Israel Now

The author, a former resident of Israel, finds that raw power and economic forces are redrawing the map of the Middle East, and peace talks will merely formalize the emerging reality
Judaism's Challenge

In the Muslim world the rise of political Islam means the end of real devotion; in Israel the identification of Judaism with extreme nationalism has threatened a similar result. In fact, in Josephus' 2,000-year-old account of the internecine conflicts that wracked Jewish Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans, the various zealot factions—who resented Rome's tolerance and humanism as much as its paganism—bear an eerie resemblance to the parties of the Israeli right today. This history may suggest why Ehud Barak's desire to foster national reconciliation has proved to be right on target.

Yehudah Gilad, a young rabbi with a dark, closely cropped beard and a knitted yarmulke, who lives at Kibbutz Lavi, a collective religious settlement near Sepphoris, told me in his relaxed manner, "The tragedy has been that because so many religious Jews are on the far right, secular Israelis say, 'If this is religion, we don't want it—so let's vacation in Sweden and eat pork.'" Gilad's home, bare except for religious books and a few pieces of simple furniture, reminded me of the homes of Muslim clerics I had visited in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom, in Iran, some years before.

At the time we spoke, Gilad was associated with Meimad (the word is a Hebrew contraction of Medinat Yehudit, medinat demokratit,"a Jewish state, a democratic state"), a dovish offshoot of the National Religious Party. Though politically marginal, Meimad interested me, because it occupies the space where many Israelis want to live their lives—away from the extremes of global universalism on the one hand and ultra-orthodoxy on the other. "Israelis are still new to the global village," Gilad told me. "Suddenly they have dozens of television channels, and because Israel is less diplomatically isolated than in the past, they can travel all over. But such cosmopolitanism will ultimately not satisfy them. Israelis will need to be anchored, like other people, in their own religion. And because our neighbors, friendly or not, will always be of another faith, universalism will not work here." A "new modern orthodoxy" is needed, he said—one in which, for example, people can be comfortable observing some aspects of the sabbath without observing others, and not feel like hypocrites.

"Religious Jews," Gilad told me, "have a duty to make secular Jews feel more comfortable with religion, rather than intimidated by it. I think it has been a disaster to mix theology with nationalist politics. I also have a dream of Jews in all of Eretz Yisrael, but I have to tackle reality."

Judaism in Israel has yet to respond to the challenge of modernity by seeking a renewed humanism and cultural identity, Gilad said. Instead Judaism has become synonymous with "the land" after the capture of the West Bank in the 1967 war, thus acquiring a blood-and-soil cast similar to that of Orthodox Christian churches in the Balkans. Now the task is to make Judaism constructively relevant—a challenge that Rabbi Yehudah successfully faced when he sought compromise with pagan Rome while articulating a body of religious law that guides Jews to this day.

Adapting Judaism to new and more-complex times will not be easy in Israel, where Orthodox nationalist parties have built walls between Jews and Arabs and between Jews and Jews, and have turned religion into a patronage mill. Israelis have become cynical about Judaism. Because nearly everyone here is Jewish, and Hebrew is the vernacular, people can go bathing topless on Yom Kippur and still be good Jews overall—something impossible in the Diaspora. Moreover, says Yehudah Mirsky, a doctoral student in religion at Harvard and a longtime friend of Gilad's, "Conservative and Reform Judaism as practiced in the U.S. seem rather too thin and obviously American for Israeli tastes. Some new religious expression is fitfully struggling to be born."

Two Separate Countries

I drove to Jerusalem with Mitch's wife and two of their children, south through the Jordan River Valley to Jericho, and then west up the hills of the Judean Desert to the Holy City. For much of the trip we were in the West Bank, but on main highways used by Israelis. Seven miles before we reached Jerusalem a new highway branched off to the right, connecting the large West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adumim directly to the Jewish part of Jerusalem. Night had fallen, but I decided not to take the new road and instead to follow the old one I knew from the 1970s, which passed through the Arab town of El Azariyeh—the Bethany of the New Testament, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That way we would approach Jerusalem in traditional, romantic fashion—coming around a bend at the edge of the Judean Desert where, suddenly, the Temple Mount and the walls of the Old City appear across the narrow Kidron Valley.

