What I saw in Israel

Metula, Golan Heights, Israel
Metula, Golan Heights, Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress got me thinking about my visit with a group of other journalists to the Mideast in the spring of 1982.

Of course the Israeli Prime Minister wasn’t in Washington to promote Israeli tourism. He’s determined to sabotage any deal President Obama and other Western leaders make with Iran to halt that country’s development of nuclear weapons.

Americans should keep in mind that Netanyahu represents the right-wing of Israeli politics. There are plenty of Israelis on the left who aren’t so conservative when it comes to foreign policy.

You’d think that since my visit was partially paid for by the American Zionist Federation that the experts and dignitaries I’d meet were hand-picked supporters of the Israeli government’s point of view. That wasn’t always the case.

So Yitzhak Rabin, later a prime minister, held forth in a large auditorium for a two-hour lecture, at least, on the history of Israel. If he had notes he didn’t seem to refer to them. We also met with another prime minister-to-be, Yitzhak Shamir. During Israel’s fight to become an independent state, Shamir was a leader of the terrorist Stern gang.

But aside from such arranged meetings, I felt free to roam about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on my own. I made a point of interviewing peace advocates. I spent hours in old Jerusalem, stopping at Palestinian shops and talking with those folk about life under the Israelis. One day no shops were open. It was “Land Day,” commemorating some long-ago war I’ve now forgotten. The Palestinians hadn’t forgotten. The Israelis hadn’t forgotten, either.

On the rooftops, I spotted armed Israeli soldiers. I realized I needed to head back for the hotel. I wasn’t interested in becoming a news story myself.

I visited the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. My Hebrew was too rusty to let me follow the debate. My group toured a Holocaust museum. I took a taxi back to the King Solomon hotel by myself. I just didn’t feel like talking to anybody.

Later, I took a taxi to an apartment where a young Israeli couple were busy taking care of their new quintuplets, all girls. An older daughter stood nearby and beamed as she presented her younger siblings to this visitor from America.

I remember visiting a Kibbutz, guarded by one young, armed soldier. Our tour bus took us through the Gaza strip. What I saw was a dusty neighborhood of cinder block buildings and a few children staring back at these visitors. We stopped at Yamit, where Israeli soldiers were helping Jewish settlers move their belongings as Israel prepared to return Gaza to the Palestinians.

I don’t recall why or how I was taken to a bunker in the Golan Heights where Israeli troops kept watch on the valley below where Syrian troops spied the Israelis stronghold. But there I was in a place halfway around the world from my newspaper office where I wrote editorials about this very flashpoint.

Israel has so many neighborhoods, shopping centers, restaurants and bars that you can think you’re in a western country. Yet there is so much evidence of poverty on the fringes. There are cleavages. Arabs who are citizens of Israel feel treated as second-class. Israelis who immigrated from Western Europe and the U.S., at least when I visited, tend to look down on Israelis from Southern Europe.

I recall a nervous country. News broadcasts I could understand led with incidents between Jews and Arabs. Shopkeepers and hotel desk clerks invariably moved the conversation to politics. I’m sure such shopkeepers and hotel desk clerks back in Israel are dissecting Netanyahu’s speech before Congress for any visitor.

I’m sure President Obama and U.S. allies in Europe will continue to press for an agreement with Iran that ends that country’s program to develop a nuclear bomb. I suppose Netanyahu’s presence here complicates the negotiations. But I have hope. Here’s why.

During my two-week visit, which included lots of interviews, I didn’t meet one Israeli who wanted to go to war with any Arab. I didn’t meet any Arab who wanted to go to war with Israel. I bet that’s still true. And I bet Iranians have no more interest in going to war – never mind the rhetoric – than most everybody else in the Mideast.

Give peace a chance, the song goes. Give peace a chance.

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