"It's terrible," a friend of mine said this week. We ran into each other outside Peets, hot beverages in hand.
"What is?" I asked.
"What Israel is doing," she said.
When you want to avoid a confrontation over Israel sometimes it's best to act like an Israeli. So I shrugged and made that annoying little clicking sound with my tongue and teeth. She waited for a longer answer, but I hadn't had my coffee. In a world where people get their news 24 hours a day, there is the expectation that other people actually want to talk about it 24 hours a day. I don't. Especially with someone whose mind is already made up.
But I felt I was disappointing her, so I offered a tidbit. The mayor's office had called me to say that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was about to place an early morning "solidarity call" to the mayor of Sderot, whose Negev development town has suffered an endless barrage of crude and often deadly rocket attacks since Israel left Gaza in Palestinian hands. Then they called back to say that in the midst of the call, the mayor's expression of support was interrupted by three more Qassam rockets slamming into Sderot.
She looked at me. "He wants to be governor," she said. "He'll do whatever he has to."
Her cynicism isn"t impossible to understand. The more chaotic the violence in Israel, the more predictable the reaction in Los Angeles.
Take the recent maelstrom in Gaza: the unceasing barrage of missiles from that godforsaken strip into Israel, the long-premeditated kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas, Israel's harsh and bloody incursion into the region it unilaterally surrendered less than a year ago.
These developments served as curtain calls for a cast of surrogate actors here, 10,000 miles away.
First came the anti-Israel protests in front of the Federal Building in Westwood and the Israeli consulate on mid-Wilshire. The protesters are Arab Americans and Israel's critics on the left. They boil their Chomsky down to placard-size slogans for the evening news: "Israel Out of Palestine," "Stop Israeli Genocide."
Across the street the hard-core pro-Israel counter-protesters gather. Clued in to the gathering via the ANSWER Web site, they use e-mail and phone trees to alert their own forces.
At some point the local news looks for man-on-the-street reactions. The camera trucks prowl Fairfax or set up in a synagogue for a rabbi's remark. Someone from the Wiesenthal Center stands up for Israel. Someone from MPAC stands up for the Palestinians. Cut to weather.
If the violence builds, there will be vigils, letter-writing campaigns, op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, angry letters in response to the op-eds, debates on local public radio stations between political opponents and, of course, dialogues over tea and baklava between those Arabs and Jews still in a civil mood.
And so it goes, as well-meaning people try to mobilize their constituencies, or gain the sympathy of a largely apathetic public, or simply try to insert themselves in a life-and-death struggle that they care about but can scarcely affect.
The effect is to make it seem that nobody's using their head, just their heart. The same actors make the same points with more current facts, and then disappear until the next wave of violence hits.
In the midst of the latest kabuki, what stood out -- what made this fight different from all other fights -- was the mayor's call.
There is no way I could argue that politics had nothing to do with the call, because the mayor is a politician. But there are a lot less risky ways to please Jewish voters than taking sides in an awful fight. The images on the nightly news are of Palestinians -- men, women and children -- bloodied or killed by Israeli attacks. Occasionally, there's a picture of a Palestinian Qassam rocket leaving a ditch behind in Israel. The controversy is raw and unsettling, yet the mayor made a call.
Another fact: the mayor already has the Jewish vote, and he shows up in shul more often than most Jews I know. All he stood to gain by making his call was angering the anti-Israel left, alienating a good many of his Arab American constituents, and leaving some Angelenos carping that an L.A. mayor's time is better spent stopping drive-bys in South Central rather than missile launches in Gaza.
But there's nothing wrong in pointing out, if only symbolically, that the TV images aren't telling the whole story.
It is true that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has launched a military reaction to the kidnapping and rocket attacks that has been unnecessarily cruel and destructive. In doing so, he has squandered the vast sums of moral capital Israel has accrued in dealing with Hamas.
But Israel's missteps don't erase the fact that Hamas, with Gaza as its own, still chose to fire rockets into Israel. With the Israelis finally out, Hamas still attacked. Olmert no doubt looked north, to southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah terrorists have followed Israel's withdrawal with more attacks and a continuous buildup of missiles, and sought a way to make it clear Israel wouldn't stand for it.
But don't take a Jewish journalist's word for it. Many Arab commentators have also, correctly, known where the blame lies. Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, writes in Lebanon's The Daily Star, that Hamas is trying to turn the Palestinian quest for statehood into a pan-Islamist movement.
"Indeed, some Hamas leaders are acting as if they might even prefer to avoid resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since the pan-Islamic movement and those states supporting its activities stand to benefit more from keeping the cause alive and the conflict going than by ending it," he writes. "What is happening is an attempt to subordinate the Palestinian cause and national movement to a broader Islamist regional program and the states exploiting this. Palestinians need to recognize that if, having freed themselves from the grip of the interests of Arab states, they allow themselves to become pawns in a regional Islamist strategy, this could well signal the end of the Palestinian national movement."
Take that into account, and tell me if you don't think the mayor made the right call.