‘I am in Benghazi, Mr. President.’
Ah,’ he replies as though nothing were more natural than to hear me calling from Benghazi. ‘How are things progressing? How are you?’
‘I have something important to tell you. I just met the Massouds of Libya.’
‘Massoud [named for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan anti-Taliban leader who was murdered on the eve of the 9/11 terror attacks], the Libyan Massouds, the opposition to Gadhafi, I saw them founding …’
The connection is lost »
– Bernard-Henri Levy, « La guerre sans l’aimer » (« War Without Loving Her, » Editions Grasset, 2011 ).
Nine months have passed since that conversation, which may have been the moment that spurred President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet with the Libyan rebels, and opened the way to French military intervention from the other side of the Mediterranean. Bernard-Henri Levy suggests that our own conversation take place a few hundred meters from the Elysee palace, in the bar of a swanky hotel.
With his signature white shirt and black velvet jacket, plugged in as usual to his Blackberry, Levy appears to be as comfortable in Paris as in Benghazi. He shuttled quite a bit between the two continents in recent months, and notched up one of the most impressive achievements in his career as « a socially engaged intellectual »: removing a bloodthirsty dictator. The smartphone being used at this moment to conduct an ordinary conversation served, according to Levy, on March 21 to transmit precise coordinates for a bombardment – and, several months later, to receive a list of targets that had to be attacked right before the final battle for Tripoli.
The philosopher-journalist was never a pacifist, but still, he was risking a great deal when he dragged himself and his country into a war.
« First and foremost there was the physical danger. That doesn’t matter. Then the danger to your reputation, that is even more important – your name. The third danger, which is even greater, was via-a-vis the world. War is life and death. Living and dying. Do you prevent more deaths than you cause? Do you cause the world to be better or worse? That is the real risk, and I was aware of it from the first moment. This haunted me throughout the conflict, » he says.
In his new book he concedes that it is strange for an intellectual to receive « congratulations » the moment a war breaks out. Did the contact with fighters at the front, with arms dealers who sought him out, and with pilots en route to battle cause him to feel any pangs of conscience, we ask.
« When I bring the delegation from Misrata » – referring to a city outside Tripoli – « to the Elysee, I know full well that I am bringing them so they will be given offensive weapons to end this war. And they got the weapons. When, even before that, in April, I bring General Younes to Paris [Abdel Fattah Younes, commander of the rebel forces, murdered in late July], I am not bringing him on a tourist trip. I am bringing him to enable the opening of a new front. » Levy pauses for a moment and contemplates what he has just said, before adding, « to end the war. »
« These are just sentences. Reality is of course more terrible … Nevertheless I thought – and this thought was never refuted – that it was the right thing to do for the Libyan citizenry, for regional peace and for the world I will leave to my children. »
Inside the Elysee
The fascinating book he published a few weeks ago portrays the story of the conflict as the first European war of the 21st century: France and Britain leading a force fighting a member of the Arab League. Levy describes how he persuaded President Nicolas Sarkozy to embark on the adventure that cost Muammar Gadhafi his life. This is a riveting glimpse behind the scenes in today’s corridors of power – lists of weapons, the nighttime meetings at the palace, the months of dithering, Gadhafi’s attempts to save himself, and finally Tripoli’s fall and the liberation of Libya.
Because he does not officially « belong » to the Elysee, Levy allows himself to relate in minute detail his conversations with the president; in them, Sarkozy reveals his opinions of the world’s top leaders. The things he says are frequently far from flattering. The Americans? « Oddly soft. » Merkel? « Pathetic, » in her caution. Berlusconi? « Asks himself if he has a brain left. » Papandreou? « Throws too many wrenches into the works. You can’t … sabotage [the operation] when you’re not even on deck. » And the Turks? « Good thing I blocked them » (during the debate over possible entry to the European Union ). Levy even describes Sarkozy’s reaction when, on July 20, a rebel delegation that came to the Elysee offered to assassinate Gadhafi: « I do not want to turn him into a martyr, and in addition to that, I am not a murderer! »
According to Levy, the president nonetheless went on to say that, if Gadhafi were to be « killed in a confrontation, that is another matter. I think it would be a mistake, but it would not be any of my business. » The Libyan leader was executed during a « confrontation » three months later.
The president did not call you and say: Bernard, you are going too far?
« He called me up to say that he was happy the book came out, because he enjoyed reading it, and that he had absolutely nothing to say regarding the accuracy of the verbatim conversations. »
Levy, who repeats more than once that he did not and will not vote for Sarkozy, has become the intellectual most identified with the right-wing president. Does this new closeness bother him?
