Diary of an Israel Junketeer, Part One

Talking-and dodging-politics in the Holy Land


(Editor's Note: reason Associate Editor Michael C. Moynihan is traveling though Israel on a program sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, a travel program for journalists sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He'll be filing observations throughout the week.)

Walking toward Jerusalem's Old City, a journalist colleague in my tour group relates, apropos of nothing, that Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show is being cancelled. A brief argument follows over who is the best cable talk show host on American television—I nominate the peerless Robin Byrd—only to be interrupted by two elderly and ornery American tourists: "We came here to get away from politics." The Yanks seem unaware that, in Israel—and we're within spitting distance of the Dome of the Rock—there is no escaping politics.

The constant political discussions in this city quickly annex most of your brain. It's a shopworn observation, but the simple act of entering a coffee shop requires a quick bit of profiling and a wave of the metal detector wand. No one, from what I can make out, seems irritated by this.

Politics and the icons of war are all around. Reading an essay in Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, trying to beat suffocating jetlag, I repeatedly misread a doped-up character named "Sharon" as Sha-rone.

Within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, plus-sized American tourists are everywhere, waddling through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with their panama hats and chunky white sneakers, oohing and ahhing at various reconstructed tombs and crucifixion crosses. Deeply holy, with a whiff of Six Flags.

Like everything else in the region, the church is subdivided into four quarters. The Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox have their own little Bantustans for which they are responsible. Take away these invisible boundaries and, I suppose, fistfights would break out.

Just outside the church, in the narrow alleyways of the Arab quarter, it is possible to buy all manner of junk: rugs, cheap knives, and, depending on your degree of bravery, either an IDF or Yasser Arafat t-shirt.

Over breakfast, an Israeli political analyst inspires little confidence that a peaceful resolution to this baffling, maddening, intractable conflict is at hand. The three pillars of Israeli politics, she says—the right, left, and center—have all collapsed, all producing similar results.

The latest: Kadima, the centrist party formed by Ariel Sharon in 2005 that took power the next year, presided over Hezbollah's 12,000-missile buildup and an inconclusive war. Sharon's total disengagement from Gaza has, almost everyone reminds you, resulted in a Hamas government and, as we have seen in recent weeks, a huge spike in the number of Qassam rockets fired at civilian population centers in Israeli border towns. As could be expected, recent opinion polling shows that the Likud party, which currently has just 12 seats in the 120-member Knesset (to Kadima's 29), would more than double that number if elections were held today.

Over lunch, an Israeli academic praises the innumerable benefits of the Israeli parliamentary system—no candidates, only party lists—and bemoans "the boring" American election. I wonder, though don't ask, if the parliamentary system in Italy, with its 50 governments in as many years, is an appropriate counter-example to the supposed brilliance of coalition governments and proportional representation. Israel, says the professor, was once a welfare state in the Scandinavian mold and, so I hear, was equally bungling and bureaucratic. But in recent years, he points out, the country "has privatized faster than Russia." It is difficult to determine if this is said with contempt or pride.

In the evening we drive into Arab East Jerusalem for a meeting with a senior Palestinian Authority official close to Mahmoud Abbas (all Israelis call him Abu Mazen). The consensus among our small group of journalists, regardless of their own political hang-ups, is that this guy, like many P.A. officials, eloquently delivers an hour of sophistry and evasion.

It's a pitiful performance. One questioner asks why, if the Palestinian Authority renounces terror, it recently celebrated the life and achievements of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist George Habash. The official becomes agitated and recommends that such issues must be left "in the past." Calling people "terrorists" or calling them "freedom fighters," he grumbles, is an impediment to peace.

For the remaining hour, it is clear that the Palestinian Authority wants to bury the past-except when it doesn't. The rest of the conversation is an argument about the past, with periodic nods to "the peace process." When I ask the official about the massive and well-documented thievery of Yasser Arafat, his eyes narrow. "Arafat never stole money," he hisses. "The people around him did, but not Arafat."

Besides, any corruption in the P.A. was "done with the full knowledge of Israel." If this guy pulls a muscle playing racquetball, he probably blames Israel. While the moderate Likud member of parliament Mickey Eitan told me that his former party boss Ariel Sharon "was the most corrupt man in the history of Israel," and that Sharon's extended family was like "something you would find in South America," the P.A. dare not speak ill of its former leader.

Coming Next: Raver-jihadists, privatizing health care, and the Oprah of the Palestinians.