Yesterday, we published the first installment of this Israel diary (of sorts). Ready for Part II? Well, ready or not . . .
If you watch CNN, you know Saeb Erekat, the PLO spokesman and negotiator. He is a network darling, along with Hanan Ashrawi. Non-PLO Palestinian voices rarely get a say; of course, if they did . . . it could be pretty bad for them, at home.
Anyway, Erekat does well as Arafat’s Mr. Outside, the chairman’s face to the English-speaking world. Erekat is practically the Vladimir Posner of the PLO (though Posner was nearly accentless, as you’ll recall). Our group meets Erekat at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem.
By the way, we’re told — though not by Erekat! — that American journalists think it cool to stay at the American Colony Hotel, because it demonstrates their distance from Israel, you see (West Jerusalem versus East). Nowhere else, in my judgment, would they consider it cool to stay in a place called the “American Colony Hotel” — at least two of those three words are bad!
Erekat says all the right things — almost all the right things. Yes, he accepts Israel’s right to exist — even as a Jewish state! Yes, he would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — and leave the rest of Israel alone. He is a man of peace. He has never held a gun. He has never been in jail — therefore he doesn’t speak Hebrew!
For goodness’ sake, we all must help him, because he represents the “peace camp” in the Palestinian Authority, and do we want to leave the radicals in the catbird seat?
The problem with Saeb Erekat is, unfortunately, the problem with all such figures: The tradition is to say one thing in English — to gullible Westerners — and quite another thing in Arabic, to your own. Which is the truth? That is why MEMRI.org is so valuable. It at least lets you in on what Arab officials and others are saying in their own language. (Two years ago, I wrote a piece on this outfit, called “Thanks for the MEMRI (.org).”)
Erekat says one quite interesting — even semi-newsworthy — thing . . . about Bill Clinton. Clinton tells a certain story. Many of us have heard it. It goes, Arafat said to him, as his second term was expiring, “You are a great man” (or a great leader or some such thing); Clinton answered, “No, I’m not, I’m a failure, and you made me one” (meaning that Arafat blew up the peace process, refusing to deal with Barak).
No way, says Erekat. He was part of the phone call that took place between the two men, and Arafat did, indeed, praise Clinton as a great man (or something) — but without that riposte from Clinton.
Who is telling the truth? As between Clinton and the PLO, I’ll let you decide.
Erekat also reports that he and Clinton had a talk about why he, the former president, was blaming Arafat for the failure of the Camp David negotiations. According to Erekat, Clinton responded that he was talking as he was — fibbing, essentially — in order to aid “the Israeli peace camp.” (How, exactly, is unclear.)
Having observed Clinton for a long, long time, I’m willing to believe that he says whatever he thinks he needs to say to the audience or the individual at hand — without regard to truth or falsity.
Erekat is pressed about whether Arafat controls al-Fatah and the Aqsa Brigades. He dodges and dodges and dodges. Finally, he says, “He [Arafat] should control them” – should. But there are complications.
That is something.
Erekat is good, I tell you. He says things like, “I’m not bullsh**ting you.” (The man studied in San Francisco.) He is a great assurer. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. But can you trust him as far as you can throw him? He tells us that, sure, the PLO has revoked the clause in its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Other sources, however, say: Don’t be naïve.
Unlike his boss, Erekat does not call for “a million martyrs” to “liberate” Jerusalem. But that’s not the way you talk, on CNN.
‐From the PLO to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, where we meet a spokesman — in a protected, chemical-warfare-proof room. Is where we meet him. (And incidentally, they serve extraordinary cookies there.)
Topic A is this story about some mole in the Pentagon, and AIPAC, and Israeli spying. The spokesman could not be more categorical: Israel absolutely, absolutely does not spy in the United States, mindful of the colossal stupidity of the Jonathan Pollard business. Nothing could be more harmful to U.S.-Israel relations. Nothing could be more harmful, for that matter, to AIPAC.
Another point: Journalists talk all the time about the hardship imposed on the Palestinians by the fence. They are “humiliated.” Well, forgetting the countless lives saved by the fence, what about Israelis (asks the spokesman)? What about our hardship, what about our humiliation? Israelis have to go through security checks constantly. Their daily lives are disrupted. They drive to the mall, they have to have their car trunk inspected. They have to open up all their bags. They have to stand in line — in line after line. Life is a hassle.
No one gripes, however; everyone understands that these disruptions are necessary, are the dictates of prudence. But might the Israeli angle ever be considered?
This is the spokesman’s point.
As for Iran and its nuclear drive, this is “the greatest existential threat” to the state (Israel) today. The matter will come to a head “in a few months.” And the distinctions between Iranian “moderates” and “extremists”? Too trivial to be worth the time of day.
In any case, the cookies are extraordinary.
‐Next we see Shalom Turgeman, foreign-policy adviser to Sharon — sort of his Condi Rice, apparently. He is a youngish man, obviously intelligent, very measured — somewhat grave, too. (Of course, the issues he deals with inspire gravity.)
He takes us through the “disengagement” plan point by point — at long last, the government decided to disengage, as there was no one credible on the Palestinian side to talk to. This plan is, as the phrase goes, a “long-term interim arrangement.” It also feels like a last resort.