El Azariyeh had grown considerably since I had last seen it; it was a crowded jumble of concrete rather than the sleepy town I remembered from two decades before. Young Arab men thronged the streets beside our slow-moving car. Farther on, as I remembered, the road curved, and the stars seemed to touch the burnished gold dome of the Mosque of Omar, on the Temple Mount; the floodlit Turkish walls of the Old City evoked a fairy tale. We followed the walls to a stoplight, where we turned left. Three quarters of a mile beyond, the Arab world disappeared as though someone had wished it away, and a pseudo-Western world, homely and intimate, began. Rain clouds smudged the sky. Here I had lived in a poor, Sephardic neighborhood where Menachem Begin, then the Likud opposition leader, was for all intents and purposes elected Prime Minister years before the rest of Israel elected him. The 1977 election that brought Begin to power did not surprise me or anyone else in the neighborhood, though the world's media and political elites barely knew at the time who he was. I was dropped off at the home of another friend, Edit. "What route did you take to Jerusalem?" she asked me.

"Through El Azariyeh, so we could see the Temple Mount," I replied.

"You what?!"

Edit told me that the Arabs of El Azariyeh throw stones at cars with Israeli license plates. I called Mitch to apologize for putting his family in danger. "Forget it," he said. "It's not that it's so unsafe, it's just that nobody does it anymore"—meaning no Jews. The new highway had been built to avoid that very road, and another new road, called Highway One, which runs north from the Damascus Gate, effectively seals off Arab East Jerusalem from Jewish West Jerusalem.

Nor did Israelis hike anymore in Wadi Kelt, a scenic riverbed east of Jerusalem and the site of several beautiful Greek monasteries and the ruins of Herod's winter palace. Hiking in Jordan was said to be safer than hiking anywhere in the West Bank. In the 1970s Israelis went almost everywhere in the West Bank; now they go almost nowhere. In the Galilee, Mitch had taken me to a large supermarket used by both Jews and Arabs; in Jerusalem there was no such mixing. The soft, Italianate landscape of the Galilee works to reduce ethnic divisions, as the history of Sepphoris implies. The Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal strip, all Jewish and upscale, with its hedonism encouraged by the Mediterranean, is also without unrest. But in the harsh desert surroundings of Jerusalem one confronts all the tensions and contradictions of the Middle East. There is a divide not only between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem but also between Orthodox Jews in north Jerusalem and secular Jews in south Jerusalem.

The next day I took a day trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Arafat's unofficial capital in the West Bank. From Edit's house I rode a bus to the railway station and then walked a few hundred yards to the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Entering the Arab Old City early on that weekday morning, I left Israel. The few Israelis I saw—police officers, soldiers, or civilians—were all in groups. When I exited the Old City, at the Damascus Gate, and entered Arab East Jerusalem, the newsstands had a completely different selection of local papers: not only were Hebrew papers replaced by Arabic ones but the English-language Israeli Jerusalem Post was replaced by the Jerusalem Times,an English-language Palestinian weekly. From East Jerusalem I took a minibus—in which I was the only Jew—to Ramallah. Whereas in the 1970s Ramallah was a sleepy hilltop town to which secular Israelis drove on the sabbath for ice cream, this time I saw no Jews there. Ramallah was now bustling, with fancy new villas and malls filled with designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets, and a sophisticated class of Palestinians, many of whom had returned from abroad. On the way back to Jerusalem I overheard an angry conversation among the Arab passengers about Jews who were still grabbing territory around Jerusalem. A few moments after I left the bus, I was back in the Jewish half of the city.

When I told Israeli friends that they should visit Ramallah, they were skeptical. I saw why a few weeks later, when an Israeli soldier was pulled from a car by university students in Ramallah and stoned nearly to death. The stoning was videotaped and shown on national television. I know Israelis who go trekking in the Himalayas but are afraid to venture into Ramallah, the most modern city in the West Bank.

Without a passport, I had slipped back and forth between a country where Israelis live and a country where Palestinian Arabs live. A de facto Palestinian state has been in existence since December of 1987, when the Intifada began and Israelis no longer felt safe in Gaza, the West Bank, or parts of East Jerusalem. This Palestinian state—now more than a decade old—is no strategic threat to Israel, because Israel controls the airspace above it and the main highways through it; the Palestinian police are permitted to carry only small weapons. The de facto state is equivalent to the indefensible, disconnected Jewish state that Israel would have become had the Palestinians accepted the 1947 partition proposal agreed to by the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion.

As some people remarked to me, the peace process was a divorce process for a couple that had long lived apart—a messy and complex divorce that would take a while longer to settle. Water resources, like bank accounts, had to be apportioned. Jerusalem, like a child, could not be divided; it would require the equivalent of a joint-custody arrangement, with multiple flags and sovereignties. Like a financially dependent spouse, the Palestinians could not prosper without access to the Israeli economy, so there would be trade and labor agreements. Once the divorce was final, the two parties might gradually come to treat each other with civility; Israelis might once again go to Ramallah for ice cream on the sabbath. In sum, the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—unlike the future of, say, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan—was predictable, and therefore uninteresting: the result would be just a legalistic variation of what already existed on the ground. And because little would change on the ground, the peace talks would give few insights into the geostrategic future of the early-twenty-first-century Middle East. For example, the future status of the Temple Mount was in plain sight.

