I have been interviewed by him and left out of the pieces he was doing. Either I was a poor subject or, hopefully, too good of one as his ideological position, I think, gets in the way of his reporting.
How did those four months at Ketziot [prison] change you?
On an intellectual level, it was fascinating, but I have to say that, on an ideological level, it was very troubling. I thought that the Israeli response to the first uprising was idiotic. Since I’d grown up in a left-wing Zionist-socialist movement that saw the inevitability and the morality of the creation of a Palestinian state, I thought that it was ridiculous to put these people in prison for demanding what I would have demanded for my own people. I thought that Israeli society had gone off track in some significant way, and Ketziot was the epitome of that problem.
Let me not cast it as an entirely negative experience. It was hopelessly exotic for me. I mean, I’m from the South Shore of Long Island, and then all of a sudden I’m in the Negev Desert, by the Egyptian border, as a prison guard in what’s probably the largest prison in the Middle East, guarding the future leaders of Palestine. It was pretty exciting. Also, it made me insatiably curious about Islam and Islamism and the essential divide in Palestinian society between the secular nationalists and the Islamists. In the fifteen years that followed, until now, it’s been my main preoccupation, this universe of issues—Islam and Judaism and Zionism and Israel’s role in the world and terrorism. I think I got jump-started there.
Did you keep a diary at Ketziot?
I secretly kept notes. You weren’t allowed to write things down. I’m a note-taker, anyway—I take notes on more banal events in my life, too. But this was important to record, I felt, because it was, in a way, ephemeral. Even then, I had an extremely strong feeling that the people I was guarding would one day be the leaders of Palestine. This was 1990, 1991—the Gulf War. There was no communication at all between Israelis and the Palestinians. Probably the only place in the world where we were talking, in any kind of way, was at this prison camp.
You’ve exposed yourself here—not only your service in the Israeli Army but your intellectual and ideological development—the thinking that led you to Israel as a young man. How do you think this is going to affect you as a reporter?
I don’t think truthfulness about who you are and what you’ve done and where you come from can hurt. I mean, it can hurt in some specific ways—there may be some people in the Muslim world who will read this and decide, I can’t talk to the guy. I doubt it, to tell you the truth, because my experience in a dozen different countries in the Middle East is that my Jewishness is an advantage, not a disadvantage, because even for the most hard-core Islamists there’s an attraction-repulsion dynamic that takes hold. They think about Jews all the time. So when one shows up on the doorstep it’s actually sort of fascinating to them.
I do believe—my most naïve side believes—that stories like the stories in this book will help people understand the Middle East and its seemingly impossible problems. I’m not Pollyannaish; I’m not one of these people who believe that you can just take a bunch of Israeli teen-agers and a bunch of Palestinian teen-agers to a retreat somewhere in Sweden or the Catskills and make peace. That, I’ve learned, requires a kind of brutal honesty with each other about the differences. Look, it took Rafiq and me fifteen years to get to the point where we could acknowledge to each other—and I really feel this—I hope for his continued safety and happiness. I think he hopes for my continued safety and happiness. As individuals. And he says—and he’s not a journalist, he’s a statistician; he’s a by-the-numbers guy in many ways—he says, “If this could be done between a million different people, then the situation would be a lot different.” That’s why I think that you can’t underestimate the power of honest dialogue. Honest dialogue means not conceding your position before you begin, or not avoiding a subject like Jerusalem, say, because it’s too hot.
It’s sort of the opposite of the diplomatic approach.
It’s the undiplomatic approach. There’s a word in Arabic, dughreh—straight. Just be straight. I can’t say that Rafiq and I have always been straight with each other. I’m sure he trims, I trim. That straightness also, by the way, goes to the question of journalism and the way the Middle East is covered. Don’t flinch from the raw reality of a place. And Gaza—I’ve been optimistic; now I’ll be pessimistic—is a place where a large number of fathers and mothers are willing to sacrifice their children, to turn them into suicide bombers, in order to achieve something that the Palestinians have failed completely to achieve in the past fifteen years. That’s bad. In the book, I deal with Ketziot as an unpleasant reality, as what Israel shouldn’t have been but became. So you have to just look things in the face. The problem with the Oslo process was it kept pushing off issues. Palestinians didn’t know where it was going; Israelis didn’t know where it was going. Then, when the issue was forced at Camp David, it fell apart because too much had been left unsaid until that moment.
Your last piece for The New Yorker took you back to Gaza. Written in the wake of the fighting in Lebanon, it was called “The Forgotten War.” Where do you think things are headed?
It’s been said that the antidote for Islamism is Islamism. I think the Palestinians are beginning to see some of the pitfalls of electing an Islamist government. Again, this goes back to my low threshold for optimism: I came out of Gaza in this last piece feeling better about the situation than I did going in, because, partly through some of the people I knew from the prison, I still found plenty of people there who are thinking about a two-state solution and, more to the point, do not want to see their sons become suicide bombers. I really felt that I could see a seed, or at least a hint, of a future that was not as bleak as the present, simply because many people there are less concerned with getting to Heaven immediately than with building some sort of life for themselves on the ground. It doesn’t mean that when this group of Palestinians sits down with whatever group of Israelis is in charge that the talks aren’t going to fall apart on any number of issues. But the story of Gaza now is not the story of the triumph of Islamism. It’s still the story of a people struggling to figure out who they are and how much they can compromise with their enemy.