COLUMN

Israel: a nation smaller than Vancouver Island

Allan Fotheringham September 27 1993
COLUMN

Israel: a nation smaller than Vancouver Island

Allan Fotheringham September 27 1993

Israel: a nation smaller than Vancouver Island

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERLNGHAM

One January mid-morning in 1979, a nervous Joe Clark was ushered into a room in the Knesset in Jerusalem to meet with Shimon Peres, then the leader of the Labor Party in Israel. After the usual handshakes and the peremptory official photographs—the disgusting and phony “photo-ops”—the Clark attendant flunkies signalled that the half-dozen Canadian reporters and photographers who were accompanying him on his Keystone Kops tour of the world would have to leave the room, since the serious discussions were to begin.

Peres looked puzzled. “What is the problem?” he said. “Let them stay.” And so, to the delight of an amused Canadian journalistic gaggle, was revealed a jaggly and tremulous Clark revealing how little he really knew about the nuances and intricacies of Israel’s impenetrable problems.

Peres never blinked. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with politicians—both of them future prime ministers—telling the truth in front of mere scribblers.

This is the guy who, last week, as foreign minister on behalf of Israel on the lawn of the White House sat down before a historic wooden desk and signed an accord that supposedly would end blood feuds that Joe Clark surely would remember from Bible class in High River, Alta. Shimon Peres would remain consistent.

It’s almost impossible for any outsider, however many news stories digested, to comprehend the dilemma of Israel that is dictated by geography. A reporter who has roamed the place a few times still finds it hard to describe how fragile is its territory.

Imagine a nation—a nation that commands world headlines constantly—that is smaller than Vancouver Island. You can drive from one end to the other easily in a day. Jerusalem to the sea is a jump and a skip compared to what most Canadians take to get to the weekend cottage.

The reluctant gamble—land in exchange for peace—would lead eventually to the new American media hero Yasser Arafat and his PLO terrorists having control eventually over the whole West Bank, which innocents understandably might think refers simply to the bank of the fabled River Jordan, Israel’s eastern border.

In this tiny state, it in fact means that the bulbous West Bank territory under the PLO would be back to just 20 “klicks” away from Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean, an Israel almost bifurcated.

This is a country in miniature. Those raised in Sunday school on the mythic River Jordan, which flows into the Dead Sea, are appalled at encountering it. It would hardly qualify as a creek in Hearne, Sask., not to mention Sardis, B.C. The much-mentioned Allenby Bridge, the connection between Israel and its mortal enemy—King Hussein’s Jordan—turns out to be one of those haywire Bailey bridges erected by Canadian engineers in our last big war. It is hightech country that is a Meccano set.

One day we are sitting at a sidewalk café in Jerusalem and my companion says: “See those faces going past us. Have you ever seen stronger faces in your life?” I confess that I have not—vigorous, determined, lean faces. My seatmate explains: “It’s because every resident of this city knows that when they wake up every morning they may be killed—or have to kill—that day.”

One of the great hostels in the world is the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Rich Zionists from New York City lounge around the pool and the magnificent gardens. Menachem Begin, later prime minister, as a terrorist against the British blew up the hotel and killed scores.

Several years ago, I warned a daughter not ond the hotel without pops or naif from safe Vancouver, she wondered why. The next day, 180 metres away in the market of old Jerusalem, two Arab girls with long kitchen knives hidden under their robes stabbed to death a tourist “who looked like a Jew.” Daughter stayed closer to the pool.

You have to be there. One of the many sins of journalism is to describe the hardline Israelis who are so upset at the reluctant handshake with Arafat as “settlers” in the West Bank. One would get the impression of people in trailer parks. What is most astounding to a visitor—and despairing as to a solution—is that the “settlers” live in abodes that could come from San Diego, West Vancouver or the better views on the Riviera.

These are not shacks. Them is condos to die for. No one is going to surrender them willingly to guys down the road who—right out of Joe Clark’s Bible—are still living in tents and tending sheep.

The White House handshakes are great. The problem is that the greatest growth industry in Jerusalem is the making of heavy wire-mesh windshields that every “settler” in the West Bank purchases to shield his forehead from the rock-tossing and masked Palestinian kids who mount a gauntlet for those Jerusalem-employed Israelis driving home to those San Diego condos.

It’s a tragic situation, illustrated no more clearly than by the expression on Yitzhak Rabin’s face when Bill Clinton nudged him on the shoulder to do the grudging handshake with the grinning Arafat.

Mackenzie King said that Canada’s problem was that it had too much geography and not enough history. Israel’s problem is that it has too much history and not enough geography.