« I contributed to entering this war not because of my closeness to Sarkozy … We have barely spoken since he was elected in 2007. There is a president in France today who miraculously got on the same page as me very quickly. But that does not mean I am close to him. I was closer to Mitterrand, really close. To Chirac I was close at a certain point. To Sarkozy, not really. We’ve had serious disagreements, suspicions. I am less close to him than to others, and that is what makes this story so strange. With him it succeeded, whereas with the others [Mitterrand in Bosnia and Chirac in Afghanistan] it failed. »
There were some in France who saw the Libyan adventure involving the philosopher and the president as something that profited them both, and not only the Libyan people. For his part, Sarkozy was in need of an intellectual « aura. »
Naturally, Levy’s new book has also drawn fire. « Not that much, » he says, trying not to grin. The sharpest barb was hurled in the daily Le Monde (on whose board of directors he sits ), by a writer who claimed that Levy’s attempt to take credit for France’s declaration of war is baseless, because preparations for a military intervention in Libya had begun even before he telephoned Sarkozy.
« The train left the station, » as it were, just before the philosopher climbed aboard? « That is the only detail in dispute, » Levy says. His thick skin apparently permits him to ignore such criticism and bask in facts on the ground: Gadhafi is gone, France won.
One occasion on which Levy suffered a pretty resounding failure was his attempt to bring about a rapprochement between the new Libya and Jerusalem, by conveying an unofficial message to the Israeli authorities from the rebel council in Libya.
In the book he describes these events in detail. At the end of May he received a call from one of his contacts in Libya, who asked him to tell « your Israeli friends » that « Libya will not be hostile toward them. »
Levy takes off for Israel the next day and manages to complete his « assignment »: On June 2 he met Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he jointly drafted a statement saying that « the State of Israel hopes that when a new government will arise in Libya, it will advance peace and security for all peoples of the entire region. » The statement was issued after a meeting between the Israeli premier and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. In the meantime, news of the message Levy delivered from the Libyans became public, causing an uproar in the Arab world. The Libyans were forced into a vehement denial – and Levy realized he had made a mistake.
« How could I have erred like that? » he asks, before answering himself: « It was difficult for me to imagine that contact with Israel must remain confidential. I was in a state of euphoria over the feasibility of normal ties perhaps some day between Israel and another Arab country. I didn’t think it was such a problem, » he says sadly.
And beyond this highly significant episode, is Israel not right to be suspicious of the Arab Spring?
« Certainly. I too am suspicious. I have no intention of accepting, of adopting, everything this ‘spring’ brings. I maintain my critical sense. And when there is a possibility of talking to some of the key players, there is nothing preventing us from telling them what we think. I will give you an example: In the days after Abdel Jalil spoke about sharia [Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council talked about Libya adopting Islamic law], his remarks prompted a storm all over the world. I telephoned people with whom I have contact inside the council to strongly recommend that the government not include Islamists. I’m not claiming that this is what led to there not being any radical Islamists in the new government, but the reality is that there aren’t. »
Still, we ask, from an Israeli viewpoint, wasn’t the situation better off with Bashar Assad; with Hosni Mubarak, who honored the peace treaty; with Gadhafi, who financed global terrorism but was at least the devil we knew? Maybe the fast track has now opened and radical Islam will come to power in various countries?
Levy strongly protests the assumption that the Arab dictators were strategically convenient for Israel, but makes an even more fundamental point: « We have no choice. It is not the role of democracy in general and of Israel in particular to decide whether the dictator should disappear or not. It is the people that are supposed to decide that. The only choice before Israel is to hunker down in a stance of refusal – a position that would bind its fate with that of the dictators, or to express sympathy in principle for the budding signs of democracy and liberty. I, as a friend of Israel, prefer the view that says: Maybe it will end badly but we’ll extend it credit for now, we won’t shut the door on it. We won’t rule out in advance that the friends of human rights will also be able to triumph in the Arab world. »
Maybe Israel is afraid of losing its brand name « the only democracy in the Middle East »? Maybe that scares us?
« I don’t dare imagine that: Israel hanging on to the monopoly over democracy like Moliere’s miser holding onto his treasure chest. I don’t want to believe that. And if that is nonetheless the case, then it is an absurd calculation. After all, there is nothing keeping a people from overthrowing the tyrant ruler. We have no influence over it, and hence we can choose between sticking to the old order or saying welcome to the new world. To make Israel’s security dependent upon a world order that any sensible being knows is breathing its final breaths, merely in hope that it will hold on for another few months – that is suicide! » Levy bellows.
« Congratulate the people that oust the tyrant, keep your eyes open, and prepare for the best case as for the worst. And if it is the worst, say so clearly. And on that day it will be necessary to say that whoever did not shut the door in advance must regrettably acknowledge the fact that the battle for democracy has given rise, temporarily, to an undemocratic order. We’re not there yet. We’ll see. »
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the victory of the Islamists in Tunisia, sharia in Libya – are we not headed already in that direction, to the worst case of all? Don’t you see in this a sign that the war you supported was justified but the result is bad?
« I see in it a sign that these people [the Islamist movements], who were the most oppressed and the most organized, won a temporary victory. At the same time I am not convinced they will withstand the test of government and that the people won’t replace them with the same speed at which they brought them to power. »
Lieberman at the bar
Levy’s book is full of bizarre anecdotes and encounters – about Al-Qaida men in the desert, about an emissary of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi who tracks Levy down to a fancy hotel in Provence to negotiate a possible compromise, and even about a meeting with the Israeli foreign minister at the bar of the luxurious Hotel Raphael in Paris. « It was the first time I had met him, » Levy admits.
