He still remembers the chocolates. As a former Jerusalem bureau chief, Dan Klaidman, who is now the magazine's managing editor, is particularly well qualified to write this week's cover on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Gaza and what we can expect from President Obama on the issue as he arrives in Washington to take office. But Dan's connection to the history of Israel is visceral as well as journalistic: when he was 6 years old, he was taken to meet David Ben-Gurion.
As Dan recalls it, Ben-Gurion was in retirement at his home in Tel Aviv. "My father, a reporter for The Washington Post, was researching Ben-Gurion's obituary," Dan says. "We sat in Ben-Gurion's impressive library, lined with books in many languages. (Ben-Gurion was a gifted linguist.) To me, he was a grandfatherly figure, with that distinctive halo of unkempt white hair. I remember sitting on his lap as he fed me and my sister chocolates—and I remember his apparent irritation with one line of my dad's questioning. (He waved Dad off when he asked about the Lavon affair, a bungled Israeli intelligence operation in Egypt that was an embarrassment to Ben-Gurion's government.) A passionate Zionist to the end, he was more interested in asking my mother why her children didn't speak Hebrew and why the family hadn't moved to Israel."
It is not surprising that a new Mideast war—or at least a new iteration of an old one—broke out as a new American president prepared to take office. Counting Harry Truman, who recognized the Jewish state 60 years ago, Obama is the 12th successive president to face turmoil and bloodshed in the region. Money and religion tend to drive human behavior more than any other factors—with the possible exception of love—which is why the Middle East, with its oil and its central role in the story of the people who trace their origins to the God of Abraham, remains a perennial question.
In a dispatch from Iraq, the site of another perennial story, Larry Kaplow reports on what is being called "Iraqi good enough" there. "America's expectations have plunged," Larry writes. "Officials on the ground now envision an Iraq roughly like other nondemocratic states in the Middle East. The government will no doubt be repressive—not as bad as when Saddam Hussein was in charge, but even now Iraq's jails hold thousands of prisoners who have been held for months without hearing the charges against them. Corruption is rampant, in part because the state isn't strong enough to haul the biggest wrongdoers into court without touching off a rebellion … If Iraq can defend its own borders, keep the oil flowing and not provide a refuge for international terrorists, that's what now counts as an acceptable outcome." Talking privately with Larry about "Iraqi good enough," one senior American adviser (he could not have spoken so bluntly, Larry notes, if identified by name) frankly defined the phrase: it is, the official said, "another way of saying 'we're out of here'."
Larry is probably the American reporter with the longest continuous presence in Iraq. (He was with Cox Newspapers before joining us in 2007.) "It's not a title I covet since it usually leads to questions about my mental health," Larry notes. "Sometimes I feel like you have to scratch and claw for hours or days, personally, through translators and sources, just to yield one truthful statement in print."
What keeps him going? "For a large country like the United States, it takes hundreds of news stories before the truth about something as big as this war really gets across. That's one of the things that motivates me to keep writing from here. This war has gone through a head-spinning array of distinct, unpredicted phases—invasion, liberation, chaos, occupation, insurgency, elections, Zarqawi's terror, anarchic sectarian mayhem and, recently, the surge. Just when we think a status quo is forming, we enter another phase." From Gaza to Baghdad, these phases will soon be Barack Obama's responsibility.