There are journalists, including some prominent and well-known ones, who learn about distant lands and foreign peoples from casual conversations with taxi drivers. A chance exchange with a Manhattan cabby last fall taught me a few things I did not know about my newspaper and myself. The Alexandria-born driver, a veteran of the Egyptian navy, revealed that my colleagues and I at Ha’aretz were not speaking into a void. After he discovered my identity, he adamantly refused to take any money from me. Abe said that he had been a loyal reader of mine for years, and this was his modest way of expressing his esteem for a journalist who charges him up on a weekly basis with some hope for peace in the region where he was born.
Among the thousands of hate-mail messages I receive from people on the Israeli right wing, and the venomous talkbacks that Jewish Americans submit through the Ha’aretz website, the occasional word of encouragement slips through from Arab readers, both from neighboring countries and from the West. At international conferences I get pats on the back from pragmatic Muslim intellectuals as well as from left-liberal Jews and non-Jews. But the Egyptian cabby’s warm words were the most precious gift I have received over the three decades–half of Israel’s age–during which I have written more than 2,000 articles.
Abe told me that in September 1979 he came to Haifa, the city where I was born, in Anwar Sadat’s presidential yacht. I recalled that shortly after that visit, a Palestinian journalist named Ismail Ajwa came to my office. He told me that he had just been released from a six-month administrative detention on suspicion of belonging to the PLO. Ajwa showed me bruises on his legs and claimed that after being beaten and humiliated by his interrogators, he was sent home with no charges pressed. I convinced my editor to pay for a lie detector to verify Ajwa’s claims. When the test showed that the journalist was telling the truth, we decided to publish the story prominently, together with the documents issued by the polygraph institute.
The critical exposé and the unusual use of the polygraph test garnered a widespread response in Israel and in the international press. The Knesset held a hearing on the affair, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin instructed the Ministry of Justice to open an investigation. When the investigation was concluded, the Attorney General dismissed two interrogators from the General Security Services and appointed a special committee to determine rules for permissible conduct in security interrogations. Not only politicians but also colleagues, including a few of my officemates at the paper, accused me of damaging the country’s reputation. Some went as far as to claim that I had harmed national security; they argued that the new guidelines instated as a result of the affair tied investigators’ hands and made it difficult for them to capture terrorists and foil terrorist attacks. Similar accusations have dogged me since the English publication last year of Lords of the Land (Nation Books), a book about the settlers that I co-wrote with Idith Zertal. The book, which has appeared in four languages (Hebrew, English, German and Arabic), recounts forty years of land grab in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Israeli ambassador to a major European capital once told me that David Grossman, whose articles appear frequently in the local press, and myself were “ruining his job.” He complained that every time he attacked Israel’s critics for their “anti-Israeli” stances, as he put it, they would argue that our own articles were far more critical. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cite me in their controversial book, The Israel Lobby, as one of the Israeli journalists whose criticism of the occupation is even sharper than their own.
The prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in November 2000 (in a publication of the Israel Democracy Institute) that “there are Israeli reporters who do not pass the ‘lynch test.'” These, he wrote, are journalists who could not bring themselves to criticize the Arabs even when two Israelis were savagely murdered by a mob in Ramallah. Barnea, who last year was awarded the Israel Prize for journalism, went on to argue that our support for the Palestinian position is absolute. He concluded, “They have a mission.” I was honored to be mentioned as one of those journalists, alongside my fine colleagues Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.
I admit to being guilty as charged. I am a journalist with a mission, and also no small amount of passion. Every Israeli with a conscience, in particular one who watches reality from up close on a daily basis, cannot write about the occupation from an objective observer’s neutral point of view. My parents immigrated to Israel in 1933 out of choice and hope, not out of despair or fear. Sixty years ago, shortly after I was born, they sat glued to the radio when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state that would be democratic, egalitarian and peaceful. My primary mission is to leave behind for my children and grandchildren a state that is loyal to these principles and values. The occupation of a people, while denying its basic rights, robbing its lands and trampling its dignity, is turning us Israelis into prisoners–prison guards spend a significant part of their lives behind prison walls.
There are many Jews who believe that there is no difference between Hebron and Tel Aviv, or between West and East Jerusalem. As far as they are concerned, the Land of Israel was promised solely to the People of Israel. Yet anyone who perceives the West Bank (and not “Judea and Samaria”) and East Jerusalem as occupied territories cannot accept the policies of Israel’s governments for the past forty years. Occupation does not have two sides. There is no symmetry between the occupier and the occupied. This is true even if the occupied fight the occupier with despicable and contemptuous methods. The problem of mainstream politicians and journalists in Israel–including the Zionist left–is that for years, present day included, they have accepted the conversion of the occupation into an annexation process. Leaders of the Labor Party and even the left-liberal Meretz turned a blind eye while government ministries and the military helped settlers take control of more and more territory. The trend, which contravenes international law, did not stop even after the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993. At that time there were 110,000 Jews living in the settlements. Today, almost 280,000 Jews live on the West Bank and more than 200,000 over the Green Line in Jerusalem. Now the government expects the Palestinians to give up substantial parts of these occupied lands and allow it to impose Israeli law on them. Is this the behavior of a country on its way out of the occupied territories?
My mission was never to score points in a congeniality or justness competition with my neighbors. For the second half of Israel’s life, I pointed to the toll the occupation takes on us and on the Palestinians. When the Israeli national radio labeled the PLO a “terrorist organization,” I called for talks with their leader, Yasir Arafat, on a two-state solution. When President Clinton and my prime minister, Ehud Barak, charged the Palestinians with sole responsibility for the collapse of the second Camp David summit, in July 2000, I exposed the failings of Clinton and Barak, which contributed to the second intifada. Since then, I have condemned those Israeli policies that reinforce Hamas and weaken the chances for a peaceful settlement: the faltering negotiations for a permanent agreement, the invasive layout of the separation fence, the hundreds of roadblocks and the dozens of illegal settlement outposts.
It is not only those who come from the right wing, such as Ehud Olmert, who used to call me and others like myself “Israel-hating lefties.” Shimon Peres also viewed us as a gang of defeatists who lacked Jewish awareness. When I first heard Ariel Sharon, on the eve of his unilateral disengagement from Gaza, utter the word “occupation,” a scant smile of victory came to my lips: finally, the leader more addicted to the territories than any other Israeli politician had realized that it was better to live in a small but beautiful country than in a large and ugly one. When I read Olmert’s warning that if we did not leave the territories the future of Israel as a Jewish state would be in danger, my satisfaction was mingled with sorrow. How sad to think of the years wasted and the blood shed. Perhaps this sobriety is too late, too little. What is left for me is to seek consolation from my Egyptian cabby.