be peace. Instantly. Until then . . .

But don’t ever tell anyone that you regard the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as less than terribly complicated: That will get you written off as a fool faster than, say, copious drooling.

There is a term for the “disengagement” plan that Sharon is currently carrying out: It is a “long-term interim arrangement.” That phrase at first seems odd, but, upon reflection, perfectly apt.

Horovitz confirms that the Left in Israel has dwindled over the last few years. One hears reports of embarrassed, newly-seeing citizens scraping Peace Now stickers off their cars. That maxim of Irving Kristol’s is invoked: “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Muggings in Israel have been ferocious.

Finally, talk of a fence–The Fence–provokes a memory. Do you recall that strange Nightline, many, many years ago, when Palestinians agreed to talk on the same stage as Israelis? They insisted on a fence, the Palestinians did–a physical, wooden (or something) fence, separating them from their Israeli interlocutors (or those who sought to act as interlocutors). Ted Koppel perched himself on that fence.

Another odd thing: The Palestinians refused–all night long–to look at the Israelis. Even to look at them. They stared glumly ahead, as the Israelis were talking.

Anyway, my point: There’s a fence now. A bigger fence. A sad, life-saving necessity, not a stage prop.

‐Have you seen the YMCA in Jerusalem, opposite the King David Hotel? Holy smokes–that’s a YMCA. (Actually, it is more like a palace–a beautiful, Mideastern palace.) I have some experience with YMCAs in the Midwest–and they don’t look like that.

‐We wake–some of us–to the sound of muezzins, as Muslims are called to prayer. This is no big deal: Jews live and pray freely in Arab-controlled cities, don’t they?

In Old Jerusalem, people of all types mingle with one another harmoniously, or so it seems. This is a multiethnic ideal, and if only it could spread . . .

We duly go through security screening before approaching the Western Wall (“Wailing Wall” is disfavored in Israel, apparently). In the throng, someone’s cellphone goes off: a German lullaby. Brahms (“Guten Abend, gute Nacht”). Incongruous, and sweet.

‐Meet one more person, before signing off for today–Raphael Israeli, a professor at Hebrew U. He is a specialist on the Arab world, and on the Chinese–a broadly educated man, holding various degrees, speaking various languages. Born in Fez, he came to Israel at 14.

He is whimsical on the subject of expertise. He knew a once-famous Japanologist at Berkeley. This fellow was scheduled to give a lecture on Dec. 8, 1941, titled “Why Japan Won’t Make War Against the U.S.” (or something like that). He did not show up that Monday morning. Asking why, his audience was told, “He has joined the State Department as an adviser.”

Professor Israeli has recently published The Iraq War and a book called Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology. He does not like “suicide bomber”; he thinks his coinage, “Islamikaze,” is closer to the mark. Why? I will try to summarize, not sure whether I’m doing the argument justice.

The suicide is a) mentally wrecked, b) alone, and c) mourned by his family, who may be slightly ashamed. The Islamikazes are sane, certainly by their standards, PLO standards; they are not alone, but rather organized, affiliated, encouraged; and they are not mourned, but more like celebrated–and their families are proud, honored, not ashamed.

Israeli finds similarities to Japanese kamikazes, who sacrificed and killed for the nation, for ideology, etc.–with this difference: The kamikaze did not target civilians; he targeted warships; the Islamikaze targets almost exclusively civilians.

The professor asks, “Why is this important? Is it just a matter of semantics?” No–because those bent on suicide, individually, you can do nothing about; a suicide-bombing cult, however, you are better equipped to deal with–you go after the machinery of their enterprise. And Israel has done this, with astounding success.

Moving to Iraq: Professor Israeli has no patience with the notion that Bush et al. blundered on WMDs. Of course Saddam had WMDs. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence–and circumstantial evidence ought to suffice. If you find a corpse, but not a gun–because the gun has been thrown into the river–you don’t have to bury your head in shame. Those weapons of mass destruction have been hidden, transferred, destroyed, whatever. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Moving to Spain–yes, Spain: Israeli was recently in Málaga, where he encountered two Moroccans (who had immigrated to the country). They asked him to join them for tea, because he was a fellow Moroccan, in a way. Israeli inquired about life in Spain: “Are you used to it yet?” They replied, “What? No! We don’t have to get used to them; they have to get used to us. It’s our country!”

In that anecdote resides a major problem for Europe, and for Spain in particular.

I offer a paraphrase: “Bush and Blair are constantly talking of Islam as a religion of peace. What do they know? Have they read the Koran? Are they acquainted with Muslim theory and practice?” There is a degree of indignation in the professor’s voice.

As far as looking for democracy in the Arab world is concerned, “That is like sending a blind man into a dark room to look for a black cat that isn’t there.”

I ask whether Israeli has any affection for the Moroccans, with whom he lived during his first 14 years. The answer is surprising (to me) and surprisingly blunt: “No. They beat me up, they humiliated me constantly–I couldn’t stand it. I left, and I left alone–my parents stayed behind.”

Finally, a word on Iran, and in particular its nuclear threat: “This is an emergency, and only the Americans can take care of it. [Other Israelis disagree–on the latter point, that is. All agree that an emergency has arrived.] Kerry will likely do nothing about it. If Bush is reelected, he will have to act quickly.” (Again, I am paraphrasing.) “Why are the Iranians building nuclear weapons? Not to greet them with ‘Good morning’ every day, that’s for sure.”

‐On that cheery note, we will quit, to resume tomorrow–with PLO spokesman/negotiator Saeb Erekat.



The Latest