Thursday, August 24, 2006


Michael Totten: Check Him Out

As you probably know already, Michael Totten is in Israel, doing original reporting that would probably earn him a Pulitzer if he was working for the New York Times. (That is, of course, on the assumption that the New York Times would print what he writes. They should; it's a lot better than some of the armchair editorializing they do print.)

The man's intrepid reporting is relevant, to the point, and amazing, if you think about it. On his own volition, on the assumption that blog readers would pay for quality reporting, he set off on his own -- last year to Lebanon, where he lived for six months; then to Iraqi Kurdistan; and now to Israel. When he lived in Lebanon, Hizballah took him on tours of the border with Israel; later he got similar tours from the Israeli side.

And his latest post interviews Israeli peaceniks -- members of the all-but-defunct Peace Now organization. It's interesting, it's highly relevant, it's important -- you get a much better understanding of where Israeli society is by understanding its limits, after all -- and it's not something you're likely to see in the mainstream media.

There was this, for example:
The Israeli peace movment serves in the army. Combat units include members of Peace Now. Israel is the only Western country that still fights wars with people like this as its soldiers. Some of the ultra-orthodox, by contrast, do not serve in the army. So while the U.S. military is more conservative than America as a whole, the Israeli army is slightly more liberal than Jewish Israeli society as a whole.
And this:
“I hope this is not an offensive question,” I said, “because I don’t mean it to be. But, do you ever feel like a sucker?”

“No,” Amichai said. “I think my best interest is not to have an occupied people under my foot and under my boot. I think that affects my freedom when Palestinians don’t have their natural rights to live alongside of me. My desire for freedom is to have an independent Jewish state next to an independent Palestinian state. That will liberate me. And I just hope we can find a partner so there will not be Kassem rockets flying from that state into the Ben Gurion airport when they’re just a few kilometers away.”

“I think the occupation makes people think unclearly,” Yehuda said.

“You mean Israelis?” I said.

“Israelis,” Yehuda said. “And Arabs. Everybody’s playing with matches.”

Please remember: many people continue to believe that Israel is a poisonously bellicose nation, hell-bent on territorial conquest; that Israel attacks its neighbors mercilessly, and visits death and destruction on innocent Arabs; that there can be no negotiation with Israel, because Israel just won't listen.

Such people tend to forget that Israel is the country that, in the name of peace, unilaterally uprooted thousands of her own citizens and abandoned the Gaza Strip to her declared enemies -- and got nothing in return, nothing except a daily barrage of Qassam rocket fire on local villages. ("Territorial conquest", indeed.) Israel is also the country that took Hizballah at its word, accepted that a total withdrawal from Lebanon would bring peace, and most carefully did just that -- and then watched as Hizballah declared that it would not cease fighting after all, resulting six years later in the current conflict.

And Israel is also the country that recruits people like Yehuda and Amichai into its combat units -- and appoints another like them to be Minister of Defense.

By all means, read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Mr. Totten's reporting continues. Writing for Time Magazine (covering for the vacationing Andrew Sullivan), he elaborates on a point he's made before:
Arab tyrants and terrorists have set an absurdly low bar for themselves when it comes to defining victory in a war. Simple survival is good enough for most of them. Saddam Hussein claims he “won” the 1991 Gulf War that ousted him from Kuwait because he lived fight (and lose) again. The Egyptian government built a gigantic war memorial to the “victory” against Israel in 1973, even though they lost, because they managed to surprise the Israelis and had a few tactical victories before later losing decisively. Hassan Nasrallah boasted that he, too, won the war against Israel before later admitting that he never would have started the war if he knew how it would turn out.

The Israeli definition of victory could not be more different. Israelis are, perhaps, the world’s premier perfectionists on this question. Anything less than an instant and overwhelming victory to them is a horror. This comes from the fact that if they ever decisively lose a war against eliminationist enemies, the country might cease to exist.

“Golda Meir was the first Israeli prime minister that got thrown out,” he told me. “She got thrown out because of the 1973 war. I wouldn’t say she was a scapegoat, because if she’s prime minister she’s not a scapegoat. But the trauma of the 1973 war so so deep because for the first time we had a war that we didn’t really win. By the time it was over there was a decisive military victory. But it wasn’t a resoundingly decisive military victory.
This is part of a post that explains just what trouble Mr. Olmert is in with the Israeli electorate: "[your name will] be even more mud than Golda". Read the whole thing.

In another post, he explains carefully what a farce the issue of the Shebaa Farms is -- and why it's a big deal that Hizballah is now, humiliatingly, dismantling its outposts near there.

(Do I think, as Mr. Totten does, that this may be the beginning of the end for Hizballah? No, I'm not that optimistic. Yes, the fight to eject Israel from Shebaa -- which even the UN freely admits has never been a part of Lebanon -- was, post-2000, Hizballah's entire reason for existing. But no doubt they'll find a way to reinvent themselves, and continue their fight against Israel.


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