Good and bad once seemed clear in Mideast

October 12, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THIRTY YEARS AGO this month my venture began into the labyrinth of war, hatred, intrigue and celebration - yes, celebration - that is the Middle East.

President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt and President Hafez el Assad of Syria had conspired to attack Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. By the time I arrived a few weeks later, the war was pretty much over. Israel, after being taken by surprise, had pushed the Egyptian army back across the Suez Canal. The Israelis had pushed the Syrians far back on the Golan Heights, where the two sides were still shelling and bombing each other. Israel had saved itself, but the government of Prime Minister Golda Meir faced fierce criticism for the complacency that had allowed the Jewish state to be taken by surprise.

To say that I was an innocent in King David's court would be an understatement. The two sides of the story seemed clear enough and I succumbed to that notion: The Arabs were bad. They had attacked Israel. The Cold War was still fully engaged, and Syria and Egypt were client states of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Arab oil-producing states had clamped an embargo on the United States for supporting Israel.

Israel, on the other hand, appeared to have done nothing to provoke the attack. (This was before I learned that doing nothing could provoke an attack.) While Syria and Egypt were secretive, inaccessible places, with different cultures, run by authoritarian regimes, Israel was a full and ebullient democracy. Israel was accessible. Israelis acted like Westerners and they spoke English. The image of David facing down Goliath endured.

The titanic figures of the Jewish state's founding were not only alive, they were still running the place. In addition to Meir as prime minister; Abba Eban, possibly the most eloquent spokesman in English on behalf of Israel, was foreign minister. Moshe Dayan, the hero of Israel's stunning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, was defense minister. Teddy Kollek, a hero of the 1948 war of independence, was mayor of Jerusalem. Within a year, Yitzhak Rabin, another hero of the 1948 war, would replace Meir as prime minister. They were all informal and approachable. Even David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was still alive. He was spending his last days at Sde Boker, his kibbutz in the Negev desert, the arid triangle of southern Israel where he had hoped Jews would come to settle. They never did.

These people were legendary. And you could shake their hands and talk with them.

Ariel Sharon, when I arrived, was a general in the Israeli army, commanding a division that had the Egyptian Third Army besieged in Suez City. Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud, was regarded as something of a madman by the establishment in and out of Israel. No one ever imagined that either would become prime minister.

Neither did they imagine that Yasser Arafat would be sitting in Ramallah recognized by anyone, anywhere as a potential chief of state. He was a terrorist, headquartered in Beirut. The West Bank was treated in many ways as captured Jordanian territory.

Israel, nominally at least, was committed to the return of captured Arab territory for peace. Slowly, quietly by comparison with today, the West Bank and the Golan Heights were being settled by Israelis, but in the name of security. The Palestinians under Israeli occupation were dispossessed, enraged and hopeless. But they were not armed, so they were helpless, too.

Israel's public relations machinery was well-organized and smooth-running, nurturing the David vs. Goliath image. In that image, the Palestinians were largely ignored. They had to be.

Trips to the front lines were organized by the office of the Israeli army spokesman, who spoke excellent English. Often older reservists would accompany correspondents to show them the way and to get through checkpoints and coordinate with Israeli commanders at the front lines. These escorts were informative, intellectual and often entertaining. One of my favorites was a professor of archaeology who was full of wonderful tales about Jewish and Christian history of the places we would pass through, like Bethany and Tiberias. Little was said of Arab history. The refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza we would pass on our way to the Golan or Sinai generated little talk. They were not the story.

When I returned for my second tour as Middle East correspondent in 1982, the story and Israel had changed drastically. Menachem Begin was prime minister, and he was settling the West Bank aggressively and unapologetically. He had made peace with Egypt but was making war elsewhere, in Lebanon, with Ariel Sharon as his defense minister. Sharon took that war far beyond the mission Israelis, and possibly even Begin, had been led to expect. It was Israel's first offensive war. David had turned into Goliath.

Sharon drove Arafat out of Lebanon, but now Arafat is in Ramallah and Sharon is prime minister. He was elected because Israelis thought he would make them safe from terrorists. But he has not. And he shows no inclination to act in ways that might alter the dynamics of Israel's abiding struggle for security. Asked what might have been done to prevent the despair that grips his nation today, he has said he wishes he had killed Arafat 20 years ago when he could have. And that he may kill him now.

Like Arafat, Sharon is a vengeful figure. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinian have lost their lives because of them. The clarity that seemed to exist 30 years ago about who was right and who was wrong is gone, too.

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