20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 7


OK. So above all we must not offend the Arabs. Nonetheless, 17 years have passed since Jerusalem was divided between Arab and Jew. I, for one, would be grateful if foreign powers would now accept Israel's conviction that the holy city is its capital. Having the seat of govern- ment in Jerusalem yet embassies, party headquarters, virtually everything else 90 Minutes away in Tel Aviv means an exorbi- tant amount of to-ing and fro-ing — though I admit that Israelis think nothing of that. But then Israelis require no sleep, so their day is eight hours longer than mine. As for the telephone wires between the two cities at time of crisis, one might as well be ringing British Rail: either the line is engaged perpetually or else it rings 60 times and then is 'answered' by someone who maintains a deathly silence. Before the Sunday Times sent me to Israel for the general election in July, I pulled every string I could think of, thereby obtaining a 100 per cent guarantee that I could inter- view Shimon Peres if he won, a 50-50 chance of interviewing Prime Minister Sha- mir should he be re-elected. As the polls Pointed to victory for Labour, I felt secure. Then came the terrible night with Labour gathered in a Tel Aviv hotel to celebrate victory; right before my eyes everyone turned from excited expectation to that awful look of people who discover they are about to be sick. And I realised that the electoral draw meant I had to interview both leaders. Four hours later my incar- ceration in my hotel room began. From its Windows I looked down on Tel Aviv's baking beach and the waves that beck- oned, but they might as well have been a Mirage: I was shackled to my telephone. Room service trays came and went. Three days passed before I stumbled into daylight to do my interview with Peres. That done, ,triY tape-recorder and I returned to our luxury cell where almost immediately the telephone rang: it was Prime Minister Shamir's office in Jerusalem saying I could after all have my interview with him that same afternoon. Despite my Tel Aviv taxi-driver being unable to find the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, I eventually arrived there in the nick of time, and a series of guards led me to the Premier's outer office where a good-natured aide said, pleased with himself: 'Did you enjoy Your earlier interview today?' Argus,' I muttered.

In September I went back to see what Israel outside hotel rooms and offices actually looks like in 1984. I had last seen it Properly in the summer of 1973 when Israelis were at a peak of confidence that bordered on complacency, cocky in their certainty that their army and air force would deter attack: six weeks later came the Yom Kippur War. Today in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a startling number of young men — usually in their early 30s — have an empty sleeve, one trouser leg, a face made ageless by skin grafts. The total population of Israel is less than half that of London; 2,500 of their soldiers were killed in the attack that began on the holiest of their holy days; over 3,000 were wounded. Each of the maimed men I saw was intent on living — taking photographs for a news- paper, writing political articles, walking laughing into a restaurant with girlfriend or wife. Israelis are exceptionally direct in their manner — particularly, I found, when I was on my own. Conversation is held at two levels: while the substance of what is said is intellectual, simultaneously one is' being assessed personally — common enough, you may well say, among univer- sal mankind, but in Israel the assessing is so open that it's a bit like being looked up and down. The manner is reinforced by their carriage, the almost confronting way they stand, which presumably derives from the fact that they all go into the army and the men, until they are 55, continue to serve a minimum of 30 days a year. British diplomats have complained that they are discomfited by Israelis' pronounced directness; I simply returned it in kind. Saves a lot of time in gauging whether or not you like each other.

Driving north from Jerusalem we soon saw a West Bank settlement spread over a rockbound hillside of the same colour — a concrete dormitory town from which many Israelis commute to the city. But some settlements we came on are essentially provocative statements: a few tents or trailers put on a barren mountain by young radical right-wing Jews, male and female — hardline settlers working with pick and shovel and then shouldering the rifle. Israel's growing right wing claimed that these extraordinary religious persons have displaced the socialist kibbutzniks as the selfless pioneer fighters surrounded by 40 million Arabs almost unbelievably hos- tile to the state of Israel. Before 1967 Israel was the size of Wales, nine miles wide at its `waist'. Now it has the West Bank of the river Jordan, the misnomer of the century, largely arid land ballooning 30 miles west- ward until it reaches the 'waist'. Israel took over the West Bank by accident, not by design. It had belonged to the kingdom of Jordan until the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel was attacked from one side and threatened by armies drawn up on the other two borders. When the Israelis coun- terattacked and won the war, they refused to give back the West Bank, arguing with some force that they needed it to protect themselves from further invasion. (The religious extremists claim it was part of Greater Israel in the first place — 2,000 years ago — but that is a different argu- ment.) Now they are landed in an awful cleft stick: what to do with the Arabs who

regard it, with equal force, as their indige- nous homeland. So godforsaken is most of the West Bank that an outsider might be forgiven for wondering why there isn't enough to go round. But that, of course, is not the point. Arabs wait for Jews to drive around a mountain bend and then they throw stones to smash the windscreen, hoping the Jews inside will crash and die. The Jews defend themselves. Vicious cir- cle. Meanwhile the Goys, irritated by Jews regarding themselves as the chosen people, pay them back for their presumption by exacting standards from Jews that they exact from no one else. The Jews do likewise: currently Israel's high court is trying 24 religious Jews arrested by their compatriots for acts of terrorism against Arabs on the West Bank. One sign of hope is discernible: the pipeline laid by Israelis carries water south from the Sea of Galilee, across the surface of the seeming wasteland, nourishing far-flung Arab vil- lage and Jewish settlement alike. Even the Bedouins tap it — those restless souls whose encampments appear to belong to centuries past (apart from the television aerial protruding from the master's tent).

Tes all very well to have an elitist sur- name, but aristocratic English readers of this journal will testify to the frightful burden they bear — the heavy responsibil- ity of knowing what is best for the rest of us, all that. A prestigious name among Jews is Cohen. You are free to spell it as you like: Cohn, Cone, Kohn, Kahane. (The last version is now notorious because that is how Israel's most extremist politi- cian spells his name. Rabbi Kahane advo- cates forcible expulsion of all Arabs, not only from the disputed territories but from Israel proper. To all other parties, however Arab-hating, he is a pariah. But under Israel's proportional representation, he succeeded in rousing 22,000 rabble [sic in Baltimore, Maryland. Ed.] scattered across the country, and he is thereby entitled to a seat in the Knesset.) Which- ever way the name is written, it still means priest. And priests cannot marry divorced women. As the Cohens have multiplied generation upon generation, a great many men are restricted in plighting their troth. In Israel there is no such thing as civil marriage. Jews, Moslems, Christians may in fact be agnostics, but to marry they must seek the head of their nominal faith: marriage is holy, willy-nilly. Recently a leading figure in Israel's judiciary created a scandal in his determination to marry a twice-divorced woman. He sought legal judgments outside Israel until he eventual- ly obtained the ruling he wanted: that though his intended's first two marriages ended in divorce, her third had left her a widow, and therefore as far as he was concerned widow was her status. Perhaps some of the other men called priest ob- jected to this one's triumph because it reflected poorly on their own assiduity.

Susan Crosland