"Are you Jewish?" the Israeli security officer barked at me in Hebrew, eyeing my dark hair and complexion amid a group of blond Christian pilgrims.

"Yes," I answered.

"Then don't pray inside!" he said, shaking his finger at me.

"Inside" was the Temple Mount: holy to Jews as the site of the First and Second Temples, with the western retaining wall of the latter (the "Wailing Wall") the only remnant after its destruction by the Romans, in A.D. 70; holy to Christians because of its association with Jesus' preaching; and holy to Muslims as the site of Mohammed's ascension to heaven, commemorated by the gold-domed Mosque of Omar and the silver-domed Mosque of Al Aqsa. Because I did not look like a tourist, the security officer thought I might be a Jewish extremist bent on provoking an incident. Despite claims to possession by religious Jewish nationalists, Jews who are not tourists rarely venture onto the Temple Mount.

In a manner of speaking, I did go to pray. As someone enraptured with history, and visiting around the time of the eightieth anniversary of the end of the First World War, I went to offer my respects at the tomb of Hussein ibn Ali—the Grand Sharif of Mecca, the father of Emir Abdullah, and the great-grandfather of King Hussein. It was Sharif Hussein who in 1916 ignited the Arab revolt against the Turks, thus setting in motion the collapse of Ottoman Turkey in the Middle East and creating a political riddle that is still waiting to be solved, given the region's unstable dictatorships. Before the guns went silent on the western front, on November 11, 1918, eight and a half million men had died. In Europe the slaughter led only to a bitter peace that in turn led to the Second World War; in the Middle East, President Woodrow Wilson's ill-conceived policy of national self-determination crumbled amid the realities of power politics. The emergence of the monarchy that still rules Jordan is among the few graspable benefits of the Great War. I said a silent prayer for the survival of the family of Sharif Hussein, whose tomb, surrounded by white marble and rich carpets, lies inside a wall.

Finding the tomb on the thirty-six acres of the Temple Mount took time. The first Arab I asked shot back, "Give me twenty shekels and I'll show you." The Arabs on the Temple Mount had a certain arrogance about them. Whereas the Christian and Jewish tourists were circumspect in their behavior, moving around with their cameras in quiet little groups, for the Arabs the Temple Mount was simply home. They picnicked on tea, goat cheese, and olives in the cypress grove beside the seemingly Persian magnificence of the Mosque of Omar. Arab women passed by with plastic bags full of groceries and stopped to gossip with one another. Arab boys played a noisy game of soccer by the Herodian pavement near Sharif Hussein's tomb. Elderly Arab men washed their feet in the fountains before going into the Al Aqsa Mosque to pray. This was an Arab place, and it would stay that way, whatever the symbolic formalities of any future peace agreement.

I exited the Temple Mount through the Muslim Quarter, with its peeling walls and knots of street children. At a certain point the stones suddenly became clean, and there were new lights and guardrails for archaeological cutaways going back to the eighth century B.C., the time of the First Jewish Temple. I found fancy tourist shops, Israeli flags, and hordes of Jewish tourists. This was the Jewish Quarter, whose historical preservation was a tribute to the former mayor Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's greatest builder since Herod. At another point the stones became stained again, and on the walls I saw maps and posters with grisly photos of the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915. This, of course, was the Armenian Quarter. According to the maps, a major route of murder and exile led from Kayseri through Antioch to Aleppo—the same route I had taken from Istanbul to Jerusalem. There had been no such posters here in the 1970s, when ethnic identity and remembrance were not as strong as they are now.

The Old City's various ethnic and religious groups coexist thanks to wilayet,the Ottoman system of communal self-government, with which the Israeli authorities have only modestly tampered. I was sure that wilayet would survive longer than Israeli rule in the parts of Jerusalem where Jews do not live and rarely venture.

The Heart of Greater Syria

It was forty-five minutes by bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where I took a taxi to a northern seaside suburb to meet an official in Israeli intelligence. He looked to be straight out of central casting, with thick wire-rimmed glasses, black clothes, a nervous and emaciated look, and a jaded, world-weary manner. The subject was Syria. Over coffee and cake at a swank café, I spun out my theory of its future.

