No, not that one. Kobi Katz. When we rolled into the Israeli town of Metulla last Tuesday evening, the main streets were clogged with last-minute campaigning, and anyone who didn’t defend himself was quickly decorated with T-shirts and caps proclaiming the virtues of Kobi or his opponent. We spent the evening with Kobi Katz’s dad and some of his friends. The elder Katz, a former mayor — and, by reputation at least, no Boss Daley — was overseeing his boy’s campaign with pride. He and all the people of Metulla are living happily, and determinedly, in a pretty tough place.
Metulla is Israel’s northernmost town, just yards from Lebanon. Along the ridgeline overlooking the border is a string of Israeli Defense Forces positions, with every sort of sensor, looking for terrorists trying to slip across. The IDF refused us permission to go up to the observation points because the bad guys had been shooting across the border the day before we arrived. On the other side of the border, within pistol shot, is a significant force of the Hezbollah terrorists that Syria and Iran use as a proxy force against Israel. The terrorists occasionally take a few shots at the Israelis, or lob a couple of shells at Metulla or the more famously shot up town of Qiryat Shimona. In the old days, the people of Metulla educated their children underground. Now, there’s a sandbagged elementary school.
The people of Metulla take politics as seriously as the Boston Irish. Campaigns, elections, and all that go with them are pressed on regardless. I had a pretty good steak, a really good beer and some great conversations with the people of Metulla. One charming expat British lady, the general secretary of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, told me how frustrated the Israeli skaters were at the lack of support from the Sharon government. Apparently, they get less support from their government than the Jamaican bobsled team gets from Jamaica. The lady’s complaint was not strident. She knows Sharon has a lot on his mind these days.
I reached Metulla after a day-long ride north from Jerusalem. Driving east out of the city, we spent hours traversing the West Bank of the Jordan River. From the highway, you don’t see the unending tension and terrorism of the West Bank. What you do see is open hardscrabble country interrupted only by scattered towns and farms. Biblical sites are almost a commonplace. And there is almost nothing to protect against terrorist incursions. Most areas have an old triple fence line of barbed wire. Though mine fields dot the area, left behind by the Syrian army in 1973, the border is as open as the border between California and Mexico, intolerable to any people trying to protect themselves from terrorist infiltrations.
The Israelis are now getting beaten up at the U.N. over their construction of a fence through some of the Palestinian West Bank areas and Israel proper. Strung along the so-called “Green line” — a cease-fire line that has no international standing as a border– the fence is an effective barrier to terrorists. The Israelis already have one all around the Gaza Strip, and they say it has reduced terrorist crossings from Gaza to zero. (Though that’s the official line, one senior official told me that the homicide bomber who blew up the Maxim Restaurant near Haifa had slipped through.) The fence is a very sophisticated barrier, with radars, motion sensors, cameras and such. With the “intifada” terrorist campaign now in its fourth year, the Israelis would be nuts to not build the fence. (Note to Rainbow Tom Ridge: serious people build serious anti-infiltration barriers).
EVERY DISTANCE IS SMALL here. You could jump across the Jordan River pretty easily at most places. The route we took runs along the bottom of the valley, up and across the Golan Heights to a point in Israel where Damascus, Syria, lies only 34 miles across the plain. That’s less than three minutes at Mach 1. It’s an hour or two –maybe less — if you’re driving an M1A1.
What you do see is mountains on both sides of a very narrow stretch of land. To an Air Force jet jock, comfort can be found in a long, well-paved runway. A few of our military and commercial runways are 15,000 feet long. At some points on the other side of the western mountains Israel is only about nine miles wide. That’s the equivalent of about three good runways. If you took off in the Jordan River valley and headed due west, you’d have passed over Israel entirely and be out over the Mediterranean by the time you had gained any altitude and formed up with the rest of your flight.
On the eastern side of the river is Jordan, then Syria and the Golan Heights where the Israelis took enormous losses against Syrian and Iraqi forces in 1973. On the Israeli side, west of the low mountains, is that narrow strip of Israel that crams about 60 percent of Israel’s population and most of its industry in an area that’s so small and narrow, it appears indefensible. That’s why, once the Israelis had pushed the Syrians back across the eastern mountains in 1973, they decided to remain. The Israelis figured it would be better to fight in the Jordan Valley — which means the West Bank — than in their own most densely-populated areas. Kinda hard to argue with. Unless you’re French.
Once you get to the northernmost point on the Golan Heights, you turn left up the mountain roads for a while to Metulla. To the right is Syria, ahead and to the left is Lebanon and Hezbollah.
Crowds were noisy, singing for their candidates at every corner. It was a party night in Metulla, just as it could be in any small town here. But there is no city in America that sits on a precipice of terror like Metulla does. The people there, and everywhere else in Israel, face a relentless terrorism and do their best to put a veneer of normalcy on their lives. Local politics is one good way to do it. But the enemies they face are relentless. And those enemies are not just theirs, but ours as well.
We got to Metulla just a few days after the twentieth anniversary of the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing in which Hezbollah killed more than 200 Americans. Hezbollah has more American blood on its hands than any terrorist organization except al-Qaeda. The sad truth is that we let Hezbollah win that one, withdrawing from Beirut in defeat. Israel, too, withdrew from Lebanon and its friends in South Lebanon, most in the Lebanese army there, were left behind. The lesson we taught Syria is a dangerous one both for us and for Israel. And it is the one we cannot afford to repeat.
In a week in Israel, in more than a dozen meetings with senior intelligence, military and political people, there was only one real fear common among them. For America to withdraw from Iraq as we did in Lebanon would leave a vacuum that Hezbollah and its ilk would fill quickly. It would be a disaster not just for Israel but for the whole Middle East. I asked a few of the senior officials which of the Democratic candidates they could be confident would stay to finish the job, each had the same response. The shrug, raised eyebrows and perplexed grin say it all. There’s no reason to think any of the Dems would do anything but turn it over to the untrustworthy U.N. and then cut and run.
By the way, Kobi Katz won the election with a 44% plurality. Good luck, Mr. Mayor, to you and all who reside in that small, exposed town.
Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and now appears frequently as a talking warhead on MSNBC.