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The Villa in the Jungle

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Three months ago Ehud Barak—former Israeli Prime Minister, Defense Minister, IDF Chief of Staff, commander of the storied Sayeret Matkal, and still the most decorated IDF soldier—visited our town as part of the ‘Sacramento Speakers Series.” Like other expatriate Israelis, and many Jews in our community, I was eager to hear Barak’s talk, and learn of his views regarding the current Israel government and political situation, the Palestinian issue, Middle East, Iran, war and peace. To be frank, I was largely disappointed, as he hardly touched on these topics, at least not in his initial long talk. The second part of the evening however—the interview session, where he was asked question by a local TV personality—was much more interesting and he was forced to touch upon these topics, and was also more revealing as to who Ehud Barak the person is.

The reason I’m coming back to his talk so late is because one thing, one phrase of his, had remained planted in my head—and kept bothering me—more than anything else he’d said that evening. He’d kept comparing Israel to “The Villa in the Jungle,” at least a couple of times (this being his favorite moniker). There was also an element of smugness in him, of look how clever I am, saying that. And I came to believe that this saying is symptomatic of a lot of what’s wrong with Israel’s attitude and politics today, with the army’s parlance and ‘school-of-thought’ adopted by political leaders. I thought it’s well worth analyzing. So here goes:

The first thing to disturb me in this saying was the stench of plain racism that came from it. We built, he actually said, a beautiful (white, I assume) villa in the jungle (dark, I assume). Inside, he said, we’re doing very well, but once we venture outside, we’re surrounded by the (black, I assume) barbarians at the gate. What can we do, he really remarked, but we are not living in Canada. This was, still is, so reminiscent of South Africa, and how the white minority, the Anglo and Dutch outsiders had ruled over the native, black majority there for so many years. And how they thought of, and behaved toward, the people surrounding them. Indeed, Israel is accused by many of being in the process of creating an Apartheid state.

It’s also, for second, not exactly true. In the north of Israel we have Lebanon. For many years, it was regarded, especially Beirut, as the ‘Paris’ of the Middle East.’ Southern Lebanon, where Hazboollah now is completely in charge, was the bastion of the Christians, historically an educated, culturally sound society and place (I know, I’ve been there). If not for the Palestinian issue—which Israel continuously refuses to solve, and to acknowledge as being the central issue, the core of the conflict—things there would’ve been much, much better.

True, it was Ehud Barak, in his short stint as Prime Minister, who pulled the IDF out of Lebanon. It’s also true that he tried to strike a deal with Arafat—unreciprocated unfortunately—in order to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are some ongoing efforts to promote coexistence with the Israeli Arabs, and with Palestinians. And not that there were never any other serious peace negotiations and attempts on Israel’s part. Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for one such an attempt. Still, in the current political climate in Israel, these are too few and far between, and the majority of Israelis continue to move right-of-center, and are opposed to any compromise with the Palestinians.

And then we have Syria and Jordan to the East. Yes, things in Syria are horrendous currently, but that country carries a lot of historical, cultural significant in the Middle East and the world. And so does Jordan. And we also have Egypt in the south, with its own immense historical, cultural treasures. It’s not as if we Jews, by coming to the land of our forefathers, are the only cultured, educated, enlightened people around.

It’s also brings to mind the larger question of how we see ourselves—Israel that is, and its people—living in the region. Are we there to erect and solidify our walls (that indeed Israel keeps building), to separate ourselves in our fortified “Villa,” fighting and dreading the day we’ll be overrun by the wild people of the “Jungle.” Or do we, finally, want to be an integral part of that rough neighborhood. To belong, at least, if not necessarily to assimilate. To live in peace with our surrounding neighbors, and not in a constant war.

Finally, this saying—which depicts, describes Israel as the “Villa in the Jungle”—represents a lot of the problems afflicting today’s Israel and its people. It’s the reason why, despite all its advances—in agriculture, hi-tech, culture, democracy, and yes, military might—it’s still so isolated, especially culturally. Not that surprising then that Natalie Portman, Paul McCartney, the singer Lorde, and the Argentinian Soccer team, all refused to come to Israel lately. In a way, Israel brings it upon itself, isolating itself—culturally and politically especially—with this attitude; which the saying—the “Villa in the Jungle”—is such a reflection of.

