Robert Baer was the CIA's top operative in the Middle East on April 18, 1983. That was the day that 63 people, six of them CIA officers, were killed in a suicide truck bombing at the American Embassy in Beirut.
It was Baer's first encounter with suicide bombings, and he has been unable to leave them alone ever since. His books on the subject, including 2002's See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, were the inspiration for the film Syriana; George Clooney's Oscar-winning "Bob Barnes" character was loosely based on Bob Baer.
In recent years, Baer has made two documentary series on the Cult of the Suicide Bomber, filming in Israel and the West Bank, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and the UK. His final film in the series is to be broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 next week.
The good news from Baer, reached this week on the phone in New York, is his expressed belief that the suicide bomber phenomenon here has "peaked" - because of Israel's intelligence successes, because of what he described as "revulsion for" and "rejection of" the strategy by the Islamic mainstream and intelligentsia, and because, he asserted, ordinary Palestinians recognized that its use was only bringing them more misery, notably in the shape of the security barrier.
Baer raved about the professionalism of the Israeli intelligence services and the Israeli military. "You have the best and the brightest going there," he said. "That will never happen in the West."
He interviewed ex-Shin Bet chief (now Internal Security Minister) Avi Dichter, who tells him on camera that the barrier has frustrated would-be bombers and forced them to use more elaborate planning. "In intelligence there is a saying that one plus one is not two. It's 11," Dichter says. "Because once you've shared your secret with your best friend, he has another best friend, who has another best friendâ€¦" And somewhere along that chain is a weak link that the Shin Bet can intercept. And "if you cannot detain them, you target them down."
The not quite so good news is that Baer, in the film, is markedly less optimistic about the demise of suicide bombing worldwide, concluding that it will only be defeated when moderation prevails in Islam. It is "a struggle of faith," he says. "And only when that war has been won within the Islamic world itself will this cult of death, the cult of the suicide bomber, be extinguished."
And the really bad news, albeit entirely familiar, is that suicide bombing is only one tool in the arsenal Iran is employing in a determined battle for superpower status - for a dominant voice "in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Lebanon and beyond" - a battle in which Iran is wielding all forms of terrorism, along with more conventional military planning and the drive to a nuclear capability. He argues that the West dangerously underestimates Iran's military capabilities - the potency of Hizbullah, of the 200,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), of terror networks that are deeply embedded in Europe, Asia, the Americas.
(In interviews on Iranian television in the last two weeks, General Muhammad-Ali Jaafari, the newly appointed commander of the IRGC, gave a chillingly boastful assessment of his force's capabilities: "We have fully studied and identified all the enemy's weaknesses, and today we can easily take action on the basis of these weaknesses," Jaafari said, according to a transcript by the Middle East Media Research Institute. "The enemy should not think that we will repeat the mistakes of the Saddam regime. Our army is not a classical army, and we will not employ classical warfare in fighting the enemy. We will employ asymmetric warfare, and methods that can completely neutralize the enemy's material capabilities in all spheres - the enemy's air superiority or any other aspect. Today, this kind of experience is at the disposal of our military frameworks, and especially the IRGC. This is especially true with regard to the experience that was gained last year during the 33-day Israeli-Lebanese war."
Jaafari added that "Countries in the region that collaborate with the enemies of Islamic Iran, or the enemies of the Islamic countries, should be aware of the fact that if a war breaks out, parts of their territories in which the enemy is stationed, and from which it launches its attacks against Iran, will be subject to our retaliation.")
Baer dismisses President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "a clown" with "virtually no power." But he warns that the man who does hold the reins, Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, "is the one to worry about. He wants to restore the Persian empire."
So how should the West grapple with all that? "I'm an ex-CIA officer. I don't do solutions," Baer says first. But he allows himself to be drawn, nonetheless. "What you don't do is carry out a limited attack on the IRGC camps," he advises, dismissing some of the current Washington buzz. "That'll just stir them up, and you'll see the results across the Gulf, in Lebanon and further afield."
Rather, he says, "Iran has to be faced up toâ€¦ They wanted to be treated like a superpower: Superpowers have nuclear weapons. They want nuclear weapons. They want to be taken seriously. They want to be treated as an equal [by the US]."
Wearily, Baer concludes the train of thought: "So either you treat them as an equal [with all the regional and global consequences] or you show them that they're not. And that means war."
Jerusalem on foot
Finally, on Succot, enlightenment dawned. The road planners of Jerusalem are taking the notion of "the three foot festivals" literally - they are bent on returning us all to the days when the Children of Israel made their way through the city under their own steam.
Why else, road after restricted road, would these canny planners have gradually reduced the capital of the reborn Jewish state to the country's most vehicular-resistant metropolis?
For public consumption, they talk grandly about an ultra-modern light rail system that will imminently whisk us from one side to the other of a vibrant, fast-moving, traffic light unto the nations. But that can't be true: After all, years of massive roadwork disruption at the city entrance and various neighborhood tentacles has yet to yield the faintest rumble of a train. What it has done is so strangled the various access routes to the center as to render the capital downright inaccessible - unless you're walking.
