Nobel Laureate's Love of Israel Has Become a Tormented One, Thanks to the Occupation

The road Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has taken with Israel is a sad mirror image of the country's deterioration.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier near the road between the Hebron and Yatta municipalities, June 10, 2016.
A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier near the road between the Hebron and Yatta municipalities, June 10, 2016.Credit: Hazem Bader, AFP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

It’s the 87th minute. Gerard Piqué scores and the man beside me leaps for joy. He’s 80 years old, the 2010 Nobel Prize laureate in literature. We’re watching the game between Spain and the Czech Republic over an erratic internet connection, on an old computer, in the yard of the “Youth Against Settlements Center” in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida in Hebron. We’re right under the house of Israeli right-wing activist Baruch Marzel, whose terrifying dog is barking at us from his balcony, with a sign saying “Free Palestine” in the background. Could there be anything more surreal?

It is dusk in this ghostly neighborhood. We met here by chance 11 years ago. Since then Mario Vargas Llosa, author of “The Time of the Hero” (“The City and the Dogs” in Spanish), makes a point of coming to the occupied territories every few years, inquiring about the occupation and its fate. On his last visits he’s been the guest of Breaking the Silence. This time he participated in an ambitious project launched by the group, which brought 26 renowned writers here over the last few months. These authors are expected to write their impressions, which will be collected into a book to be published in many countries on the 50th anniversary of the occupation in June of next year.

Vargas Llosa doesn’t know yet what he’ll write. Israel fascinates him. He once told me the country was like a story written by Jorge Luis Borges – fantasy that was realized. He always opposed boycotting it. In his opinion, boycotts should be imposed on dictatorships such as Cuba, not on democracies like Israel, in which there is an opposition. “Only dissidents will save Israel,” he told me in 2005. “Everyone here is talking about two states but no one is doing anything about it,” he told me in 2010. He makes a point of coming back, learning and gathering impressions. He later publishes these impressions, which are usually very critical.

As someone who has long since broken down conventional delineations between right and left, Vargas Llosa defines himself as a friend of Israel. A friend who’s convinced of his duty to criticize and encourage dissidents such as Breaking the Silence, in order to save the country. He proposes a different model for people of conscience around the world: Come and see for yourself, encourage the moral opposition in Israel and make your voice heard.

The road he’s taken is a sad mirror image of Israel’s deterioration. Since he fell madly in love with it on his first visit in the 1970s when he came to Kibbutz Hulda to meet Amos Oz, and up to his sixth visit this week when he again met Oz as well as David Grossman, his love has become a tormented one, possibly resembling the one in his book “The Bad Girl,” a wonderful love story. No one could accuse him of hating Israel or of being an anti-Semite. In Peru, his country, where he was once a presidential candidate, he’s considered a pro-American right-winger.

Vargas Llosa saw more of the occupation this week than most Israelis have ever seen. Before dawn he went to the Qalandiya checkpoint to witness the woes of Palestinian laborers. He visited the caves of expelled people in the southern Hebron hills, the houses of the dispossessed in Silwan, military court proceedings at the Ofer army camp, as well as meeting settlers in the Jordan Valley.

He’s stayed the same – indefatigably curious. The Nobel Prize, his age and his family dramas, which have been roiling Spain and South America for the last year and a half, have not diminished his curiosity or modesty one bit. His eagerness to see and hear has remained intact. He was willing to walk for hours in the blazing sun through the alleys of Hebron, to climb rocky hills in the southern Hebron area in the heat of June, avoiding any trappings of prestige. Only dinner with Oz and Grossman caught him off-balance – it was set for 6:30. In Madrid no one leaves the house before 11 P.M.

He’s noticed two changes since his last visit. The left is even weaker than it was, and the hate graffiti in the settlers’ quarter of Hebron has been erased. In the meantime, the Czech Republic-Spain game ended. The reds, who I thought were the Czech team, won. They were the Spanish team, Mario Vargas Llosa explained to me. It’s well worth listening to him.

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