Friday, October 29, 2010

Wailing Walls: An Introduction

Note: As tensions again rise in the Middle East, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel at the start of the Second Intifada, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East and slowly learning Arabic, focusing especially on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

'Now the Aktion Begins'

"Let me tell you about what I saw every morning."

Arieh gingerly stirred his cappuccino with a silver sugar spoon. He was less like the sober, Glock-toting wheeler-dealer I’d seen on Arutz Sheva than a soggy springer spaniel. It was winter in Jerusalem; the Western Wall Plaza was slick with rain. Arieh looked snug in his olive wool sweater and chocolate-colored corduroy slacks, sipping from an impossibly fluffy mug of cappucino. Even his black felt kippah, pinned over his thinning hair, looked soft. One of my companions, a jocular Moroccan, had wagered me twenty shekels Arieh had at least eight kids; I was sticking at six.

The man before us didn’t betray any such vitality, lisping as he answered, "Six kids." His gentle, open-handed gestures toward the window were the airy movements of my sincere, gay high school guidance counselor. I could almost picture Arieh and me stretched out on the Mount of Olives, sharing a Dannon Activia yogurt and running through SAT prep.

"Every day, walking from French Hill to Mount Scopus" — at this, he gestured beyond the obstructive silver dome of Al Aqsa Mosque, unbelievably close to the plate glass windows of the bistro where we sat — "I looked down at the Temple Mount. And every day, I remembered what it said in Tanakh. Once the Third Temple is built, the fresh water beneath the temple — you know of the tunnels beneath? The fresh water will flow out of the Dome of the Rock, east," he gestured once again towards the Mount of Olives, "down, down, down through Judea and Samaria, down the slopes and into the Dead Sea, which will be made fresh again. The Jordan will flow with this water."

We were in a plush two-floor party hall, an Ikea scrum of buffed glass and black marble. Arieh was speaking that day of the same reason it was so expensive to rent the place for a bar mitzvah. The café we sat in overlooks the holiest site in Judaism, Mount Moriah, where two temples had been built and destroyed, and where only one supporting wall remains. During the 1967 War, IDF paratroopers stormed through the nearby Lion's Gate, capturing the walled Old City, along with the rest of East Jerusalem. In the words of Naomi Shemer's 1967 smash hit song, "Jerusalem of Gold," the "sound of horn from Temple's mountain/Again so loudly called."

Arieh saw it as his mission in life to never, ever see that shofar snuffed. And as he spoke of his schemes — truly criminal, chauvinistic and evil they were — to insure this dominance, I began to drift away. Photographic documentation of the interview would later record me, with hand under chin, raptly nodding the Thomas Friedman "seriously engaged" head bob, even as I sank further into my chair.

As Arieh continued to speak of Arab perfidy, I felt like Buster Bluth as he slumped over and out of the CEO chair: "IS ANYONE CONCERNED ABOUT AN UPRISING?" The Western Wall loomed large through the window, as did the golden Dome of the Rock, the oldest Islamic building in existence, the third holiest site for Muslims on Earth. The Jewish revival, all Jerusalem debts owed to him and his settler organization, public and private — it was all so simple to Arieh. The path to salvation was apparent, obvious: continue, by all means at his disposal, to illegally relocate extremist settlers in a ring around the Temple Mount, a Jewish buffer in the "Holy Basin" that would make contiguity between Arab neighborhoods and the Old City a faint memory. I shook his hand an hour later, and walked onto the veranda.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. On the stone staircase in front of the café, crowded with tourists headed towards the Wall, an elderly klezmer busker was playing the violin in time with the tinny beat of a Casio keyboard. Walking down the stairs, a black-suited, ginger-bearded Haredi man grabbed me by the wrist. Intoning machine-gun prayer in Hebrew, he knotted the red Kabbalah yarn around my wrist, as I dug in my pocket for whatever change I had.

Here is what you will not hear in a meeting with settler impresarios like Arieh, King of the Israel Land Fund, despite their responsibility for this outcome. Israel is headed toward collapse. The endgame of four decades of military occupation and settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories, with no end in sight and no remedy proffered to Palestinian statelessness, is the gradual binationalization of Israel.