Even before that, Avigdor Lieberman’s image troubled Levy. One night last winter, with the members of the rebel Libyan leadership beside him, Levy telephoned me to ask whether the rumors that Israel’s foreign minister did not want Gadhafi to fall were true, and wondered on behalf of his Libyan friends whether there were ties between people close to Lieberman and Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam. I referred Levy to an investigative report in Haaretz by Gidi Weitz about Martin Schlaff, the Austrian businessman and friend of the Israeli foreign minister. Among other things, Weitz wrote about Schlaff’s close ties with Saif al-Islam.
In the book Levy recounts the meeting with Lieberman, this past March 26. According to Levy, it was Lieberman who asked to see him. « He matches what I thought about him – the physiognomy of a nightclub bouncer, » he writes. But « aside from that he is intelligent. That is the surprise, I find him more intelligent, more eloquent, than I had thought. »
Most of their conversation concerned Israel’s reaction to the Arab Spring. Lieberman, according to Levy’s book, declared that Israel must not abandon its allies, it must not show even the slightest weakness, and it must not come across as naive. « There is an internal logic to these arguments, » Levy concedes, even though « I think they are poor. »
Their conversation carried on into the night. Here is how Levy describes the scene in the book: « He sips one whiskey after another. As the hours pass, he looks no longer like a bouncer at the entrance to a bar, but rather as one of its stalwarts who doesn’t want to go to bed. The more he drinks, the looser his tongue gets … The truth is that this man is scared. This man who tells me that he is afraid of being thought of as afraid is in fact terrified himself. The fat face with the simple expressions, the drunken gaze, the enormous and exhausted body, the noisy exhalation – it all seems to me like a cry for help. The bar empties and the hours go by and his voice, which at the beginning of the evening sounded like a minister’s voice, no longer deceives, and it wavers a bit. I discover something I know well, thousands of years old: Israel’s dramatic fear. And vis-a-vis this fear, I am afraid, there is nothing to be done. »
Harsh words. Does Levy regret putting them into print? « The portrait can seem cruel; in my eyes it is not. My conclusion is that he represents the deep fear of Judaism in general and of Israel in particular. A stance of pessimism and utter hopelessness. The idea is that Israel is in every case the target of rivalries that cannot be eradicated, and that all that can be hoped for is to buy a little time. His position is that of one who is under siege. He is afraid, afraid. It is more than a political line: It is a metaphysical line. His position was painful for me. Israel is strong after all. My attitude to Judaism is based on the idea that you must not be a victim. That we will not be the victim anymore. That we have the possibility of being proactive. That is why every time I meet Netanyahu, I tell him these things. »
Have you lost faith in Netanyahu?
« No. He could still surprise. »
You are the only one who still believes that, I tell Levy. The only surprise that people in Israel think he is capable of would be to attack Iran. And he nods as though he has heard this before. « No one believed that Sarkozy would make the unexpected and bold decision to attack Libya. And he did it. That is the mystery of people, and politicians also have a mysterious part. I do not despair of anyone except the fascists. » And he encountered those too in Libya.
As one who insists on not concealing his Jewish identity, the fact of Levy being engaged in the field sometimes created a jarring note in a country that is accustomed to Israel-bashing that frequently spills over into overt anti-Semitism. Such was the case in Benghazi when he saw an anti-Semitic cartoon scrawled on the city walls: Gadhafi with a Star of David on his forehead.
Did this bother you a lot?
« I got them to erase it … and perhaps a few more. But on that day there was a certain office in the Benghazi municipality that understood that this was beyond the acceptable, that it is taboo, like in France. The law does not prevent people from being anti-Semitic. I gave up long ago on trying to prevent people from being anti-Semitic. You have to explain to them that in the current power ratio, such behavior is not recommended. And it was the same thing here: The people from Benghazi understood that day that it is forbidden to have anti-Semitic graffiti on the beachfront promenade … There may be in other places, I don’t know. But along the boardwalk there is no longer such graffiti. »
Threats and a bodyguard
The formal interview comes to an end, but our conversation continues as we take an evening stroll down Paris streets strung with Christmas lights. A bodyguard, simultaneously discreet and tough looking, keeps at a distance of three meters. Levy has received threats, and has good reason to think that there are people who want him dead: Gadhafi loyalists as well as Assad loyalists, for example. Does the fact that war seeps into his pampered life in Paris annoy him? « I would prefer not to go around with a bodyguard, of course, » he says. « But I’ve come to terms with it, in the hope that it will not go on for too long. »
You do know that if anyone thinks that it is easier to stay in power without Bernard-Henri Levy, they will not hesitate to hurt you?
« I have been in these situations several times in my life already. During the Bosnia war. And also three winters ago [when a Moroccan terrorist was captured in Belgium with a list of targets that was topped by Levy]. I am not a fatalist, and I have the will and the intention of living for a long time to come. »
Take note, Bashar Assad.