This Burning Land

Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin

This Burning Land

Hardcover, 320 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Two long-time reporters on the Middle East examine the heart of the conflict between Isreal and Palestine, providing a balanced and detailed look at the fighting based on first-hand experience and hundreds of interviews.

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Excerpt: This Burning Land

This Burning Land

This Burning Land

Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-55090-8

Chapter One

"GO TO THE TEMPLE MOUNT"

Ariel Sharon had no intention of setting foot on the Temple Mount. In the fall of 2000, the Israeli coalition government was teetering, and Sharon, the opposition leader, sensed an opportunity to speed up its collapse and position himself to be the next prime minister. It was the post he had long coveted, but it seemed beyond his reach, due to the many controversies that had swirled around him for decades. As Sharon plotted, he considered some modest gestures, such as a news conference near the Temple Mount, the most important and sensitive holy site in the region. It is revered by Jews, as well as by Muslims, who call it the Noble Sanctuary. Sharon's brief stroll to the shrine would be one of the most significant events in a decade of dramas that further entrenched one of the world's most enduring conflicts. Yet the spark for that walk came about in a casual, almost accidental way, the product of one brief transatlantic phone call with his best friend. That friend, Israeli journalist Uri Dan, happened to be one of the first people we had met when we arrived in Jerusalem a year earlier, in the fall of 1999.

In our early days in Jerusalem, Uri invested considerable time in trying to persuade us that everything we thought we knew about the Middle East was wrong. At that point, a full-fledged peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians seemed within reach. Uri disputed this. There had been virtually no fighting for the previous three years, and violence between the two sides appeared to be fading into the past. Uri said it was not. And Sharon, Israel's most prominent hawk, looked to be in the twilight of his long and checkered career. On this last point, Uri was most adamant of all. Sharon, he insisted, was a man with a future.

A charming, dapper chain-smoker with an elfish grin and a perpetual tan, Uri built his long career on an allegiance to Sharon that bordered on religious faith. The bond between the two men was built on one unshakable belief. The Jews and the Arabs had been fighting for generations, and in the minds of these two men, no resolution was on the horizon. The year 2000 was perhaps the most hopeful time ever in the Israeli-Palestinian feud, but Uri Dan and Ariel Sharon saw no reason to be optimistic. As they viewed it, the Arabs had never genuinely accepted the presence of Israel, and it would be a grave and foolish risk to let Yasser Arafat lead an independent state of Palestine on Israel's borders. The Israeli men believed it was always dangerous to let your guard down when dealing with the Palestinians or the Arab world, and no document masquerading as a peace treaty was going to put to rest this long history of animosity. They accepted the conflict as a permanent feature of life in the Middle East, part of the world they were born into, and part of the world they would leave behind. Their goal was to steadily improve Israel's position in this endless struggle. Perhaps a solution would gradually emerge at some distant date, but they saw no point in entertaining that notion in their lifetime. In their minds—and in the minds of a fair number of Israelis and Palestinians—if you did not accept the enduring nature of the conflict, then you did not understand the conflict at all.

This idea, and their friendship, had a long history. Uri first encountered Sharon in 1954 when Uri was a nineteen-year-old correspondent for a military newspaper, and the future Israeli leader was a young lieutenant colonel commanding the secret paratrooper Unit 101, which carried out commando raids in the West Bank. Uri, a natural reporter even in his teens, tracked down the unit and showed up unannounced. Sharon was greatly annoyed that a journalist had pierced the secrecy surrounding the unit, and he grilled Uri about who had tipped him off, to no avail.

"Many years later Sharon told me that his friendship for me began that night, when I refused to reveal my sources. He liked that," Uri said. Uri, in turn, was so enamored with Sharon's gift for leadership that he devoted his professional life to chronicling Sharon's every military and political battle for a half-century. Uri wrote three books about Sharon, defended him at times when he was a political pariah, and ceaselessly championed Sharon's hard-line views in columns that appeared in Israeli newspapers and the New York Post.

Because the New York Post and the Fox News Channel both belonged to Rupert Murdoch's media galaxy, Uri saw it as only natural that he should offer Jennifer his take on the mysteries of the Middle East. His analysis was always colored by his unwavering loyalty to Sharon. Yet his war stories were good ones, even if they were largely dramas from the past and came from a man so old-fashioned that he still composed his articles with a pen and a notepad.

