On Monday, he was very upset. He had just returned from a morning stroll along the Tel Aviv beach and was listening to the terrible news reports on the IDF operation. The next day, he traveled to Gaza. Mario Vargas Llosa, the acclaimed Peruvian writer, had come back to Israel after a five-year absence. Like the last time, his visit here differed from most people's normal routine. A true friend of Israel, a fervent, almost naive, believer in its democracy and its dissidents, he doesn't waste a moment of his time here.
The elegant, always impressive 74-year-old traveled to Hebron, to the shepherds' caves in south Mount Hebron, to Bethlehem and Gaza, and visited a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, where he met David Grossman. He also met Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and people from Breaking the Silence, an NGO he admires.
Thirteen of Vargas Llosa's books have been translated into Hebrew; the most recent, and perhaps the most splendid, "The Bad Girl," became a best-seller. We met for the first time by chance on Martyrs' Street in Hebron five years ago, and since then we have met up several more times, either in Israel or Madrid - one of the three capital cities (along with Lima and London) - where he lives and writes. Vargas Llosa is an extremely prolific author with a worldwide reputation, a regular candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He nearly became president of his country, but lost the 1990 elections to Alberto Fujimori, who is now in prison in Peru.
Vargas Llosa's visits to Israel inspire respect and admiration. The modesty, curiosity, and deep sympathy he feels for this country, which does not negate the harsh criticism he expresses, all derive from a sincere concern for the country's fate. Here was this star of world literature - sitting in shepherd Abu Jihad's tent in southern Hebron, next to the cave that had been his home before the IDF brutally destroyed it, amid the ruined water wells and the settlements choking off the surrounding area - utterly absorbed in the fate of this poor shepherd and the fate of Israeli democracy, both in a wretched state. Here he was, walking the deserted streets of the occupied section of Hebron, accompanied by his son Alvaro, a writer and journalist who lives in Washington, his wife, Patricia, and his son's wife, Susana. They listened to the chilling description provided by Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence of the horrifying transfer that took place in this city and heard the settler children singing: "Yehuda Shaul the killer, we won't let him win." What Vargas Llosa saw this week, most Israelis have never seen in their lives.
What do you think about the IDF operation this week?
"It was a terrible thing for the victims of course, but also for Israel's image. It's very surprising how Israel manages to help its enemies so systematically. I can't understand how this flotilla could have posed a danger or threat to Israel's security. It's exactly like the Noam Chomsky scandal, when he should have been allowed to enter and say the same things he says everywhere else. The scandal of his deportation hurt Israel and is being exploited by Israel's enemies to further erode its standing. I think that Israel's image is worse now than it has ever been. I'm not certain Israelis are aware of this. The idea that Israel has become so indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians, the thought that Israel has become so arrogant, is giving it an image that may be exaggerated and unfair at times - but that's the image.
"I think it was a mistake to send soldiers on a military operation against a humanitarian peace flotilla. It was disproportionate. It was an illegal operation, in international waters, and it cannot be accepted by the civilized community. Israel's image will deteriorate even more now."
And the blockade of Gaza?
"The blockade is the source of the problem. The invasion of Gaza was a mistake, too. Israel gained nothing from it. I felt so depressed during Operation Cast Lead. I knew it was useless. I knew it wouldn't contribute anything to Israel's security or its image. I knew it would be a disaster. So why didn't the smart people in your government understand this? You tell me, what was achieved with that war? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Are you sometimes ashamed to be a friend of Israel?
"I have never been ashamed. If I were ashamed I wouldn't be here. I'm a friend, a very sincere friend. I consider myself a friend of Israel who wants a secure Israel and who at the same time is very critical of Israeli policy. My critical viewpoint is characteristic of the Jewish spirit. It would be very sad if this critical spirit were to disappear. Oz, Grossman, Yehoshua, Ilan Pappe, Breaking the Silence, Amira Hass and you - There are many Israelis keeping this ember alive. So wherever I go in the world I tell people that Israel is not just Avigdor Lieberman. That there are many Israelis courageously fighting to improve Israel's standing, people who won't let it become a totalitarian state. This is the great hope, the knowledge that there is an alternative. For me, this is Israel's badge of honor."
What is your opinion of the boycott against Israel?
"I'm opposed to it. I was for the boycott against Cuba because in Cuba there is a totalitarian regime and it's impossible to fight it from the inside. This is not the case with Israel. It's an open society, with dissidents and criticism, so how can you boycott it? How can you punish the people who are fighting from the inside? Instead of a boycott, people should support those who promise an alternative."
What has changed in the five years since your last visit?
"Israel has become more prosperous and modern. I came here for the first time in 1977 and then it was a Third World country. An advanced one perhaps, but still Third World. Now it's part of the First World. This is a tremendous achievement in just three generations. Yes, Israel has received aid, but the major effort came from the inside. This should be an example to the Third World. This is the Israel I would like to see in the world: Not the colonialist, imperialist and occupying image, which stands in contradiction to its great achievements, but an example and model for the Third World.
"The second thing that has changed is that everyone I've met with has talked about two states. If the idea is so pervasive, than why the difficulty in reaching an agreement? The fact that the United States once again is not giving Israel unconditional support should help. I think that American pressure is very important. Therefore, peace should be very close. But you don't see facts and actions behind this feeling."
What makes you so interested in Israel?
"My admiration for Israel. I'm a writer and journalist and Israel is a very special case. Israel fulfilled one of the great stories of Jorge Luis Borges, in which a group of wise men planned a world and managed to fulfill the fantasy. This is the case with Israel. A fantasy that came true. Israel is a fascinating society. Every Israeli has an amazing life story, a worldwide story in a small format. Perhaps this is also what attracts someone like me, who spends his whole life writing stories. This is one of the most intensive places in the world, with a lot of mystery. It all began here and maybe it will all end here - Let's knock on wood that this doesn't happen. I was very excited by my first visits to Israel. The building spirit of the early Zionists, the kibbutzniks and the intellectuals, Israel's great spirit."
Has that spirit disappeared?
"It hasn't disappeared, but it has shrunk. One evening here, I met some Israelis of Peruvian descent. Not one of them mentioned the Palestinian problem. For an entire evening, they talked about wealth and business and investments, as if they were yuppies in New York. The basic problems are totally forgotten."
What did you feel when you were in Hebron?
"This is the other side of Israel, and it is so sad. And it's so sad that so few Israelis visit there. They don't know. It's so close to Jerusalem, and they have no idea what's happening there. It's important to bring this to people's awareness, it will help a lot."
"Apartheid is not the word, because there is no deliberate and official policy like there was in South Africa. But there are two separate societies here - separate in terms of opportunities, freedoms and living conditions. What we saw in Hebron and the caves also goes to show that with each passing day, the two-state solution is becoming less and less possible."
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