Today, Israel, despite being twenty percent Arab, is a state defined by all Zionist political parties, left to right (with the exception of Hadash, the commies), as a "Jewish and Democratic" state. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip lack even the largely symbolic representation of their co-nationals in Israel. But as the day approaches when even the friendliest census will record more Palestinians between the river and the sea, apartheid creeps into Israeli governance of all its wards, citizen and refugee alike. After all, how can a state be Jewish if it is majority Arab? How can a state be democratic if it denies each man his vote? How will this tension between true liberalism and herrenvolk ethnocratic apartheid resolve itself?

Like all nineteen year-olds who get married, Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was bound to be a shitty union. In the week leading up the war, then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had given a disastrous speech reassuring Israelis that the porn-stached Egyptian firebrand Gamal Abdel Nasser would not, in fact, be sitting down next week to a cracked crab luncheon at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Kind words, until the leader began stumbling over some corrections to the text, a moment that sounded to listeners like a panicked stutter. But what a difference six days make!

A week later and "Yerushlaim of Gold" had been reunified! The IDF captured the remainder of historical Palestine (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem), as well as the Egyptian Sinai and Syrian Golan Heights. At Camp David in 1979, the Sinai was traded away by stalwart right-wing Polish hardass Menachem Begin for peace with Egypt, a decision that cost its President, Officer and a Gentleman star Anwar Sadat, his status as a living Nobel Prize winner. The Golan will likely will be similarly swapped someday with the Don Martin/Mad Magazine caricature that runs Syria, Bashar al-Assad. But as for the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem — that turf, like the City of Oz, is a horse of a different color.

Golda Meir recalled asking Eshkol: "What are we going to do with a million Arabs?" Eshkol responded: "I get it. You want the dowry, but you don’t like the bride!" Prior to the war, Eshkol’s premiership had been four years of tugging at his collar and yelping "I don’t get no respect!" An old-school Mapai (Labor) Party hack and all-around nice guy who had ascended to the premiership following David Ben Gurion’s retirement, by 1967, he had become an Israeli Dan Quayle, a sputtering lightweight who was the subject of his own genre of Polish-style jokes.

By the time of the war, Eshkol and Ben Gurion had experienced a remarkably public and venomous falling out over the truly bizarre "Lavon Affair," a botched series of Israeli false-flag attacks in Egypt, targeting American and British interests. On June 6th, Eshkol was an ashen-faced Max Bialystock. By June 10th, he was a regular Borscht Belter, inspecting troops wearing a little black beret, returning Jews to Judea, Samaria and of course, the Kotel of East Jerusalem.

Despite the good quip about the dowry and the bride, no one has ever answered Meir’s query — least of all Meir, during her stint in office. The "Palestinian Question" has been flunked by every prime minister, never really answered, like a Final Jeopardy where all three players get it wrong and someone still has to win.

In the same way that there has never been any official attempt to reconcile the State of Israel with the ethnic cleansing — The Nakba — of Arab inhabitants during the 1948 War, every proposed solution to the "Palestinian Question" has sought to sign both the dowry check and a quickie divorce. Since 1967, various systems of control have dominated the lives of 4.3 million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, systems that do not apply to the 500,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in these areas.

The logic of "Land for Peace," the bargain underpinning the Oslo Process of the 1990s and the "Two-State Solution," reasonably posits that a Palestinian state in twenty-two percent of historical Palestine would constitute a fair resolution to this conundrum. That olive branch has been pruned by the unrestrained growth of settlements, as well as the institutionalization of the occupation. The occupation today is a hermetically sealed phenomenon, a million miles away from the Israeli consciousness, even as its youth are dispatched there for a few years of army service. Gaza might as well be underwater — which, to broad swathes of the current Knesset, might be considered an improvement.

