Traveling in Poland a few years ago, I went to Zamenhofa Street to see the monument dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The memorial is powerful — statues of oversize resistance fighters loom over you boldly — but what I remember best are my fellow visitors. A tour bus of giddy Israeli teens hung around the monument, flirting, playing grab-ass, loudly slurping Cokes. Their gray-haired Israeli guides looked on, appalled at their oblivious disrespect for one of modern Jewish history’s great sites. Although I could understand the elders‘ distress, I was thrilled by the kids’ animal spirits: Time had granted them a healthy freedom from the weight of the awful past.
Today, those blithe Israeli kids are in their mid-20s and living in some ghastly cubist echo of the Warsaw Ghetto. They‘re targeted by enemies who want to see them gone, dead, wiped out. Yet their own government has pursued obviously repressive policies in the occupied territories that have led some knee-jerk hyperbolists — most recently Nobel Prize–winning novelist Jose Saramago — to visit the Palestinian city of Ramallah and proclaim that it was being overtaken by “the spirit of Auschwitz.”
After weeks of killing, the Israeli-Palestinian “war” (as Ariel Sharon termed it last Sunday) has finally gotten so bloodthirsty that even Americans — who prefer their March Madness to take place on the basketball court — can no longer ignore it. Each time you turn on the TV, you hear about another suicide bomber, see more tanks rumbling into the West Bank. The Middle East meltdown is, of course, a boon to an all-news network such as CNN, which keeps running an ad about its coverage that boasts, “No one gets this close!” And last weekend, anyway, that was true. Not only were its cameras waved into the compound, the network even got a phone call from Yasir Arafat’s mother-in-law, who held out her telephone receiver so that the audience could hear the sound of gunfire outside the Palestinian Authority‘s offices.
Yet even as the conflict serves up lots of gripping images, the Middle East storyline poses a problem for American media, especially television: It doesn’t fit neatly into a melodramatic structure with a clearly defined David and Goliath. As despicable as he is, Arafat is not Osama, nor are the political issues so simple as deciding that the Taliban are medieval tyrants. Everything here is filigreed, nuanced; the moral equivalences would take Kant to parse them. While the Israeli deaths are chillingly vivid — suicide bombings are partly show-biz events, complete with pre-recorded videos by the “martyrs” — three times as many Palestinians are actually being killed, most of them invisibly, and that ratio is down from the earlier 5- or even 10-to-1 that was somehow considered acceptable. Then again, Israel is hardly a closed society of murderous fanatics. On Sunday, even as the bombs went off, the Tel Aviv–based paper Ha‘aretz ran a column blaming the violence on the Israeli settlements. Can you imagine the Los Angeles Times running a comparable article about al Qaeda two days after September 11?
On Easter, CNN’s Candy Crowley hosted a klatch of foreign-policy pros, including Zbigniew Brzezinski and Iran-contra crook Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane, who disagreed about whether the Bush administration was doing enough to promote “the peace process” (a term that becomes more Strangelovean with each new atrocity — even the “the” seems ironic). But everyone could agree that old warriors Arafat and Sharon are precisely the wrong men for this particular time and place. Cunning and single-minded, this pair got ahead by having all the conscience of land mines.
Of the two, Arafat is easier in front of the cameras; perhaps he has fond memories of all those Ringo Starr jokes. Despite being “All Boxed In” (as Time‘s cover has it), he seemed delighted to pose in his checkered kaffiyeh and khakis, basking in a candle’s orange glow and waxing heroic to Al Jazeera: “I hope I will be a martyr in the Holy Land.” Yeah, right. Ever since taking over the PLO in 1968, Arafat has occupied one of the highest-risk jobs on the planet — try getting life insurance with that on your resume — yet he‘s survived long enough to make more comebacks than George Foreman. If martyrdom held any allure for him, he could have achieved it long ago, and far more honorably than by getting poor, suggestible youngsters to strap explosives on their bodies to kill innocent people. But why should he become a martyr? Over and over, Arafat has made terrorism work for him.
