WASHINGTON -- The present bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza reminds me of an adventure of mine some twenty-five years ago. What made that adventure suddenly vivid in memory's eye was the TV footage of the final minutes of one of those two doomed Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. His body was flung from a second-story window like a sack of fodder heaved to the animals. Then a hysterical mob fell on it, and one enraged brute repeatedly slammed what appeared to be a window or screen frame on the Israeli, who by then was, mercifully, dead. This savagery against two defenseless men made the Israelis' compensatory missile strike against the Palestinian police station appear civilized-the Israelis at least gave ample warning.
Israelis live in a sea of ethnic and religious hate difficult for Westerners to appreciate. In that sea of hate members of the tiny Israeli minority could all meet similar grisly ends. Where else have we witnessed such carnage performed before cameras? Possibly it has taken place in the Balkans, another seething ethnic and religious cauldron, but even the enrages of the Balkans have been circumspect about performing on television.
My adventure in the Middle East twenty-five years ago earned me the epithet "typical American know-nothing" from the pro-Palestinian Columbia University English teacher, Professor Edward Said. I had traveled through Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I had read extensively about the history and religions of the region. The results from my researches I deposited in a piece about Israel's plight then and for the foreseeable future. Call me an "American know-nothing," but I concluded that history and politics had landed the Jews on a plot of ancient land where they were to live cheek by jowl with peoples who were warlike by nature and adherent to a religion that encourages bellicosity, or jihad, to use the official term.
The evidence of seven hundred years and four modern wars was irrefragable. Israel has no alternative but to resist its neighbors. Hold out the hand of peace, but Israel must remain militarily formidable and politically resolute. Otherwise no less an authority than Yasser Arafat has assured us that Israel would be eliminated: heaved from a window, so to speak, and pummeled into the ancient pavement.
Responding to my piece, which appeared in Harper's, the Saudi oil minister Sheik Yamani placed a Harper's writer under house arrest for days. I found that an early confirmation of the validity of my piece, and an amusing validation it was. The Harper's writer was pro-Arab.
In and around Israel, I have no doubt, live many decent and even noble Arabs and Muslims. But the record of dealing with Islamic potentates is bloody with centuries of stubborn truculence and appalling cruelty. One of my favorites is the Emir Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara, keeper of one of Islam's cultural treasures, the bug pit. In the middle of the last century he would treat those who offended him such as the British officer Charles Stoddart to extended stays in the bug pit. There they would waste away, feasted upon by vermin. As the humors moved him he would relent, give his victims a few weeks off, and then thrust them back to die. Castro followed a similar policy with his Gulag, as Armando Valladares, a survivor, has recorded memorably.
At any rate, the emir and his fellow Islamic potentates of Central Asia had every reason to treat foreign emissaries from Russia, France, and Britain better than he treated the likes of Stoddart. His subjects excelled at commerce. All would have benefited from trade with the Europeans and surely they were clever enough to have maintained their independence at least until Lenin came to power. But the emirs inclined towards brutality. In time the Europeans had their thrones and their bug pits. The cruelty of Islamic potentates has benefited no one, yet it remains.
Western diplomats surely know about this history of stubborn cruelty. They know about the resentment that many in the Arab world feel toward Western material advances. They should have recognize that this peace process pursued by the Clinton Administration without regard to Arab history and Islamic belief is viewed by many Arabs as insulting.
In a way it is. The enmities of the Middle East are ancient. They cannot be wished away. Yet in pursuit of a legacy for himself, Bill Clinton rushed both the Israelis and the Palestinians to the peace table. He pressured Israel to offer land without military safeguards. That encouraged Palestinian anger that has left the region closer to full-scale war than at any time in the past two decades. Which puts me in mind of another of my long-held beliefs. Playboys make incompetent diplomats. Remember Kennedy with Khrushchev? The playboy's customary conquests are too easy. Remember Clinton with Monica? Conquests over the adamantine realities of history are more difficult. Israel has no alternative to remaining powerful and resolute, as I noted years ago.