* The “Leave a Comment” link is the last tag below, in blue.

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The Battle That Never Ended

Just before dawn on March 21, 1968, our elite reconnaissance unit—the tip of the spear of the Israeli Army Paratroopers Brigade—took off in several helicopters, on our way to cross the Jordan River into Jordanian territory. We were in the air when the IDF began its first major operation against the PLO, who’d established its main base near the Jordanian town of Karameh. I was a young second lieutenant back then, commanding a platoon of soldiers. Our mission was to block the escape route of Palestinian fighters, capture or kill them. As I recall, my platoon happened to be engaged in the fiercest battle our company had encountered that day. We lost four young soldiers on the battlefield, among them an officer, a dear buddy of mine. As for me, after unwisely coming into contact with two flying bullets, I ended up in a Jerusalem hospital.

Though the Palestinian fighters (with considerable help from the Jordanian Armed Forces) suffered far greater casualties, dead and injured, and though this battle—directly or indirectly—brought upon them the disaster of ‘Black September,’ and forced their relocation to Lebanon, according to their legend the ‘Battle of Karameh’ was a great victory. Likewise, Israeli army historians, soldiers and officers, don’t consider ‘Operation Inferno’ a successful operation. The reasons for that, in an operation that came close on the heels of the monumental victory of the Six-Day War—a war in which our unit had participated, both in the Egyptian and the Syrian fronts—are varied. The reason for this piece, however, is not to reminisce, or to analyze the success and failure of that major battle.

The reason is altogether different, and pointing at a much greater failure on Israel’s part. We didn’t know that at the time, but with the passing of the years it became clear that the core idea behind that operation, and many others to follow, was the belief that we Israelis can solve our dispute with the Palestinians by first vanquishing them in the battlefield. If only we’ll be stronger militarily—if not morally—the problem will somehow solve itself. Of course, it never did. Furthermore, back then most Israelis didn’t even know, or acknowledge that there was such a thing as Palestinians. Case in point: we young soldiers. All we knew was that we were fighting terrorists, whose sole aim was to annihilate Israel. When Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed—she was not alone, mind you—that “there were no such thing as Palestinians,” it fell on welcoming ears.

The same cannot be said regarding the Palestinians’ attempts to dispel this notion. Last year, among the many words written about the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 war, a story came to light of how, before the guns were even silenced, a prominent Palestinian lawyer had offered the Israeli government a detailed two-state peace plan with the Palestinians (who played no part in that war), supported by fifty Palestinian dignitaries. I first read this story in Moment Magazine; confirmed later by another, Israeli source. In both versions, the detailed peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians, as put forward by Aziz Shehadeh, was never even discussed by the Israeli government, let alone replied to. A trend that has continued to date; most notably regarding the Arab League’s Peace Initiative of 2002.

Yes, the Oslo Accords were signed. And yes, some of that plan’s directives had been partly achieved. But not the ultimate prize: Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, in peace and security for all. A young Israeli, religious-extremist of the worst kind, made sure of that. He assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the altar of peace, aiming for the conflict to remain unsolved; for the occupation and settlements to continue; for Israel’s control over the West Bank and Jerusalem to remain eternal. It’s why I consider the Two-State Solution—the best option of solving the conflict—no longer viable. Just as sometimes we hear of people who miraculously, after years in coma, suddenly spring back to life, so we can unreasonably hope that this solution, on its dying bed for some years now, also would.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. True, Israel made some unrequited overtures towards the Palestinians, but those claiming it proves Israel’s sincere wish for peace are missing the point. The point being: Israel had the power and means not to settle the occupied land, to withdraw to acceptable, secure borders, and to maintain military control over the territories until final peace agreement had been reached and had been established on the ground. But Israel’s interest in peace came—still does, unfortunately—second to settling the land and solidify the occupation. Israel could’ve prevented the conundrum looming large now: Binational state. Which either won’t be a Jewish state anymore, or won’t be a democratic state. Israel’s grand illusion that it can achieve both while preventing the Palestinians from having their own legitimate national aspirations realized, is not only a false narrative, but also an affront to Zionism.

* Previously published in Moment Magazine online under the title: “Fifty Years Later, the Battle That Never Ended”

** The “Leave a Comment” link is the last tag below, in blue.

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