Still a Little Too Close to God

By Miriam Shaviv

Published April 30, 2004, issue of April 30, 2004.
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Still Life with Bombers:

Israel in the Age of Terrorism

By David Horovitz

Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $25.

* * *

In the three and a half years since the second intifada was launched, the voice of the mainstream Israeli public has rarely been heard internationally. Television largely seeks out the extremists; terror victims’ stories are routinely ignored; and reporters talk of “Ariel Sharon’s government” as if it were somehow detached from the people it represents.

And many Jews in the Diaspora — who, chances are, have not visited Israel in a long time — are still stuck with long irrelevant left-right paradigms, not fully understanding how reality on the ground has shifted, and Israeli public opinion with it.

Anyone wishing to fill in this knowledge gap and understand Israel today should read “Still Life With Bombers” by David Horovitz, editor of the biweekly magazine The Jerusalem Report. His new book offers a full account of what it’s like to live under the constant threat of terror, and an analysis of who is to blame, and why the situation has continued to deteriorate. Not that Horovitz claims to be speaking for anyone but himself — this is a very personal account, and that is much of the book’s strength. But his experiences and version of events are particularly important because they largely coincide with the relatively new broad Israeli consensus.

Israelis nowadays, as Horovitz makes clear, are a very edgy people. True, most of them have not significantly changed their routines since September 2000 — malls, coffee shops and movie theaters are full to the brim — but gambling on which mall, which coffee shop or which movie theater is safe to visit at any particular moment can be nerve-racking. In a country the size of Israel, everyone knows someone who was hurt — Horovitz describes waking up in the morning to find the son of a family friend was killed overnight. And many of the targets hold personal resonance — Horovitz, who grew up in England, admits how “thoroughly” he was shocked by the bomb in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, where he was a student himself in the early 1980s.

Worst of all, there is almost no one who hasn’t had a close call, including Horovitz’s wife, who was ferrying her children to school one morning in June 2002 when the 32A bus exploded a few feet in front of her, the sound drowned out by the loud music in the car.

“Long before the ambulances arrived,” Horovitz writes, “before the first policeman had closed off the street, she passed nearby and saw the twisted metal skeleton. As her stomach lurched, she had the exceptional presence of mind to tell the kids to cover their eyes for a moment, which they did, while she executed the next right turn towards school and away from the scene.”

How does one deal with such violence? Horovitz provides a long analysis of the coping mechanisms, moral dilemmas and emotional scars. One way, he confesses in that context, is to “employ more caution when dealing with Arabs we didn’t know too well,” adding, “I feel guilty just writing that.” It is such typically honest passages that make this book worthwhile.

Another way, Horovitz says in one strange passage, is by taking the tension out on others. This may sound logical, but can you really blame a taxi driver’s aggression on the matzav, “the situation,” as Horowitz seems to?

It would also not have been unreasonable of Horovitz to wonder occasionally what he was still doing in Israel. Several of his friends — whom he interviews at length in the book — certainly do. “My personal commitment to Israel… was anything but weakened by the new round of conflict,” he writes. “I have this powerful belief, founded on what I consider to be firm evidence, that we did genuinely try to make peace with the Palestinians, and essentially offered the right terms for coexistence.”

About half of the book is devoted to proving this assertion — and to indicting the man whom Horovitz, and most Israelis, see as the arch-villain in the conflict: Yasser Arafat. In a chapter bluntly titled, “How Did We Get into This Mess,” Horovitz gives a potted history of the peace process, presenting the narrative pretty much as most Israelis now believe it happened: After watching Israel flee from Lebanon under Hezbollah fire, Arafat decided to launch a full-blown war. At Camp David, says Horovitz, Barak offered “as much as, if not more than, Israel can ever offer for peace, for beyond those concessions lies only national suicide.”

And Arafat, he says, deliberately scuttled the talks — not over territory, as the Palestinians commonly assert, but over the status of the Temple Mount and the refugees’ right of return, two issues Israel simply could not compromise on any further.

“I do not believe Arafat made the mistake of his life at Camp David,” writes Horovitz. “I think he knew exactly what he was doing… In retrospect… it seems unarguable that he had no intention of striking a deal.”

When then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount, the Palestinians used it as a pretext to launch a completely unnecessary war.

Horovitz presents this scenario convincingly, with a calm mixture of journalistic integrity and personal conviction. His light touch, in the best journalistic style, makes this an extremely accessible defense of Israel, whether it was intended as one or not.

Still, Horovitz is realistic about Israel’s weaknesses. He blames Oslo’s Israeli architects for some of the process’ failure, admits to unnecessary violence on Israel’s part at times, wonders whether Sharon used targeted killings to re-ignite conflict, and blames him for not offering the Palestinians enough incentives to stop the violence. He also recognizes that the settlements have been “the key factor in our inability to reduce [the] conflict unilaterally,” although getting rid of them now would be rewarding terrorism.

In his introduction, Horovitz — who was once regarded as belonging to Israel’s left wing — denies he has jumped camp since he wrote his last book, “A Little Too Close To God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel,” in 2000.

“That is not true,” he writes. “I am as ready as I ever was to support the most dramatic territorial compromise in the cause of true peace.”

According to the polls, so are most Israelis. However, the same polls show that they also believe Arafat stabbed them in the back and can never be trusted again; that the Palestinians do not fight out of desperation but out of cold calculation; and that they themselves are fighting a defensive war for survival.

Given these beliefs, whether you accept Horovitz’s version of events or not, it is much easier to understand Israel’s behavior since September 2000. The country, it appears, is still a little too close to God; only nowadays, there are fewer thrills and more panic.

Miriam Shaviv is the former literary editor of The Jerusalem Post.

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