Amnesic media forget Arafat's broken deals

March 26, 2002|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - I write as a liberal, dovish, land-for-peace American Jew to express my dismay at the coverage by the American news media - especially the more liberal media - of the past nearly 18 months of violence between the Palestinians and Israelis.

These media look at the surface of day-to-day events and consistently miss the larger context that reveals what it all signifies. The mainstream media are blind because they have no memory.

Like the protagonist of the film Memento, our news people meet the actors in this Middle East conflict every day for the first time.

Unless one holds onto the cumulative record of how things got to where they are today, one cannot remember who has broken agreements and who has kept them. So one can talk of the need for agreements without considering the implications for one of the parties upon discovering that the other side's promises are worth nothing.

And if one has no idea of which side in the conflict has shown itself ready to abide by a truce and which one has not, then one believes oneself to be "even-handed" in talking about a "cycle of violence," with its implication of moral equivalency.

Then there are the more liberal media - like National Public Radio and CNN - that are incapacitated by an unwavering conviction that in any situation it is the underdog who deserves one's sympathy and support.

With such an assumption, it is sufficient to ask which side has the F-16s and the tanks to know for whom one's heart should bleed. If one thinks it irrelevant which side is choosing the course of violence - and which indeed believes it can "win" by appearing the victim - it's enough to look at the body count to know that one should support the side that's conducting the more funerals.

Following the American media coverage of this terrible conflict is like overhearing that prototypical dysfunctional family that talks about everything but the "elephant in the room."

The elephant in the Middle East room - the indispensable piece of the picture that brings all the rest into focus - is that the Palestinians chose to engage in this intifada not in response to an Israeli hard line but in answer to the softest Israeli line that anyone had ever heard: the peace offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David.

That shocking occurrence in September 2000 was a revelation, and why the dovish position in Israeli politics disappeared virtually overnight. The Palestinians revealed they were not interested in settling the conflict by negotiation but rather had chosen violence as the means to get what they want.

The famous "peace process" on which so many - including me - had based their hopes had required little of the Palestinians, but what little they had had to give was now manifestly betrayed. For the Palestine Liberation Organization to be included in negotiations, for the Palestinian Authority to be created and given control over areas of previously occupied territory, the Palestinians had been required to renounce violence. But Yasser Arafat and his gang were back in the terror business.

The PLO had also been required to renounce its goal of the destruction of Israel, to support in principle a two-state solution. But it turned out that nothing had been done in seven years since the Oslo agreement to prepare the Palestinians to take "yes" for an answer.

And the teaching materials and media productions of the Palestinian Authority - what it put out in Arabic, for its own people, rather than in English for the rest of the world - included calls for taking over all of Palestine and maps that promised the disappearance of the Jewish state.

"Land for peace" always required the Israelis to exchange the tangible for the ineffable, real property for mere words. But now those words were revealed to be utterly hollow, uttered in bad faith.

In the face of such a revelation, what kind of "peace option" was left for the Israelis? In the face of continued attack, what constructive response is left?

Whether any current Israeli policies are wise or ideal, it is far from clear whether any other Israeli policies - consistent with the long-run preservation of the nation of Israel - would change fundamentally the present unhappy and bloody situation.

If the Palestinians now face the super hawk, Ariel Sharon, it was they who made it happen. As soon as they chose violence as their response to the offer Mr. Arafat spurned at Camp David, the election of a hard-line government in Israel was inevitable.

Making peace always was going to require that the moderate factions on each side make alliance with each other, each holding in check by whatever means necessary its own more extreme and militant wing. When Arafat & Co. helped launch this wave of violence, they made common cause with their extremists, they undercut the foundation for Israeli moderation and they condemned the region to this terrible war.

That's the elephant in the room. And even if it means that the "weaker" side is culpable, and even if it requires that we hold in our minds something that happened way back in 2000, our public discussion of this problem must never lose sight of it.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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