The day of reckoning is not far off. The arrogant, feckless Bibi Netanyahu wakes up every day to this reality: the Palestinians in the Territories, lacking a state, will finally demolish either Israel's Jewish character or its democratic pretensions. The response of his fascistic coalition partners has been to tack more and more Afrikaner. What remains of the left quietly nibbles biscotti at those ubiquitous Aroma cafés and would have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu's no dope. Even an unreconstructed butcher like Ariel Sharon, the godfather of government-sponsored settlement, who had been implicated in war crimes as early as 1951, was sufficiently spooked by the math to pull an end-run around the Territories — before the stroke he'd been due for since his early 1980s Raging Bull weight gain hit. Like Begin in the Sinai, Sharon, who urged settlers to "grab every hilltop" and kill the peace process, was the right-winger who pulled settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. His "disengagement" was not the brave act of justice some liked to paint it as; it was what an old man saw as a demographic necessity. Sharon's was a last-ditch effort to shift responsibility for the Palestinians off of Israel, stay dominant over their borders, coast and air and ensure Israel's survival as a Jewish ethnocracy.

If Israel continues to deny Palestinians their basic rights, it will continue to shed friends in the same way the Sharon's stroke rendered Kadima rudderless — two comatose, stunned hawks, prone in a hospital bed and waiting for the end. Israel's credo is a failing nationalism, increasingly extreme and repellent to the world community. If no Israeli leader is capable of mustering the courage to create a Palestinian state that is actually autonomous — Yitzhak Rabin was murdered for agreeing to much less — then apartheid is assured, and Israeli "democracy" will be even more of a sham than it is today.

If Israel does some day collapse under the weight of international pressure and its own inequities, it will be officially unpredicted, slipping beneath the waves like the Shah's Iran or the USSR. Israelis and Palestinians could be saved from this eventuality. But every day waves goodbye to the prospect of any decent future.

Let us put ourselves into the comfy Thom McAn loafers of a Bibi-rimming neocon toady, like Bill Kristol, George Will or, best of all, Tom Friedman, and imagine if their squawking about the odious Iranian junta was more than cynical chickenshit fear-mongering. Maybe someday Supreme Shitheel Ali Khameini will order a nuclear-tipped rocket strike on Tel Aviv, a fifty-megaton uranium Shabaab that’ll destroy every Tiv Tam, Burger Ranch, and sleazy Russian arseim nightclub in Israel. Never mind that such a strike would constitute a second Holocaust, a crime against humanity of enormous proportions. Never mind that such a strike would almost certainly also destroy the Haram al-Sharif, site of Muhammed's heavenly ascension, or that it would kill millions of Palestinians and choke all the bordering Arab nations in a noxious nuclear envelope. Once the one or two (German-built!) Dolphin submarines in the Persian Gulf, by now the last remnant of the Israeli military apparatus, completely demolish Tehran with their own nuclear knuckleduster, all the squishy questions I have raised will be resolved.

Ahh the Iranians… what would we do without them? They’re such perfect bad guys, shooting pretty girls in motorcycle drive-bys and inviting David Duke to finally crack what really happened during the Holocaust. Russia is fun but way past its sell-by date; that crusty old pirate McCain looked pretty out of touch bashing Prime Minister "KGB" Putin during one of those meandering presidential debates. Everyone knows Tehran is the new Moscow. Tell me Khameini was not born to be a James Bond villain. I can just picture his thin smoldering eyes widening as Roger Moore cross-kicks him into a pool of radioactive waste at the Natanz nuke factory, the destruction of Israel halted with 0:07 left on the clock. "They always said you had a radiant charisma," sneers Bond, as he and Neda ride off into the sunset on a Baseej rice rocket.

Every time Ahmedinejad stands up to crow at the UN General Assembly, about Reform Judaism launching a missile strike on the Pentagon or Neil Diamond poisoning Palestinian drinking water or whatever, it must be like music to the hawks. Never mind that reality does not in fact reflect the neoconservative, rah-rah jingoistic view of Iran as Evil Empire 2.0, case closed. The appeal of this view is the same as that of 2002 Saddam: who can avoid the trap of decrying war against such completely venal, unsympathetic tyrant thugs, without looking like a Stalin apologist from the thirties?

That black-and-white business doesn't work as well with the Palestinians — though those courageous Second Intifada suicide bombers, so brave at liquefying children on Bus No. 2 or at the Ben Yehuda Street Sbarro's, certainly did their part to disgust the world. Those "martyrdom operations," which even most Hamas leaders now recognize were strategically abysmal, allowed the Sharon war government to define Palestinians as terrorists, right as they were attempting to crush Arafat once and for all.

