The Magazine

Europe Meets Israel

What a week for a journalists' junket.

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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Tel Aviv
A week ago I arrived here, and already the atmosphere was a bit surreal. I would sit outside in a beachfront restaurant, enjoying a warm summer breeze, music, and delicious grilled fish, as scores of young people walked the boardwalk. You felt that this half of the country at least was at peace. Tel Aviv's large white-sand beach was packed by day. But in the evening it was hard not to notice the military planes that passed overhead every few minutes on their way north. Israel was surely at war.

I'm here cohosting a group of European journalists, writers, and broadcasters from a half dozen different countries, all of whom are visiting Israel for the first time. Conventional wisdom early in our trip was that certain places in the north would be exempt from the violence. We had planned a trip to Tiberias, with a dinner on the Sea of Galilee. That was until we heard from Yaara, the manager of the Decks restaurant, who told us a rocket had hit nearby. Windows were damaged, she said, but "God would protect us" if we still wanted to come.

Self-preservation concentrates the mind and turns you into a defense geek. The Katyusha has a range of 12 to 15 miles. The Fajr-3 and the Fajr-5 can sail approximately 25 and 45 miles, respectively. When we arrived, my sources told me that Hezbollah might have a number of long-range Iranian missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Within 48 hours, Israel had destroyed an Iranian Zelzal rocket with a range of up to 200 km. That would have brought Tel Aviv into range. Since then the Israelis have destroyed another 19.

I cannot say I have felt entirely safe in Jerusalem. The Israelis caught a suicide bomber near the Jaffe Gate just before we arrived. There has been much talk about the other side opening a third front. With rockets streaming in from Gaza and Lebanon, there has been little reason to believe West Bank terrorists would stay out of the game. A day after we left Tel Aviv, another suicide bomber was nabbed north of the city. As I write, yet another suicide bomber is said to be on the loose in the same area. For our tour through the old city, we hired two security men to accompany our group.

In Jerusalem, the King David Hotel has become, once again, a center of backroom kibitzing in a time of crisis. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman passes one way through the lobby; Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, the other. E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana strolls down an adjacent hallway with former Mossad head Efraim Halevy. You have to wonder whether Halevy, a former ambassador to the E.U., can make any headway. In his recently published memoir, Man in the Shadows, Halevy says if you take European arguments to their logical conclusions, "then only the disappearance of the State of Israel would succeed in pacifying the insatiable desires of the Arab world." This may sound a touch extreme, but Solana lives up to the caricature. When asked by a television reporter whether the axis of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah has been behind the current conflict, Solana replies by saying that he does "not want to mention names." In another interview, Solana is pushed in vain to admit that Hezbollah belongs on the E.U.'s terrorist list.

I think Gideon Samet, the prominent liberal-left columnist for Haaretz, shocked our group a little. Samet is not exactly a hard-liner. He has a healthy European-style dislike of the American president. He has argued for dialogue with Hamas. Now he tells these nice European journalists that the current Israeli operations in Lebanon constitute a "just war." This is difficult for the group to swallow. The European narrative seems to go like this: Hezbollah kidnaps two Israeli soldiers; Israel seeks revenge by bombing the hell out of Lebanon. There's nothing more to say.

As a result of this blinkered view, much of the media coverage has been deplorable. A doctor treating children at a hospital in the northern city of Safed could barely control his frustration. His hospital, which serves Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Bedouins, was hit by a Hezbollah rocket last week, and this "soften spoken gentleman," as one of my European colleagues put it, wants to know why the BBC is obsessed with legitimate Israeli action against Hezbollah. Europe's pols seem to be reading from the same script as its media. Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has lambasted Israel for using "abusive force that does not allow innocent human beings to defend themselves." After a public appearance in Spain last week, someone placed a Palestinian scarf around Zapatero's neck. The prime minister allowed himself to be photographed in it.