LOS ANGELES - I was determined to duck it. I was resolved to fly to the States, speak about the situation in Israel, and reply with nothing more than a half-smile and a "next question, please," to the well-read and otherwise openhearted people who ask questions of the tenor of "Between you and me, what is wrong with these people, your friends, the Israelis?"
Subtextual Translation of the question: What is with these blights on the backside of humanity? A vast war machine pretending to be a tiny country, a mobilized citizenry sterilized of morality, drained of compassion, bereft of conscience, bestial in war, imperial in ambition, Goliathized in its marriage of high tech and high explosive; incorrigibly bigoted bullying simpletons, little more than racists who vote for racists, fascists who fall for fascists, an embarrassment to the West, an embarrassment to the Jews, an embarrassment, at root, to the progressive individual who asks the question.
I was all set to say nothing. On the plane coming over, however, I read an essay about Israel and Israelis that changed my mind. I have the extraordinary novelist Anne Roiphe to thank for writing the piece, which made my blood boil, and, in the process, forced me to say what I honestly thought.
Ms. Roiphe, it must be said, is a compelling, wonderfully compassionate writer, who clearly cares about Israelis and knows just about everything about them, except for the first, most basic thing.
"I couldn't feel worse," Ms. Roiphe begins her essay about the recent Israeli election, and especially about the Israeli Jews who voted for Avigdor Lieberman, whom she accurately terms dangerously demagogic and deeply unkind. "I feel as if my spouse had cheated on me with Mussolini."
Perhaps as a consequence, it develops that Ms. Roiphe has begun to see Israel, and Israelis, with the kind of tunnel vision that allows no light at its end. She suggests that the import of the election was a vote against peace.
"I would call it pathological that Israel is listening to leaders who don't understand that the entire West Bank cannot belong to Israel without making it a pariah nation, without violating the spirit of the Torah, and the scared memory of the Jewish people."
With a smirk and a slap, she lets us know that she gets us. "I understand peace has been so long in coming and that Palestinians have done stupid things: electing Hamas, tossing rockets into Israel, mocking those of us who thought that leaving Gaza might be a fine first step. I understand the despair and the frustration and the need to jump around waving one's sword in the air, slicing up whatever clouds appear in the sky."
May Ms. Roiphe pardon me, but she does not understand. I'm not sure that, at a distance of thousands of miles, anyone could. Examine the results of the election closely, and you'll find that a clear majority voted for parties who have gone on record as favoring an eventual Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and less than six percent voted for parties who categorically reject that solution.
What, then, explains the incomprehensible behavior of these people, my friends? What common denominator, other than evil intention, can explain the continued occupation of the West Bank, the risk of demographic disaster, the ill-understood rage of a people cast as the sole perpetrator of and, if at times the victim, then certainly the deserving victim of, wrongdoing?
You won't like the answer. But in all the blindingly complex bazaar of the Middle East equation, it really comes down to one word: rockets.
It was Saddam Hussein's rockets in 1991 that got us into this peace process, and it is Palestinian rockets right now, day after day after day, that sent that peace to its grave and which cover it with a little more silt and rubble every few hours.
It was fundamentally rockets and not racism that put Avigdor Lieberman where he is today. And it is rockets, more than any other single factor, that explains what happened to the Israeli left, to Meretz, and, in particular, to the Labor Party.
When Saddam Hussein fired 39 ballistic missiles into Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona, he radically changed the way Israelis viewed the importance of holding on to the territories. Overnight the threat was coming from 1500 kilometers away, so what good was it to hang onto and permanently settle the hills of Samaria in the West Bank, or the sand dunes of northern Gaza?It was this, as much as any other factor, that paved the way for the opening of what we've come to know as the peace process, beginning at the Madrid conference in 1991.
In 2005, less than a day after Israeli forces removed every last Jew from Gaza, Palestinians set up rocket launchers on the ruins of settlements that had been just been evacuated. They took aim not only at Sderot, but at some of the very kibbutzim who had most strongly championed the cause of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.
This act, and the thousands of rockets that followed, utterly changed Israelis again. It put a sudden end to the idea of land for peace, because no one, even some of the most ardent advocates of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, was about to agree to leave Ben-Gurion airport, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within range of the rockets. Suddenly there was a consensus again. And the peace process, the peace movement, and with it Labor and Meretz, were kicked to the curb.
Ten years ago, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, electrified radical Islam and particularly the Palestinians, when he said that Israel was as fearsome and as fragile as a spider's web.
Push Israel with suicide terrorists, he indicated, and the whole web will tear and collapse. It didn't work. Suicide terror, in fact, acted to strengthen and unify Israel. In the eyes of the post-9/11 world, suicide terror changed Israelis from villains to victims, and Palestinians from an image of the valiant David to a creepy, loathsome version of Goliath.
The best way to destroy Israel
But now, Hamas is beginning to see something else. At this point, the best way to destroy Israel, is to leave it exactly as it is.
