Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state

On Monday morning, American protocol officers supervise the setup in the ballroom of the David Citadel for a three-way meeting between Rice, Olmert, and Abbas. Two American flags are flanked by two Israeli flags to the left and three Palestinian flags to the right. Someone finds another American flag and subtracts a Palestinian flag.

Outside the ballroom, a young Shabak man is opening the display cases to check for bombs. Soon it will be time for the most important photo shoot of the week. The photographers are standing around with their gear, dressed in the kind of cast-off clothes you see on mustered-out child soldiers. “First, we will have the video, then the stills,” a tall blond woman from the American consulate instructs. “So don’t rush the doors.”

The lens men separate into two groups, and the photographers turn their cameras on the video guys and start snapping pictures. The video guys swing their heavy equipment onto their shoulders and follow suit. After a minute or two, everyone gets bored. “There is no future here,” an Israeli cameraman informs a Swede. “If you could tell me it will all be over by October 23, 2007, I would stay. But it won’t ever be over.”

A few minutes later, something shifts in the air—it is hard to say what.

“OK, chevra,” one of the Israeli cameramen calls out, addressing his colleagues. Without a moment of hesitation or warning, the pack stampedes toward the door.

“Stop! Stop now!” a 6-foot-3 crew-cut guard commands, assuming a door-blocking posture and imposing himself on the crowd as he was taught. But this is the Middle East, and the photographers simply ignore him. They charge down the corridor toward the meeting room, well over a hundred strong, Israelis and Palestinians together, carrying their heavy equipment and the American diplomatic security personnel with them.

“Pop the doors! Pop the doors!” one of the security guards shouts. Once inside the room, the photographers immediately assume their positions and shoot. Click click click click click. This is the money shot, the three-way handshake, Carter and Begin and Sadat on the White House lawn. No other sound is audible inside the room. Click click click. It’s Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat when the Oslo agreement was signed. Click click click click click. It’s the same shot being reenacted for the umpteenth time. Rice, Olmert, and Abbas hold the three-way handclasp posture far longer than seems comfortable, to make sure everyone gets the picture.

“And the flowers are still standing,” one of the security guards mutters in relief, as the photographers file out of the room. I follow them upstairs and outside, past the rows of satellite trucks that will broadcast the meaningless proceedings to the rest of the world.

And yet, while the meetings themselves may be empty of substance, the satellite trucks will play an important part in what happens in the Middle East over the next year. Rice’s visit can best be understood as a command performance by the Bush administration’s foreign-policy prodigy for an audience of one: the 83-year-old king of Saudi Arabia. For King Abdullah’s peace of mind, and for the Iranian business to continue, the ugly pictures from Palestine need to stop.

Tired of the circus and eager for some air, I walk up the street until I reach the King David Hotel, where I meet Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Great Britain, Halevy shares certain mannerisms with George Smiley, the fictional intelligence chief played by Alec Guinness in the BBC miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He wears a blue shirt and a gray jacket, speaks in a cultivated English accent, and looks away when he talks, perhaps to disguise a vehemence and a habit of fierce concentration that conflicts with his natural shyness. Because he is shy, or because he is more accustomed to shadows than to light, or because he is being polite, it takes him nearly 20 minutes to look me in the eye. We sit in the lobby on a purple-striped couch, beneath a poster-sized 1931 photograph of the King David Hotel, which served as the British military headquarters in Jerusalem until the Irgun, the clandestine organization led by the future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, blew it up.

“I used to deal with Condi when I was head of Mossad and she was national-security adviser, and I had a great respect for her, and admiration,” Halevy says. “I still do. But I think that in her role of secretary of state, things are not going too well. The main problem is that Condi Rice was never an expert on the Middle East. That’s not her area of expertise. And therefore, she has to rely on others. And the others in this case is a lawyer who is an ideologue”—meaning Elliott Abrams—“who believes that you can promote a certain ideology anywhere and everywhere around the world if you think it’s the right ideology. And you really don’t have to know very much about the basic facts in the region that you’re dealing with, because you have to tailor the region to your ideology.”

Halevy spent four decades in what was regarded as the best intelligence service in the Middle East, and he has only disdain for what he sees as the loony idea that American-style democracy can be implanted here. As an intelligence professional, he believes that the only path to understanding the Middle East, or anywhere else, for that matter, is to look as deeply as one can into the specifics of individual personalities, their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses, their bank accounts, the stories of their families, their tribes, the histories of their friends and enemies—the kind of material a novelist might use. By substituting ideology for local knowledge, he says, the Bush administration chose fantasy over reality, a choice that can only end in disaster.

“To believe that you can promote democracy on the one hand,” he says, staring down at the table and glumly stirring his tea, “and on the other hand, having a parallel system of providing guns and equipment to one warlord and to another warlord, and combining these two different programs in some way and sort of monitoring them in a way which is totally unrelated to the situation on the ground, because the situation on the ground doesn’t matter. Because what you need to do is change the situation on the ground.” Halevy stops stirring his tea and leans back on the couch. “I think that this whole idea of democratization was a flawed concept,” he says, finally making eye contact. “Democracy in Israel evolved from within. It didn’t come because somebody in Washington waved the wand and said, ‘Israel should be democratic.’”

The worst thing about the administration’s active fantasy life, Halevy believes, is that it has sucked Israel into a realm of illusion, where it cannot afford to live. He has nothing but scorn for the letters exchanged between Bush and Sharon, and suggests that by the time Weissglas took control of relations with Washington, Sharon was already old and sick and increasingly disconnected from reality.

According to Halevy, the letters were a concrete artifact of a relationship that included other understandings, some oral, that together prevented Israel from taking any independent diplomatic or military action without fully informing the United States. Contrary to what Americans often believe, the United States had very little to do with the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations in 1977, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords, or the peace treaty that Halevy helped negotiate between Israel and Jordan. In each case, the peace treaties that were signed on the White House lawn marked the ceremonial end of years of contacts and negotiations, of which the United States was unaware until months or weeks before the final agreements were signed.

“Israel today will not do anything, take no initiative whatsoever,” Halevy says, “unless the United States approves it. It was never that way before.” The retired spymaster sips his tea, and looks me in the eye as he searches for an appropriate way to define how the relationship has changed.

“Insemination is an act of two, not of three,” he finally says. “As a result of what happened in 2003 and 2004, the natural act of insemination between Israel and its neighbors is no longer possible.”

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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