Halutz’s callousness, it turns out, is no aberration. As Richard Ben Cramer relates in How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, his wry, resonant new book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Air Force commander didn’t lose his job over the comments. Instead, he was celebrated by many as a hero, while the killing of Shehadeh was roundly praised by Sharon as a success. And that, Cramer writes, is what puzzles him: Sure, Shehadeh had blood on his hands. But how is it that Israelis can shrug off the deaths of so many innocents? Written in Cramer’s inimitable style–chatty, pulsating with energy, peppered with italicizations, ellipses, and exclamation points–the book often reads like a late-night screed proffered by a close friend over a whiskey at the corner bar. That’s no criticism: Cramer’s fierce integrity, unburdened by political correctness, cuts through the false pieties and the deceit on both sides to get to the ugly heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Cramer grew up in Rochester, N.Y., a “ham-on-rye Jew” with only a superficial knowledge of the Middle East until he was dispatched there by The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977. He learned quickly that the catch phrase he’d been taught in Sunday school– that Israel was “a land without people for a people without land”–was false. Palestinians had a historical narrative, too, he discovered, and a viable claim to nationhood. Cramer developed friendships throughout the Arab world; he also retained an admiration for the Jewish state and affection for its people. Twenty years later, with the Palestinian intifada raging across the West Bank and Gaza, with two peoples locked into a vicious cycle of suicide bombings and targeted assassinations, the perplexed writer decided to check things out for himself. “See, I thought I knew the country–but it turned out, I didn’t,” he writes. “At least I couldn’t understand how the country I knew was doing the things that I read about now.”

Cramer returned to find a country brutalized by the intifada. The Israel he knew had been fragmented into a dozen competing interest groups–ultra-orthodox, Russian migrs, Sephardic Jews, settlers–each pursuing its own agenda and united only by their hatred for the Other, the Palestinians. The heavy-handed tactics of its military–the checkpoint abuses, targeted killings, collective punishment in the name of security–were widely ignored or tolerated by a population consumed by fear. “The standards have changed,” Cramer was told by Sever Plotzker, a columnist for the respected Israel daily Yediot Ahronot. “These days, clean does not mean 100 percent clean. Thirty percent dirty is still clean.” Yet those same tactics were only provoking more hatred and rage in the occupied territories. Presiding over this process of debasement was Sharon, portrayed by Cramer as a brute and a bully who keeps the conflict plugging along to keep himself in power and advance his agenda: permanent occupation of the West Bank. In the atmosphere of distortions and half-truths, of resentment and hatred stirred up by Sharon and his allies, some of his sharpest critics, Cramer finds, have now become supporters. Cramer meets an old friend, Brigadier Yitzhak Pundak, a former Gaza Strip governor who once preached coexistence with the Palestinians and who called Sharon a disgraceful officer in his memoirs. Pundak lashes out at Arafat for rejecting Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000–and says he’s voting for Sharon in the next election.

Cramer doesn’t let the Palestinians off the hook. Although he believes that Barak’s offer was by no means a good deal for them–borders of the new nation of Palestine would be torturously drawn around Jewish settlements, connected by highways and checkpoints all patrolled by Israelis–Cramer hammers Yasser Arafat for his ineffectiveness. He portrays the Palestinian leader as a pathetic figure consumed by a lust for power and perquisites who “left open the entire field of leadership to be filled by Islamic holy warriors. And the nation he was supposed to father is stillborn.” Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, a klepto-government of ruffians and thieves, routinely uses violence to enforce the party line. When the respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, for example, found that only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees were interested in exercising their Right of Return, he was set upon by Fatah thugs. In one of Cramer’s most powerful profiles, we meet a man identified only as “Kandil”–a successful businessman who is railroaded by political enemies into the Palestinian gulag, where he is tortured for months. Kandil is finally rescued from the jail in Arafat’s headquarters, or muqata, by Israeli troops. Meeting the mother of a suicide bomber in Gaza, who clings to her son’s meaningless death as a honorable sacrifice, Cramer writes: “I should have told her the same thing I would have told Sharon: that it seems to me, you can’t make a nation–not a strong or good one–based on whom you hate, or how may of them you kill.”

Is there any way out of the morass? Cramer is a bit glib when he ponders the possibility of a peace deal. “Compared to, say, Cyprus or Northern Ireland, it’s a piece of babka,” he insists. He correctly states that the cards are all on the table: two separate states, the withdrawal of Israel from its settlements, the division of Jerusalem, and shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount. He is also right that the violent status quo has served the interests of many people in high places–not least of all Sharon and Arafat. Locked in a deadly embrace, each dependent on the other for power, these two aging combatants resort to crude methods to keep themselves in the game. “Arafat…buys his loyalty with hard currency,” Cramer writes. “Sharon obtains his with a cheesy scrip of fear.” Cramer’s vital, depressing book shows how these two aging figures have debased the very societies they claim to serve.

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Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.