Politics & Policy

In Israel, Part V

Friends, we’re in the home stretch, the final installment of this five-part series from–and on–Israel. (If you’d like to do some catching up, here are Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)

‐Of a sudden, our guide informs us that we are approaching the lowest point on earth. It is a high point of the trip. (Forgive me. Yuk, yuk.)

‐We see Jericho from a distance. It reminds me a little of an Indian reservation, in that it is a desperate place with a big ol’ casino in it. Israelis used to flock there. That was before the deadly, relations-ruining Intifada II. (Jericho is a Palestinian town–a PLO town–and anyone else who goes there . . . well, that would be unwise.)

(A further P.S.: There is an Israeli intelligence station hovering over Jericho, with all its antennas. There must be plenty to overhear. That fellow from the IDF whom I quoted yesterday also said that intelligence–crack intelligence–is the number-one reason for the success Israel has had against terrorists, especially suicide bombers. I imagine that much of that intelligence is human, not technological.)

‐Driving through the West Bank, we pass many, many Israeli high-tech farms, simply pumping out food from soil that you would not think so promising. These farms are up for grabs–ripe for cession to the PLO, in any deal.

‐When the temperature has reached–oh, I don’t know–170 degrees, we visit Bet She’an, the ancient city destroyed by an earthquake in 749. Good thing, too. I don’t mean it is good that a city was destroyed, costing 50,000 people their lives. But the earthquake meant that this city couldn’t be looted, stripped, effaced, over the centuries. As our (unbelievably superb) guide says, Bet She’an was “entombed” until 1921, when it was excavated, revealed. It is a formidable sight, whatever the temp.

‐We travel up north, to the “finger” of Israel, and, in fact, to the “fingernail”–Metullah, a beautiful little town of 1,600 in the crosshairs of Hezbollah guns. Yes, we are on the Lebanese border. There’s the spot from which Prof. Edward Said threw rocks! We are told, in fact, that conscientious Shiites bring their children here, to throw rocks at Israeli farmers. That is how they spend their vacation. Who needs Disneyland?

(I should tell you that, as I step out in Metullah, I’m thinking, “This gives new meaning to ‘a stone’s throw away.’”)

Metullah is the Washington State of Israel, apple country, and we are hosted by an apple grower and his family. They live in the last house in Metullah–thus, the last house in Israel. After it, there is the yellow flag of Hezbollah. How cheerful it looks, for such a murderous group!

Local children use playgrounds that are protected by concrete walls. And our host tells us–with jarring matter-of-factness–”We work a few inches from Hezbollah. Their fields are directly up against ours.” He also informs us that, “if we are attacked, we aren’t allowed to respond.” Reminds me of U.S. policy on Israel during war.

For years, workers in the Israeli orchards were Lebanese. According to one resident I meet, Israelis and these Lebanese had good relations, respecting one another, benefiting from one another, participating in one another’s celebrations, and so on. But the death grip of Hezbollah meant that Lebanese could not cross to work in Metullah anymore. So who are the workers?

Well, a good portion of them are Thai. It’s interesting to see Thais picking apples in the north of Israel, with masks covering their faces, lest they get too much sun. (It seems they do not want to darken.) I ask in what language Israeli employers communicate with their Thai employees. “A little Hebrew, a little English.”

Which reminds me of an old joke: On the Lower East Side, there was a Jewish restaurant whose waiters were Chinese immigrants. They spoke perfect Yiddish, these Chinese. One day, a marveling customer said to the owner, “How in the world did you get these Chinese to speak Yiddish?!” The owner looked around, put his finger to his lips, and said, “Shh: They think it’s English.”

At the apple grower’s home, we meet a woman–lovely, smart, British-born–who is head of ice skating in Israel. Yes, ice skating. How do they fare in international competition? “We perform quite well”–but the judging doesn’t always recognize that. “The world liked us when we were mediocre–you know, we were plucky, scrappy, exotic, and all that. But then we got good–and the world likes that less.”

No kidding. And it is, of course, a metaphor for this country as a whole.

At the end of the evening, we visit our host’s bomb shelter, down in the basement. Toys are present, along with gas masks large and small. Such is life in the fingernail–and elsewhere in Israel.

‐We ourselves spend the night on a kibbutz–although, not really. This is the Kibbutz Kfar Blum, specifically its Pastoral hotel. Which is spiffy, sharp–capitalistic. These socialists have come a long way, baby. Although their brochure is redolent of something past:

A kibbutz is a cooperative community governed by the general assembly of its members. Property is collectively owned and all share in the work of the community. All members have equal rights and each contributes his labor and skills, according to his ability, to the economic, social and cultural advancement of the kibbutz. . . .

This kibbutz is named after Leon Blum, the Socialist who served as premier of France. But again, what a slick, lovely, comfortable hotel they have. You’re almost disappointed that it’s not more Spartan! (I said “almost.”)

‐Have a visit with Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Laborite–the tough Laborite–we knew as defense minister in 2001 and 2002. He looks like the classic Israeli politician: girthy, confident, gruff, open-shirted–a man who has seen it all. Plop him anywhere in the world, and you’d say, “Hey, he looks like a high Israeli official.”

Special about this fellow is that he spent his first twelve years in Iraq. I ask him about that. I say, “Given what you know about Iraq and its people, what do you think the chances are that democracy, or some decent rule, will take hold there?” He fixes me with a look, points, and says, “Iraqis are good people. They are good people. Their tragedy has been Saddam Hussein. They are not poor people–they know how to make money. It is not a country of the very rich and the very poor; there is a broad middle. I believe they will overcome their problems. And, incidentally, I would not be surprised if relations between Iraq and Israel were established within a decade.”