Titrate, adjust the flow of rockets fired at Israeli civilians to a level which is thoroughly acceptable to the rest of the world, but which is also entirely unbearable to Israelis.
Then, sit back and watch demographics and despair work their magic. No wonder Hamas officials who are seen as moderates urge a 50-year truce. By that time, Israeli Arabs will be able to simply vote the Jewish state off the map.
A clear majority of Israeli Jews know this as well. But I have yet to meet one Israeli, Meretz voters included, who is willing to hand over the West Bank while Ashkelon is even now in the gunners' sights, and rockets fly unabated.
I have long believed that in terms of their destructive effects on peace prospects, the settlements are the Qassams of the Jews. What I failed to recognize at first, was that the effect of Qassams is to enshrine West Bank settlements, and, more than any other single factor, protect them from eviction.
In the main, the world has no idea - nor does it particularly care - that when a rocket up to nine feet long flies up to 25 miles traveling at half a mile per second and lands with up to 44 pounds of explosives packed into its warhead - the human consequence could easily be carnage.
As far as the world knows, that rocket will fall without a sound. A house may be destroyed, childrens' nerves shot to shreds, perhaps for life. Entire communities, whole cities, suffer from post-traumatic stress. But unless 10 Israelis are killed, or 20, that rocket never existed. This after 10,000 rockets have been fired at civilian areas, unprotected by anything - I am truly ashamed to acknowledge - other than miracles.
It is these miracles, these barely averted catastrophes, literally thousands of them, which have become the central fact of Israeli life. That, and an anger which no one outside Israel can know or fully comprehend, an aching, soul-deep frustration, an always humming fear, a sickness and fever over the nearness of true disaster, as well as a sense of abandonment by those abroad who cannot be expected to know what these people, my friends, are going through or why.
It is not the world's fault if it believes that Israelis do not have a right to their anger. The world is really not at all to blame if it prefers to view Israelis as ferocious without provocation, hateful without just cause.
The world only knows what we in the media choose to reveal. For a decade, we have dismissed the rockets as little more than toylike, backroom-cobbled nuisances, convenient pretexts for military onslaughts by Israeli politicians keen to evade graft raps.
The fact, however, remains. Day in and day out, Palestinian rockets target and, at times, demolish, homes, day care centers, health clinics, synagogues, kibbutz dining halls, town squares, factories, elementary schools, high schools, apartment houses. For years now, by some miracle, an enormous number of Israeli lives have been spared. These are people trying to live their everyday lives under fire, and who have no other defense, no protection whatsoever, except the intercession of some form or another of poorly understood providence.
On the weekend that Ms. Roiphe's article appeared, I wonder how many of her fellow New Yorkers heard at all that a Katyusha rocket had crashed into a empty schoolroom in Ashkelon, close to where worshippers were gathered in a synagogue, and, soon thereafter, another landed 600 feet from that city's Barzilai Hospital and its thousands of patients and staff. No one killed = Nothing happened.
The world long ago grew tired of its Israelis and their whining. The world could not care a whit less about the miracles that save them. The world has even had time to grow tired of its Palestinians as well.
But the world should know this: No matter how progressive the government in Israel, no matter how grave the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, without an end to the rockets, there will be no peace process and certainly no peace. While the rockets are flying, nothing else moves.
Nothing that Israel has tried, neither diplomacy nor brutality, has been able to stop the rockets. Only Hamas can do that. The world and Washington could have made the rockets a priority years ago, and perhaps brought this to resolution. But the world has other things to think about, and Washington as well.
Back in New York, Anne Roiphe seems to have given up on her brethren in Israel. "Under the present conditions, it is vitally important that American Jews, liberal, decent, democratic, continue to play a major role. We may have to be the ones to carry the Jewish nation forward, in all its intelligent moral purposes."
I wish a had as much faith as she in her fellow American Jews, my direct people of origin.
As it is, I have next to nothing in common with my direct neighbors, Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel, other than the fact that, in a sense, I am one of them. I guess destiny will out. Had my family stayed in Russia before the war and not emigrated to Los Angeles, had they survived the Holocaust and Stalin, had I been one of the million former Soviet Jews who moved to Israel 20 years ago, I might well have found myself a proud voter for Avigdor Lieberman, angry with my fellow Israelis who disdain me as non-Israeli, angrier with the Arabs that toss rockets, furious with Israeli Arabs who support the tossing of rockets, and finally, contemptuous of - even as I uselessly blare my loyalty to - a place which is contemptuous of me.
Ours are dreadful times. Ours are ugly choices. You want to see peace, Ms. Roiphe? Pray for a miracle. But more so, pray for the event that no one expects, the shocking occurrence that no one could have foreseen - a journey by Netanyahu or Lieberman that resembles those of Begin and Sadat, Rabin and Sharon - the event that jars everyone from their accustomed outlook and despair, and forces them to reconsider the possibility that the humans of the Holy Land might still someday have a common future.
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