Think I'm exaggerating? Then try getting from Pisgat Ze'ev to town on a weekday morning, or out of Talpiot, or along the toothpaste-tubed new incarnation of Keren Hayesod. Or try watching the death-defying antics to which the planners have condemned motorists at Kikar Tsarfat, where Jerusalem boasts a unique traffic flow system that requires cars in the middle lane of Keren Hayesod to turn left into Rehov Ben-Maimon, while taxis in the left-hand lane must go straight ahead. Similar ridiculousness applies to the traffic moving in the opposite direction, with predictably horrifying results.
Inconvenience aside, the decision to essentially block the city to private traffic years before the compensatory public transport facilities are in place, rather than getting the train and buses rolling and then excluding the cars, is spelling the veritable demise of downtown Jerusalem as a commercial hub. Ask any city-center shopkeeper.
"With the best will in the world, people can't get to my store," wailed the owner of Balance, a second-hand music shop on Rehov Shatz, last week, with good reason. Shatz is a tranquil side street off King George; it has been expertly paved over into a pedestrian walkway, and boasts cafes and a range of stores, but you can't get near it in a car. And you couldn't find anywhere to stop if you did. The same applies to Rehov Hillel, once a vital two-way traffic artery, now a single lane, one-way permanent jam. Here, as throughout the center, the consequence is plain to see in the high turnover of shops that don't make it, and the increasing prevalence of empty store fronts.
Too bad, some might say. Don't be so lazy. Leave the car behind, as they make you do all over Europe, and just walk or bus it. But putting aside the problem that the current bus routes are far from adequate and that many of the distances involved are too challenging for all but the most energetic pedestrian, the fact is that, in the big traffic-free European cities, the planners provided plenty of peripheral parking before they blocked off the center streets. Not so Jerusalem, where the reverse is true - parking lots are being inexorably built over, downtown and on the outskirts.
We prayed for Jerusalem. We fought for Jerusalem. And now we've closed off Jerusalem.
There are alternatives, of course, and local residents have been quick to utilize them. Downtown's loss is the Malha mall's gain.
Doubtless, the planners would counsel patience. In a few years, they assure us, we'll have a traffic system the envy of the world.
Well, maybe. But how many businesses will have been needlessly bankrupted by then? And how depressed will the center of the city that ought to be our nation's pearl have become?
Ex-public schoolboy, jobbing journalist, cyclist, TV celebrity and (when time permits) member of Parliament Boris Johnson has been confirmed as the Conservative Party's choice to run against Labor's incumbent Ken Livingstone for mayor of London next year.
Johnson is something of an eccentric, to put it mildly. His private life is tabloid newspaper fodder. He seems to cultivate a shambolic image by maintaining a hairstyle that suggests nights spent sleeping out under hedges. And he makes regular headlines with hugely incautious utterances: He has managed to offend entire cities (branding Portsmouth as being "arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labor MPs," and publishing an article that accused Liverpool of "wallowing in victimhood" and having a "deeply unattractive psyche." As with numerous other gaffes, he later apologized profusely).
Johnson has even upset whole nations (comparing UK political party leadership contests to the purported "orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing" in Papua New Guinea. In a glorious mea culpa, he offered to add Papua New Guinea to his global apology itinerary, saying he was sure its inhabitants "lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.")
It was vintage Boris, too, at the press conference where he celebrated his selection as the Tories' would-be mayor, to be spluttering on about how it was high time for the Conservatives to return to the running of London, only to realize, mid-sentence, that he didn't have the faintest notion of how long Labor had actually been in charge. "There is a fantastic opportunity here to take back the government of London," he began confidently, "for the first time inâ€¦ (embarrassed pause) 30 years? 40? I don't know. A generation!" As the mirth from the press pack mounted, he snatched triumph from desperation: "We're all too young to remember the last time the Conservatives ran London!"
But Johnson, whom I met a couple of years ago in Israel, struck me as what he, with his Wodehousian turn of phrase, might call a thoroughly good egg. He is both sharp and endearing, was relentlessly inquisitive about life here, had added some extra trips to his crowded itinerary in order to see more of the Israeli and Palestinian daily reality for himself, and offered decent, common sense, non-ideological assessments.
The populist Livingstone is a formidable rival. In contrast to Johnson, with his unguarded tactlessness and extravagant apologies, Livingstone can be deliberately vicious and is on barely nodding terms with the word sorry. He certainly hasn't expressed regret, for instance, for having hosted a notorious Islamist cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who reportedly supports the destruction of Israel, suicide bombings and the execution of homosexuals; nor for comparing a London journalist who happened to be Jewish to a "concentration camp guard"; nor for suggesting that two (non-Iranian-born) Jewish businessmen with whom he'd fallen out, David and Simon Reuben, should "go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs."
Actually, Livingstone did say sorry for that final outburst: "I would offer a complete apology to the people of Iran to the suggestion that they may be linked in any way to the Reuben brothers," the mayor declared. "I wasn't meaning to be offensive to the people of Iran."