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The View from the Crusaders’ Castle


Krak des Chevaliers, Syria – Thirty years ago, when the state of Israel had traveled only half its present journey through time since 1948, I interviewed General Matti Peled in New York. As an army general Peled had been a notably tough administrator of the Occupied Territories, but in retirement had become a dove, publicly urging his country to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, abandon the illegal settlements, return to the ’67 borders and resolve all the other major issues obstructing a proper peace.

“What do you think will happen,” I asked the former general, “If no Israeli government ever emerges strong enough to take such a path?”

“Oh, I think we’ll end up like the Crusaders,” he answered. “It might take some time, but just like them, in the end, we’ll be gone.” It was startling at the time to hear any Israeli, particularly a military man, talk like that. Of course, then as always, the Israel lobby in the United States loved to depict embattled Israel as only one step from annihilation by bloodthirsty Arabs unless the United States offered unconditional diplomatic support and limitless subsidies.

Back then, many people thought that something approaching a tolerable deal within the framework of UN resolutions could be reached. It wouldn’t be what the Palestinians wanted, but they would get at least a halfways coherent statelet; the settlements would stop, maybe even get rolled back.

By 2008, these notions look as quaint as a Victorian Christmas card. The notional Palestinian state occasionally proffered by the overweening Israelis is a patchwork of separate enclaves, boxed in by settlements, bisected by Jews-only military roads, with limited access to water.

Hamas, the political party voted for by desperate Palestinians, is stigmatized by the US and EU as a terrorist body. When Jimmy Carter, the US president in office when I interviewed General Peled, denounced Israel’s siege of Gaza as an appalling crime against civilians a few weeks ago, he himself was savaged as the accomplice of terror.

In the United States there are, it’s true, more questions asked about the role of the Israel Lobby than a generation ago, but these are mere ripples on the wide ocean of full-throated congressional support for anything the hawks in Israel might request. This year, as in all previous years, no mainstream US presidential candidate has dared do anything more than kow-tow to the Israel lobby. Hilary Clinton may have caused a stir by using the word “obliterate” as the treatment the US would mete out to Iran if it threatened Israel’s existence, but all her rivals would say the same thing if pressed. And of course “threat” can mean almost anything.

Voyaging to Israel last week (not ironically on the anniversary of the Naqba, Israel’s eviction of the Palestinians in 1948) Bush has hoped to bring his eight-year submission to the Israeli hawks to a finale with some sort of “Oslo-2” agreement, giving permanent sanction to Israel’s land grabs and final consignment of all UN agreements to the dustbin of history. But his trip to Israel had the misfortune to coincide with the gravest charges of corruption showering down on prime minister Olmert’s head. Stuttering excuses for the munificent financial contributions extended to him by the Long Island-based realtor Morris Talansky, Olmert has had to pledge that if indicted he will resign, and indeed it looks as though his days are numbered. The patching together of any new coalition will be a protracted affair.

Bush may rant in the Knesset, but US policy in the region has sustained a humiliating rebuff as the government of Lebanon rescinds its efforts to cut back on Hezbollah’s communications systems and ability to monitor all traffic at Beirut airport. With Israel in a uproar about missile salvoes on Ashkelon from Gaza, no one will forget Hezbollah’s ability to launch similar salvoes. In Riyadh Bush got the brush off from the Saudis in his effort to get the Kingdom to boost oil production.

Earlier this week I looked south toward Israel from the Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest of the Crusaders’ castles, looming above the Syrian coastal plain about four hours drive from Damascus. The odious T.E. Lawrence called it “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.” Despite the efforts of Saladin, the Hospitallers were never dislodged from the Krak by force. It was eventually the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, Baybars, who winkled them out by negotiation, in 1271 after the Crusaders had held it for 162 years.

Standing on the great south tower (actually completed by French engineers in the 1930s) I remembered Peled’s remarks about Israel and the Crusaders, who held the Krak three times longer than Israel’s present span. The hawks, just as Peled and scores of other doves in recent years charge, have not buttressed Israel’s security. In the middle and long term they have gravely compromised it. The balance of forces in the region have changed drastically from the US dominance of a generation or two ago. Soon Bush will be gone; Olmert maybe sooner. Just all all new visitors to Israel are given a tour of Yad Vashem, perhaps all politicians pondering Israel’s security and justice for Palestinians should also be given a compulsory tour of the Krak des Chevaliers.

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