Today, this strategy does not work so well. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was practically laughed off the news wires for suggesting the Mavi Marmara Turkish aid ship, aboard which some nine activists were slain by Israeli commandos, was part of a "flotilla of hate," crowded with Al Qaeda mercenaries. Today, the struggle of Palestinians — and Israelis — is increasingly defined by its emphasis on civil rights and non-violent resistance, much more like the First than Second Intifada. Things are not so black and white.

The U.S. media does not know this. The reasons are plentiful and could easily fill the Library of Congress, but for now let us restrict the explanation to one structural issue. Framing narratives are never the product of one reporter, but of the whole corps, the pack mentality that provides the "boys on the bus" with the skeleton around which their stories congeal. And for many reasons — a powerful, rightwing pro-Likud (not necessarily pro-Israel) lobby in the United States, the revulsion suicide bombings engendered towards the Palestinian cause, the association of the conflict with a litany of other Mideast problems — it seems that the result has been a media storyline that does justice to neither party. It is easy for Americans to understand a story in which Arab terrorists besiege the Holy Land, where the persecuted Jewish people are fighting to defend themselves. The truth, of course, is neither so Bruckheimeresque nor so self-servingly Spielbergian.

Peace talks seem destined to collapse over the issue of settlements, much as Arieh King hoped. If a Third Intifada comes, it will begin in Jerusalem, where violence in Silwan, one of the neighborhoods King has targeted, continues to flare up. Mahmoud Abbas is seventy-five years old and unpopular; the younger generation of Fatah, led by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, have a much more pessimistic view of bilateral negotiations. The Gaza Strip is undergoing a humanitarian crisis following the Israeli massacre of around 1,400 people in January 2009’s "Operation Cast Lead." The extremist Hamas movement continues to control that coastal enclave, in fierce and brutal competition with the governing Fatah. I am not optimistic.

In the coming months, this column will attempt two things. One is to attempt to educate readers about the history and current events of Israel, Palestine and the wider Middle East. Another is to scrutinize, berate, disrespect, mock, dismiss and insult the pronouncements of all pols, pundits, flacks, racketeers, zealots, soldiers and thugs scourging the region. Some might think it unfair to compare Beltway journalists to the extremist settlers of Yitzhar or the ragamuffin psychopaths of Islamic Jihad; I agree. To do so is a disservice to both Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists.

Western coverage and commentary about the region is almost uniformly pathetic and deserves particular redress. The Middle East, and particular the "Holy Land," will, to quote an old reporter's adage, "make you wrong." In that spirit, I promise to hold myself to a lofty, impossibly noble standard of prediction and analysis — and to hold the aforementioned hacks to the same standard. This column’s guiding credo is that of Ottoman-era warlord Ahmed "The Butcher" al-Jazzar, one-time ruler of Akko: travel only with a portable gallows.

I thought long and hard about the appropriate guise in which to write these things. Do I pick a Palestinian? Do I pick an Israeli? Does picking one over the other somehow acquit the other side of some culpability? Ultimately, I've chosen a man who I think determinedly does not represent the best face of Israel, nor even the majority of its citizens. What I fear, however, is that he represents the future and certainly represents the worst impulses of the occupation.

General Rehavam Ze'evi, one of the conquerors of 1967, agitated throughout his career for the conflict to become more and more confrontational. He believed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the way some people believe in God. And he wanted his hatred ancient. In this, I don't find it a false equivalence to lump him not with the Israeli on the street, but with extremists of every stripe, of every race. Ze'evi, Abdel Aziz Rantissi of Hamas, and John Bolton would have all been happier to have been on the same team. Ze'evi — he who advocated for the forced transfer of Palestinians "on air-conditioned buses" — regrettably represents to me a vicious strain of discourse that is growing stronger not merely on one side but on both.

His death, at the hands of Palestinian assassins in 2001, was the only murder of a Knesset member in the Second Intifada, a pointless execution. He and his killers (from the Marxist-inspired Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) shared one thing in common: a hatred and mistrust of peacemaking. And yet, in a sick cosmic joke, Ze'evi's lifelong nickname was none other than "Gandhi." General Gandhi. That about sums up Middle East peace.