Uri did not hesitate to remind us of his most famous remarks about Sharon, made initially in 1972, when Sharon was an army general who had been passed over for the position of army chief of staff. "Whoever doesn't want Sharon as chief of staff will get him as defense minister," Uri wrote in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Sure enough, Sharon became defense minister nearly a decade later, although he was ultimately forced to resign for his role in orchestrating Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which targeted Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. A Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel massacred hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, near Beirut. This generated an international outcry and massive antiwar protests in Israel. Ultimately, an Israeli government inquiry found that Sharon bore indirect responsibility for not preventing the killings. Sharon's career was in ashes, and his many critics said he was finished as a politician. Yet Uri still saw a bright future and offered a second prophecy to complement the earlier one: "Whoever doesn't want Sharon as defense minister will get him as prime minister."

These remarks sounded dated, if not ridiculous, by the time Uri recounted them to us. Sharon was then seventy years old, a widower twice over, and was not exactly the picture of health as his waistline expanded with age. One reporter watched Sharon work his way through an entire tube of Pringles potato chips as they conducted an interview. As one wag put it, Sharon managed to soldier on in the rough-and-tumble of Israeli politics because he was "psychosomatically healthy." He was still a war hero to some Israelis, but he had many more critics, and the prevailing Palestinian view was that he was the devil.

Uri was not shy in boasting about their friendship. Once, with Sharon sitting next to him, Uri told us how Sharon would often wrap up his sixteen-hour working days with an after-midnight phone call so they could rehash the crisis of the day. "Sometimes I fall asleep while he's still talking," Sharon chimed in. And when Sharon traveled, Uri was almost always part of the entourage, assuming the contradictory roles of journalist and confidant. Whenever Sharon met with foreign leaders, Uri was usually nearby and would pull out his pocket-size camera and snap a couple of quick photos. Then Uri would ask the host leader to sign the menu of the meal that he had shared with Sharon. This tradition carried on even after Sharon became prime minister. On trips to Washington, Sharon occasionally escorted Uri into the Oval Office and presented "my best friend" to President George W. Bush.

We had not been in Israel long when Uri arranged for Jennifer to interview Sharon. At the time, it was more a courtesy call than a news event. Sharon was not in great demand. Jennifer viewed it as an opportunity to stockpile material for a future piece on Sharon that might run when he retired, or perhaps even for his obituary. Sharon volunteered to come to the Fox office on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem. He patiently recounted familiar stories while sitting on a small, rickety metal chair that had never been intended for someone with his frame.

Sharon had rehabilitated himself politically since the Lebanon debacle nearly two decades earlier. His comeback included several cabinet posts, and by 1998, he was Israel's foreign minister. With great reluctance, he was forced to negotiate with his archrival Arafat in talks hosted by the United States at Wye River Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With considerable pressure from the Clinton administration, the bitter enemies reached a very limited interim deal, known as the Wye River Memorandum. Israel was to hand over security control to the Palestinians in several areas, and the Palestinians were to fight terrorism. As part of the process, there was talk of getting the sides together for a group handshake. In the carefully choreographed world of diplomacy, a handshake between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat is about as sexy as it gets. Uri was nearby, having dinner at Legal Sea Foods in Washington, when he spoke by phone to Sharon. Uri asked Sharon whether he would actually allow himself to be photographed clasping hands with Arafat. "Shake the hand of that dog?" Sharon huffed. "Never."

The Wye River Memorandum happened. The handshake didn't.

Diplomacy marched on, and in the summer of 2000, Clinton invited Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Arafat for negotiations at Camp David, Maryland, in search of a comprehensive deal. These talks came nearly seven years after the sides had signed their first interim agreement, known as the Oslo Accords, which was sealed with a handshake between Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the lawn of the White House in September 1993. The agenda at Camp David included core issues that had divided the two sides for more than a half-century: the borders of the two states, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the prospect of dividing Jerusalem, as well as the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem's most contested religious site, the Temple Mount–Noble Sanctuary.

In a photo session at the beginning of the talks, Barak and Arafat played to the cameras as they prepared to enter the guest house in the wooded compound. Both men were overtly polite as they simultaneously reached the front door, extending their arms and trying to guide the other inside with body language that said, "No, I insist, you go first." Clinton cajoled and twisted arms as the delegations remained secluded at Camp David, where, two decades earlier, President Jimmy Carter had negotiated the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. For the Israelis and the Palestinians, it was standard practice to leak the details of their negotiations every time one of the participants took a bathroom break. Yet this time, the parties were tight-lipped as they conducted the most detailed talks ever.