Although he clearly orchestrates many of the attacks, his status as head of the Palestinian Authority has kept President Bush from officially dubbing him a “terrorist” — which would presumably allow Sharon to whack him. He blames the Israelis for stopping him from exercising his legitimate authority (and they currently are trying to render him toothless), but the truth is that his own feckless, corrupt administration has been one huge obstacle to a decent life for his people. As Palestinian Edward Said put it in the New Left Review, “Why don’t we admit that he can neither lead, nor plan, nor take a single step that makes any difference except to him and his Oslo cronies who have benefited materially from their people‘s misery.”
Even as Arafat plays the victim, Sharon is pursuing a PR campaign of his own. One price of being a client state is that you must curry favor with your patrons. Even addressing his own people on Sunday, he tailored his remarks to Crawford, Texas, sensibilities by linking his massive military action in part to the international war on terrorism. Continuing his full-court press later that day on 60 Minutes, he lumbered bearishly across the screen in a sober black suit, unable to hide his medicine-ball paunch and unnervingly brutal nature. Unlike Arafat’s slipperiness, Sharon‘s bluff manner suggests honesty even when he’s ducking a question (Lesley Stahl: “Do you want to rub [Arafat] out?” Sharon: “We don‘t have any intention . . .”), and he did take care to come across more gently with the dovish-seeming CBS reporter than with The New York Times’ hawkish William Safire, whose shoddy April 1 column was little more than a press release on behalf of the Israeli prime minister.
Safire forgot to mention that Sharon‘s instincts are thuggish. His career has been shot through with a penchant for aggressive force — from his complicity in the massacre at the camps at Sabra and Shatila to his ministerial push for large-scale expansion of the settlements during the 1990s — yet none of his recent power plays have made Israelis safer. Quite the contrary. Like Arafat, Sharon points to no hopeful future. Faced with Palestinian attacks, he told Stahl, there are only two choices: Do nothing and endure daily killing, or act and hope that the deaths will be reduced. What’s scary is that Sharon sees only two possibilities — acquiescence or military victory — when his country‘s survival depends on finding possibilities three, four, five . . .
The longer they talked, the more Stahl’s face receded into the dead-smile despair that invariably seizes TV big shots whenever they try to dig into the issues of Israel and Palestine. “When I talk to you, you say the right things,” CNN‘s Aaron Brown sighed a few weeks ago to a Palestinian spokesman, “and when I talk to the Israeli ambassador, he says the right things. But nobody is doing the right thing.” Why can’t you all get along?
One might ask the same of the elite print pundits, who approach the Middle East with practiced bellicosity: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Thomas J. Bray assailed Stahl‘s “moral equivalence” in merely asking Sharon if he felt nothing for dead Palestinian civilians as well as Israeli ones. MSNBC.com’s media analyst Eric Alterman recently divided pundits into “Columnists Likely To Be Reflexively Anti-Israel andor Pro-Palestinian” (both Alexander Cockburn and Pat Buchanan!) and a second, far larger (62 vs. 5) group of “Columnists and Commentators Who Can Be Counted Upon To Support Israel Reflexively and Without Qualification” (Safire, George Will, smug Bill O‘Reilly). Evidently stung to be included on this unexceptionable list, blogorrheic gadfly Andrew Sullivan promptly charged Alterman with sneaky anti-Semitism, thereby proving Alterman’s point.
Back in the real world of revenge and slaughter, which we watch on TV, the situation remains murky and profoundly bleak — “just utterly, utterly depressing,” groaned The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman, whose usual bouncy, I-Am-the-Walrus boosterism has taken on a desperate edge. Although everyone knows how the story should play out — a Palestinian nation, guarantees of Israeli sovereignty and security, a symbolic Right of Return to preserve everyone’s honor — the current chapter is fraught with death, futility and rampaging passions, a vision of the Holy Land well-expressed in the novel Damascus Gate:
“Blind champions would forever turn the wheels in endless cycles of outrage and redress, an infinite round of guilt and grief. Instead of justice, a circular darkness.”
You know events have begun to seem pretty damn hopeless when you find yourself quoting Robert Stone.