He himself very much enjoyed growing up in Iraq, in one of only two or three Jewish families in a large Baghdad neighborhood. But then 1948 came–and the first battalions started coming back, having been routed by these audacious Jews. That’s when the trouble began.

Even so, says Ben-Eliezer, he has received reports that the Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and libraries are . . . untouched. And maybe he will go “home” someday, to show his family where he started.

Moving to other matters, Ben-Eliezer says that Israel’s greatest threat comes not “from the tank or aircraft or missile,” but from terror, and in particular the suicide bomber. (Though the fence has been immensely helpful.) “A regular war, we can overcome. The reality today is attractive young ladies and gentlemen, perhaps looking like Israelis, driving a car or taking a taxi to a bar or restaurant–and killing us.”

Ben-Eliezer talks about how careful the IDF has been, for example in its strikes on Hamas leaders. Three times when he was defense minister, he called off a strike on one leader–because there were others around. Finally, he got a clear shot–though the shot included the Hamas man’s wife, “a worse terrorist than he himself.” Says Ben-Eliezer, “We’re not 100 percent clean, because this is war–and war is war. It’s war whether in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or here. But we’re doing all we can to guarantee that only the guilty are hit.” Contrast this with the Palestinians: “All of their targets are innocents.”

More Ben-Eliezer: “In order to guarantee our existence, we have to be strong. As soon as you betray weakness, as soon as they can smell weakness on you, you’re through. They will destroy you.”

And yet he is “grateful for Cairo, grateful for Amman”–grateful for anybody who will make peace. “I am looking all the time for a starting-point, with anybody, which may lead to a peaceful end.”

I found this line arresting: “If you’re the Israeli defense minister, you wake up to 50 warnings every morning.”

And about the nuclear threat from Iran? B-E states that there are European companies still abetting the Iranians’ enterprise–because they lack clear-cut orders from their governments to stop.

‐Our next visit is to the T. A. Sourasky Medical Center (Tel Aviv), to see how mass casualties are treated. This is an interesting kind of medicine: terrorism medicine. Unfortunately, the Israelis have had to become very good at it. They are the world leaders in it. Dr. Pinchas Halpern is our speaker, and he says that Israel has shared its hard-earned knowledge with the rest of the world–which needs it less. Although needs arise.

One interesting fact: Israelis are looking into “blow-out” bus windows–windows that will reduce casualties in the event of a bomb on a bus.

And Dr. Halpern shows us fascinating–sickening-fascinating–footage of a Palestinian ambulance as it is being apprehended. Yes, this ambulance is rushing to a hospital, ostensibly–but its purpose is mass murder. The Israelis send in a robot, which fetches and destroys the Palestinian bombs. Terrorists have tried this trick–the ambulance trick–three times.

Now, of course, the IDF has to stop Palestinian ambulances–and the world is outraged. Would that its outrage were logically directed.

‐As I wind down here, may I recommend some articles–articles that have caught my fancy, on this trip? All are from the Jerusalem Post. (I imagine that doesn’t bowl you over.) The first article is by Caroline B. Glick–here–and it is about Russia and Israel. Written in the wake of Beslan, its title is “One-Way Friends.” The second item is an editorial–here–called “Collaborators,” about Palestinian justice. The third is a superlative Bret Stephens essay on the general situation today.

And the last is an illuminating interview with Ariel Sharon, an excerpt from which I now provide:

Q. Many have compared you to Charles de Gaulle, a general-turned-statesman who looked for dramatic international solutions and made important internal reforms. What do you think about these comparisons?

A. I never met de Gaulle, but I know his history. I had very close relations with the French when I was a paratroop commander before the Sinai Campaign [in 1956]. My base was one of the places where the French came and stayed–that was during the honeymoon between Israel and France. De Gaulle doesn’t need my compliments. We had good periods and difficult periods with him. But if you are trying to compare our situation to Algeria, I have to say that the difference is that our Algeria is here. There is no possibility for Israeli residents to go somewhere else. This is Algeria, so that comparison doesn’t hold.

‐Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to end with some general things. Throughout my week in Israel, I’ve often found myself angry–mainly at this country’s pariah status. That the world should hate this country says something very, very bad about the world.

And you’ve heard this a million times, haven’t you? At home, in the U.S., Moishe is likely to be a pathetic figure–weak, snively, picked on. Here, Moshe–the Hebrew equivalent of Moishe–is likely to be a bad-a**. He will kick your tail.

Finally, I want to return to Metullah. At the dinner, I met a friendly couple–the parents of our host, the apple grower. (In fact, the father is an apple grower too–it is a family business.) The father doesn’t speak much English, but his wife told me about his family. He was born in Germany. His mother had four children. All of her children–all four–were taken from her and murdered. Her husband, too, was taken from her and murdered. Her mother and father were murdered. Her grandmother was murdered before her very eyes.

She herself survived a camp.

Let me run through the tally again: all four children; husband; mother and father; grandmother (before her eyes).

How do you go on from that? How can you possibly bear to live? Think of that, next time you consider yourself unlucky–think of that woman, and her four children, and her husband, and her parents, and her grandmother. And then think that she was not all that extraordinary.

Anyway, this woman married someone. She was about 40. She met a man who wanted to marry her, and they did. They had three sons–one born in Germany, the next two in Israel. All of them married. They had two children each. So that woman had six grandchildren. And she lived to a relatively advanced age.

This is how I think of Israel: a determination to live, in spite of the worst. A refusal to surrender to death. A refusal to succumb to evil. A decision to live. To keep living. To choose life, not death. To go on.

I’m done. Thank you for reading. See you later.

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