Syria might be a Yugoslavia in the making, I told him. If the country breaks apart, the Druze region of southern Syria could amalgamate with Jordan, while an Alawite mini-state could be carved out of northwestern Syria, becoming a refuge for President Hafez al-Assad's clan after he dies and Sunni fundamentalists start ruling a rump state from Damascus. The new Alawite warlordship would be supported by both the Lebanese and the Israelis, who would see no irony in supporting Assad's clan under the circumstances.
The intelligence official nodded and smiled. "The problem," he said, laughing, "is that anything is possible. One thing is for sure: Assad will die or become senile. Then," he said, making a fist, "it will be a matter of natural selection—which faction of the military or the security services is the strongest." In other words, brute force, not ideas, would determine Syria's future—and Iraq's, too, for that matter. As when Alexander the Great died, the generals would fight over the spoils.

"As for Jordan," he went on, "everyone has a use for its continued existence, because none of the other Arabs want a border with Israel. A Palestinian state, as you say, already exists. But the West Bank and Gaza have no common frontier, no clans or families linking them. Before 1967 Gaza was ruled by Egypt, the West Bank by Jordan. It could take maximum force for an Arab to keep the two places together after Arafat goes." I thought of the late-Omayyad period, in the early eighth century, when armies were the personal property of the ruler. The spread of commerce, the growth of cities, and the diversification of society subjected the empire to great strain, and various sectarian movements and preachers, backed by armed groups, arose.

This official, like many specialists on the Arab world, had an affecting sympathy for his subject. When I mentioned Aleppo and Damascus, where I had recently been, he responded reverently. "Ah,Aleppo—you know what a great civilization you are talking about ... " But when I mentioned Jerusalem, he waved his hand dismissively, telling me he went there only on business—a real Tel Aviv attitude. "This," he said, pointing to the shops around us, "is what you should really look at."

He was right. This northern Tel Aviv beach suburb—a cluster of tall, well-constructed apartment buildings, with rows of shops selling foreign luxury goods—hadn't existed when I lived in Israel. There were hair stylists and expensive cafés, in one of which we sat. Beautiful men and women walked around with showy shopping bags. It was Israel's version of Silicon Valley. While Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements have provided the politics, the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal strip, with its multimillion-dollar software firms and hundreds of computer-related start-up companies, pays the country's bills; its annual per capita income of $17,000 is close to Great Britain's and eighteen times Syria's. As in America, a rampaging materialism pours more fuel on the economy. Later, eyeing the hard women in their thirties and forties with their revealing clothes and shopping bags, a cabdriver told me, "You need three jobs here to satisfy your wife. The women here want and want ... "

Tel Aviv was loud, rude, and pulsing with intense, stressed-out conversation at Italian coffee shops. There were airlines that connect Israel with the Muslim countries of ex-Soviet Central Asia; new malls by the dozen; armies of Romanian and Nigerian guest workers inhabiting the poor quarters around the old bus station; and videos with high-pitched soundtracks blasting at the new bus station. As I waited in line for the late-afternoon bus back to Jerusalem, a small religious Jew with a brimmed hat slipped quickly in front of me when I wasn't looking, continuing to talk on his cell phone. In the bus people were not just talking on cell phones but also writing in notebooks and business diaries and using pocket calculators as they did so. Beirut was somnolent compared with this. And here there was much more of a modern middle class. Tel Aviv will be the Tyre of the twenty-first century.

As it did in antiquity, power will radiate inland from the Mediterranean coast, and Tel Aviv and Beirut, replicas of the Phoenician city-states, will vanquish the less dynamic capitals of the desert, Damascus and Jerusalem. Syria's is a pathetic economy compared with Lebanon's: Syria's control over Lebanon has been possible only because Assad holds Syria together. Tel Aviv, not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, is ground zero for Greater Israel—an economic dynamo that exports twice as much as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria combined. And those countries' exports are mainly agricultural commodities, textiles, and natural resources, whereas Israel's are increasingly software.

For decades I have heard that there will be either a Greater Israel or a Palestinian state. It turns out that there will be both: a Palestinian mini-state, without control over its skies or main highways, will exist within a dynamic Israeli economy that will continue to attract workers from across the border and will serve as the stabilizing force of historic "Greater Syria." The current Syrian state will weaken and pay the price for decades of Soviet-style calcification.

Israel may fantastically prosper, surrounded by pathetic Palestinian bantustans that are kept quiescent by the police-state tactics of a Jibril Rajoub. But this may only encourage a climate of deep cynicism within Israel itself. Such cynicism is close to the "consistent realism" that the English historian Edward Hallett Carr says "excludes moral judgements." The similarities between the ancient and postmodern Middle Easts could be striking, and Israel will require a distinctly moral realism to both survive and flourish.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article appears, in somewhat different form, as part of his book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, published by Random House in November 2000.

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