Sharon remained in Israel as the talks took place. As the opposition leader in parliament, he was generally ignored by the media. Still, he told anyone willing to listen that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was rash and unrealistic and would leave Israel far less secure.

When the Israelis and the Palestinians emerged from Camp David after two weeks of talks, they were closer to a deal than they had ever been, but each side said that the other had stopped a few steps short. Almost immediately, the recriminations began. Barak and the Israelis described their offer as "extremely generous" and believed it was rejected because that was the instinctive Palestinian response to all Israeli offers. For many Israelis, the Palestinians had once again fulfilled Israeli statesman Abba Eban's aphorism: "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Barak did not hesitate to lambaste Arafat. "At Camp David, Mr. Arafat well understood that the moment of truth had come and that painful decisions needed to be made by both sides. He failed this challenge," Barak wrote. "At the deepest level Arafat does not accept the ... right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state."

Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leadership said that Israel failed to address essential Palestinian needs and that the proposal would not have given the Palestinians a viable state. He argued that the Palestinian territory in the West Bank would not have been contiguous, that the Palestinians would not have full sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and that the proposal did not sufficiently address the status of millions of Palestinian refugees. Arafat said that if he had accepted the terms, he would have suffered the same fate as Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995, just two years after he signed the interim peace deal with Arafat. "If I will betray [my people], no doubt [some]one will come to kill me," Arafat said.

Barak's peace offer at Camp David was not in writing, and the two sides had different interpretations afterward. Yet participants said it was clear that the Israeli leader was offering a compromise on the Temple Mount–Noble Sanctuary. For religious Jews, relinquishing control of Judaism's holiest site was sacrilege, and for ardent nationalists such as Sharon, it was tantamount to treason.

Sharon and his supporters held press conferences and issued statements arguing that such a deal would be a disaster for Israel. Yet Sharon was largely ignored. Uri suggested that Sharon might be able to attract more attention if he held a weekly news conference in the cobblestone plaza facing the Western Wall. The retaining wall had been part of the Second Temple in King Herod's Jerusalem. Ever since the temple's destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, this one surviving wall, on the western side of the compound, has been the holiest place for Jewish prayer. Sharon took note of his friend's idea but did not immediately act on it.

Despite the failure at Camp David, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued to meet, holding secret sessions during August and September. The talks were held even though Barak's coalition government was increasingly shaky. Sharon was already anticipating its demise, and in September he traveled to New York to express his deep misgivings about the Camp David negotiations to Jewish leaders in the United States. Such trips to the United States are part of a regular pilgrimage for Israeli politicians of all parties.

While in New York, Sharon was already charting his next moves. Sharon called Uri for one of their daily chats and reached Uri as he was traveling in a car with a fellow Israeli journalist on their way to dinner in Jerusalem. They took Sharon's call on the car's speaker phone. Sharon had finally warmed to Uri's idea from a few weeks earlier. "When I get back, I plan to hold a press conference at the Wall," Sharon said, referring to the Western Wall.

This should have pleased Uri, but he and his colleague had moved on and upped the ante. "No, no, no, Arik," Uri said, referring to Sharon as he was universally known in Israel. "That's not enough. You must go all the way to the Temple Mount." Uri and his colleague then proceeded to make their case for Sharon to take the far more dramatic step of going to the Temple Mount.

Sharon was not a religious man, and Israeli politicians had long steered clear of the shrine because it is such an explosive site. The sensitivity is both political and religious. In political terms, any visit by an Israeli politician is sure to inflame Muslims. In religious terms, most rabbis say that it is forbidden for Jews to ascend the Temple Mount, due to the possibility they will inadvertently tread atop the "holy of holies." This was the inner sanctuary in each of the ancient Jewish temples that was reserved for special visits by the high priest. Yet if Sharon visited, he would surely attract extensive media coverage and could convey several messages simultaneously. He could show the depth of his opposition to Barak's Camp David proposal, burnish his reputation as Israel's leading security hawk, and restate Israel's claim that Jerusalem—all of Jerusalem—belonged to the Jewish people.

An Ariel Sharon press conference at the Western Wall plaza, where thousands of Jews pray daily, might have drawn a bit of media attention. Most likely, it would have been a one-day story that would have appeared on the evening television news and merited a modest mention buried inside newspapers the next day.

(Continues...)




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