And don’t think this isn’t controversial: On Sept. 9, “a long list of well-known right-wing figures . . . signed an open letter urging soldiers and policemen to disobey orders to evacuate Jewish settlements in the territories.” I’m quoting the lead of Haaretz, the left-wing newspaper. Among the signatories was Prof. Ben-Zion Netanyahu, Bibi’s (and Yoni’s) father.
But skip to something more personal. I ask Turgeman what he believes Sharon’s vision is, and what he’s like to work for. Turgeman thinks for a long, long time. Seldom have I experienced so long a pause between question and answer. Nervous titters are heard around the table.
Then he delivers himself of a lengthy, thoughtful answer, which I will summarize and paraphrase: Sharon is a great man, doing a hard thing. He has been a warrior, he has been seriously wounded, he has lost many friends. He hates war. He wants peace — but real peace, the kind that can stick. In the twilight of a long career, he will act boldly to give Israelis some measure of security. Those who question his desire for peace or for a reasonable, feasible compromise don’t know what they’re talking about.
As for working for him: It is a privilege. He gives you — a subordinate — wide latitude. He confers trust. This septuagenarian man of immense experience asks, “What do you think?” — and means it. A day does not pass when he doesn’t call to say “Thank you” for some work done. He is genial and open.
And when things are at their worst? When Israel is most in danger? That’s when he’s calmest, quietest.
Look, you didn’t expect Turgeman to slam the man. But he didn’t have to say all that, either. And if I’m any judge of people — his answers were sincere.
‐I break a rule — I visit a Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. What do I mean, “a rule”? My rule, actually. I don’t go to Holocaust museums, and I don’t see Holocaust films. But I’m glad they exist — for other people. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just that I don’t want, or need, them for myself.
I’ve read my Hilberg and my Dawidowicz and lots of other historians; I’ve read barrels of memoirs; I saw my share of films, earlier on. I am steeped. I hardly need to have my sensitivities heightened — they’re perhaps too high as they are. And I haven’t even talked of the Soviet Union, and China, and Cambodia, and Cuba . . . Holocaust museums and films leave me wrecked for days after — not weepy-wrecked, but angry-wrecked.
Anyway, enough personal psychology — I go with the group to Yad Vashem. The museum, as you know, is tightly connected to the foundation of Israel, the purpose of Israel. Our guide explains that Remembrance Day leads into Independence Day. Here, a one-hour ceremony marks the transition: “It begins solemn and ends in fireworks.”
Up until the mid-1990s, every foreign visitor — head of state, etc. — to Israel was made to visit Yad Vashem. When it was their turn, the Egyptians balked. But otherwise, everyone played ball. Eventually, the Israelis sort of gave it up — relaxed the practice.
But, while we are touring the museum, so is the Russian foreign minister — on the heels of the Breslan massacre.
I’m surprised to learn — where have I been? — that “the Righteous among the Gentiles” has been changed to “the Righteous among the Nations.” Too bad. I sort of liked the old way, but it was considered un-PC, and some people objected. How do you qualify? Between 1939 and 1945, you had to save at least one Jew, at some risk to yourself. A carob tree is planted for each honoree. There are rather few carob trees.
I won’t dwell on this museum, but I will note a couple of things, quickly: It’s interesting to read that, from 1901 to 1933, Germans garnered 37 Nobel prizes. Of those, eleven were won by German Jews.
And when the guide mentions that Jews rebelled — as in Warsaw — the second they knew that they were doomed, that there was no way out, I think immediately of Flight 93. In fact, this was maybe the best line of President Bush’s convention speech: “[They] died with a courage that frightened their killers.”
Out of the Children’s Memorial, you walk to an expansive vista of Jerusalem — capital of Israel, a place for Jews to go to, to try to make good on “Never again.”
‐Where does our group go next? To an “absorption center,” for Ethiopian arrivals. Much of the world knows the story of these flights from Africa, as these unexpected Jews — and some non-Jews — populate Israel. A language class is taking place. Ethiopians fresh off the boat (so to speak) are learning their Hebrew ABCs. Some look too old to be learning a new language — grandfathers. I wonder whether they will ever get beyond muttering hello. But who am I to limit them?
A hut has been built on the grounds of the absorption center — a reminder, created by Ethiopian émigrés themselves, of the life left behind. We hear inspiring stories, of the Ellis Island strain (loosely). Lots of people — lots of Americans — visit this center on their Israeli Grand Tour. Al Sharpton has been here, with his Jewish sidekick, Shmuley Boteach! American Jews harassed the Rev, to his annoyance. Imagine that — Jewish pique at Al Sharpton. Can’t we all “move on”?
A quick break for a cellphone report: One goes off; “Beautiful Dreamer” (Stephen Foster).
I ask one man — an assimilated Ethiopian — about belonging to a racial minority in this country. He says that military service is a great boon in this regard (and military service is largely compulsory, remember). It breaks down barriers, it equalizes citizens.
Does that remind you of some other country?
Finally, I’d like to mention a feature in the Jerusalem Post I like very much: “Arrivals.” It chronicles — weekly, I guess — immigrants to Israel, asking why they came here, what they think of their new land, how they’re adjusting, and so on. Wouldn’t be a bad feature for an American newspaper — in the Southwest or someplace.
‐Let’s break here — and not just for cellphones — and resume tomorrow, with Part III. Thanks much.