(Editor's Note: reason Associate Editor Michael C. Moynihan recently traveled though Israel on a program sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, a program for journalists sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This is his third and final dispatch. The other two are online here and here.)
The West Bank—The settlements that sprouted up after the Six Day War, during which Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, have retracted and expanded, a constant source of friction amongst Palestinians and Israelis alike. Indeed, a majority of Israelis support disengagement from most West Bank settlements. Herzl Makov, the former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, is not one of them. Standing atop the Kfar Adumim settlement, looking out on the breathtaking and empty vista that surrounds the West Bank community, says this is Jewish land. He employs an odd understanding of property law. "There was no one living here before the settlement began in 1979," he says, indicating that the area is therefore fair game.
As Jonathan Tepperman recently pointed out in The New York Times, the settlement issue has long "cut through the left-right divide in Israeli politics." The outposts floating in the post-1967 borders have been encouraged and supported by politicos from both Likud and Labor; there is near, but not total, unanimity of opinion on the efficacy and legality of some settlements, and bitter debate about others.
Not living in Israel, not being an expert on the issue, I best not wade too deeply into the murky waters of the debate. But for those who are interested, I would recommend this book by left-leaning historian Gershom Gorenberg. I can say this: If Makov bases his land claim on a messianic biblical literalism, and it appears he does, than it is impossible to debate the issue with him. The West Bank, he says, is Eretz Israel—land bequeathed to the Jews by God. It appears that he also believes Jordan to be part of Israel, though I could have misheard him. As he barrels forward, I am getting the sinking feeling that he believes most everything to be part of the great Jewish state, and wait impatiently for the land claims on Saskatoon and Waziristan.
In fairness, he makes one compelling point. If 20 percent of Israel is made up of Arabs who more or less live side-by-side, in peace with their neighbors (as with every issue in the Middle East, let me carefully provide a caveat to this claim by acknowledging that this clearly isn't a perfect arrangement, though Israeli Arabs are represented in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, for instance), why not allow Jews to settle in a Palestinian state? It's a fair question. But when Makov is asked if the Kfar Adumim settlement was absorbed into a Palestinian state, would he and his family stay, his answer is swift. Not a bloody chance.
Speaking of which, after a gin-soaked evening, I find myself gently badgering two Israeli Muslims in the city of Tiberias about when, how, and why they are discriminated against, restricted in travel, forced to endure checkpoints, and the like. The two look amused, but unfazed. Things might happen here and there, they both agree, but not to them. The Americans and Europeans, one them sighs, are always looking for some morality tale, some bit of discrimination to take home with them as a souvenir. I slink away, far too drunk to be embarrassed, only later recalling the mention, somewhere in my babbling, that they are Druze, a group not considered by many Arabs to be "real" Muslims. A group, unlike Israeli Arabs, allowed to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and a group that overwhelmingly self-identify as Israeli.
Later in the day, while visiting the graves of socialist founders of the kibbutz movement, an Israeli archeologist, who spent his twenties living on a kibbutz, relates the story of why he is no longer an enthusiastic backer of the kibbutzim. "My wife and I were socialists. But one day, a friend of ours decided he wanted to travel and work abroad for a few years. When he presented this to the kibbutz committee, they decided that he wasn't allowed to go; he was needed to perform some duty or another on the farm. He was completely fine with this decision. But my wife and I, on the other hand, pretty much decided that we were no longer socialists." These types of kibbutzim still exist, he says, but they are few. "An overwhelming majority found it necessary for their financial survival to privatize."
The rumor here, in the newspapers, amongst those in and around government, is that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, despite his repeated denials, has worked behind the scenes with Hamas to achieve a hudna—a cease fire—in Gaza. With an extremist group like Hamas, who have no intention of working towards any sort of peace deal, but rather desire the establishment of an Islamic state in the entire region, it can only be a brief lull in the jihad. Unlike diplomatic exchanges that result in "land for peace," cease fires are but respites in a long war. Avi Issacharoff of the left-leaning Haaretz (whom a group of us dined with earlier in the week) quotes "senior [Palestinian Authority] people in Ramallah" declaring that any long-term hudna leading to negotiation with Israel would be bad for the Hamas political brand. "It will no longer be a fighting 'resistance' organization, but rather a political movement that arrives at agreements with the 'Zionist entity' in order to ensure the well-being of its leaders." Nearly all those asked to comment on the possibility of fruitful discussions with Hamas dismiss it as mere posturing. At dinner, even Issacharoff confessed that "Hamas won't ever make peace with the Jews." It is an opinion echoed by every politician, intelligence official, and expert we meet.
Luckily, the hudna was in effect when we arrived in Sderot, the Israeli town on the Gaza border that is the recipient of daily rocket attacks from both Hamas and the even more fanatical Islamic Jihad. The rockets trigger an "early" detection alarm, which helpfully allows the people a full 15 seconds to take cover. We speak with a woman who is an avowed pacifist who says her life in Sderot is "hell," yet still supports the disengagement and desires a dialogue with Hamas. She works with disabled children. She explains that trying to move them to cover is an almost impossible task, that driving home during a day of raining rockets can turn a five-minute drive into a 30-minute exercise in pulling to the side of the road and diving behind rocks.
After a visit to Israel's northern border with Lebanon, it was time to head back to D.C. Though organized by AIPAC, which advertises itself as "America's pro-Israel lobby," there was a wide variety of opinion represented, both among my fellow junketeers and the people we met. Our guide and custodian on the trip, Josh Block, is a former Democratic Party operative with experience in the Clinton and Gore campaigns, and worked for Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Among the participants, there were conservatives, liberals, lefties, and moderates representing small (techpresident.com), medium (The Weekly Standard), and large (Slate, Politico) publications. The debates precipitated by our meetings were constant and vigorous, if not occasionally wildly impolite. The Israeli officials and journalists we encountered similarly represented a wide range of opinions. It was a trip of scrupulous political balance—Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Authority officials, a centrist Kadima Party official, a Sharon-hating Likud Party parliamentarian, a left-leaning journalist, a right-leaning intelligence official, even that pacifist from the besieged town of Sderot.
By the end of the trip, I am ready for home, ready for some degree of normalcy. It is, I realize, quite nice to have a coffee without being searched, to walk into The Gap without being profiled, to not read tea leaves in order to determine the likelihood of a third intifada.