Thirty years ago, when the state of Israel had travelled only half its present journey since 1948, I interviewed General Matti Peled in New York. As an army general, Peled had been a notably tough administrator of the Occupied Territories, but in retirement had become a dove, publicly urging his country to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians. Abandon the illegal settlements, he said, return to the 1967 borders and resolve all the other issues obstructing a proper peace.
“What do you think will happen,” I asked the former general, “if no Israeli government ever emerges strong enough to take such a path?”
“Oh, I think we’ll end up like the Crusaders,” he answered. “It might take some time, but just like them, in the end, we’ll be gone.”
It was startling at the time to hear any Israeli, particularly a military man, talk like that. Of course, then as always, the Israel lobby in the United States loved to depict embattled Israel as only one step from annihilation by the blood-thirsty Arabs unless the United States offered unconditional support.
But no-one believed it. Back in the late 1970s, most people thought that something approaching a tolerable deal could be reached through the UN. It wouldn’t be everything the Palestinians wanted, but they would get at least a half-way decent state-let; the settlements would stop, maybe even get rolled back.
By 2008, these notions look as quaint as a Victorian Christmas card. The notional Palestinian state occasionally proffered by the over-weaning Israelis is a patchwork of separate enclaves, boxed in by settlements, dissected by Jews-only military roads, with limited access to water.
Hamas, the political party voted for by desperate Palestinians, is stigmatised by the US and EU as a terrorist body. When Jimmy Carter, the US president in office when I interviewed General Matti Peled, denounced Israel’s siege of Gaza as an appalling crime against civilians a few weeks ago, he himself was savaged as the accomplice of terror.
In the United States, it is true, there are more questions asked today about the power of the Israel lobby than a generation ago, but these are mere ripples on the wide ocean of Congressional support for anything the hawks in Israel might request. Thus, no mainstream US presidential candidate has dared to do anything more than echo the same sentiment as Hillary Clinton with all appropriate ferocity. The sentiment was the threat to obliterate Iran if it threatens Israel’s existence. And ‘threaten’ can be defined in an almost unlimited number of ways.
Voyaging to Israel this week, Bush has hopes to bring his eight-year submission to the Israeli hawks to a finale with some sort of ‘Oslo-II’ agreement, giving permanent sanctions to Israel’s land-grabs and final consignment of all UN agreements to the dustbin of history.
But his trip to Israel has had the misfortune to coincide with the gravest charges of corruption showering down on Prime Minister Olmert’s head. Stuttering excuses for the munificent financial contributions extended to him by the Long Island-based realtor Morris Talansky, Olmert has had to pledge that if indicted he will resign, and indeed it looks as though his days are numbered. The patching together of any new coalition government in Israel could be a protracted affair.
Meanwhile, US policy in the region has sustained a humiliating rebuff as the government of Lebanon rescinds its efforts to cut back on Hezbollah’s communications systems and ability to monitor all traffic at Beirut airport. With Israel in an uproar about missile salvoes on the port city of Ashkelon from within Gaza, no one will forget Hezbollah’s ability to launch similar salvoes.
Yesterday, I looked South towards Israel from the Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest of the Crusaders’ fortresses, looming above the Syrian coastal plain north of Damascus. TE Lawrence called it “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. Despite the efforts of Saladin, the Hospitallers were never dislodgedfrom the Krak by force. It was eventually the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, Baybars, who winkled them out by negotiation in 1271, after they had held it for 162 years.
Standing on the great south tower of the Krak (actually completed by French engineers in the 1930s), I remembered General Peled’s remark about Israel and the Crusaders, who held the Krak three times longer then Israel’s present span.
Long-term conjecture is futile, but it is certainly true that the hawks, just as Peled and scores of other doves in recent years have charged, have not buttressed Israel’s security – they have gravely compromised it. At the same time the balance of forces in the region has changed considerably from the US dominance of a generation ago.
Soon Bush will be gone; Olmert maybe sooner. Just as all new visitors to Israel are given a tour of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, perhaps all politicians pondering Israel’s security and justice for Palestinians should also be given a compulsory tour of the Krak des Chevaliers.