Analysing the role of the West in Palestine, past and present

DISPATCHES FROM PALESTINE - THE RISE AND FALL OF THE OSLO PEACE PROCESS by Graham Usher. Pub: Pluto Press, London UK and Sterling VA, USA, 1999. pp: 197. Pbk: UK12.99. FATEFUL TRIANGLE : THE UNITED STATES, ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS (UPDATED EDITION) by Noam Chomsky. Pub: Pluto Press, London UK 1999. pp. 577. Pbk: UK14.99.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Rabi' al-Thani 03, 1420 1999-07-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1420)

One of the most remarkable facts about the massive pro-Israel bias at every level in the western media and establishment is that there is so much evidence to contradict the Zionists’ lies and propaganda easily available even from the west’s own reporters and other sources. Even while opinion and editorial pages in most western papers are rabidly pro-Israel, for example, the journalists on the ground - and often even the stories in the newspapers of the same papers - seem far more balanced. So often the politically-defined editorial line taken by papers defies the empirical evidence published in their own news sections.

This apparent paradox reflects two realities: first, that the true facts are so obvious that no half-credible paper can avoid them, even if it chooses to hem them in with so much spin that the truth is at least partly obscured; and secondly that most western readers are trained to be so uncritical in accepting the established line-and so used to accepting inconsistencies unquestioningly-that they fail to see the contradictions.

One question which arises is how the journalists filing the reports from the ground can accept the compromised presentation of their reports in the papers, being intelligent enough to know that the effect of the presentation of their writings is to present a distorted picture to readers. Few journalists have the freedom of Robert Fisk, perhaps the highest-profile critic of Israel in the mainstream press, who writes for the Independent of London. For others, part of the answer, at least, is that they feel free to publish more balanced works in non-mainstream papers and magazines, or in book form.

Graham Usher, a journalist for the Economist, the Middle East International, and Al-Ahram English Weekly has combined the two approaches by publishing, through the Pluto Press, a left-wing publishing house in London, a collection of his articles under the title Dispatches from Israel - The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Peace Process. Most of them, interestingly, were previously published outside the mainstream press; not a single piece previously published in the notoriously right-wing Economist finds a place in this collection.

The articles in the collection date from the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 to the end of 1998. However, they do not constitute a political history of the period, or even trace political developments during the period. Rather they are a series of snapshots of life in the West Bank and Ghazzah (where Usher is based), with various essays and interviews woven in. Their main interest is that they provide considerable empirical information on the real situation in Palestine, and often a human element behind the political developments. By and large, also, he aims to show a Palestinian perspective, perhaps to balance the Israeli angle which is invariably highlighted in the western news presentations.

Usher’s strengths are his representations of ordinary life for Palestinians under Israeli rule and under the equally oppressive rule of Yassir Arafat’s PLO. His evocation of Palestinians’ hopes, passions and fears is rare indeed for a westerner. He has also managed to convey a sense of the dilemma facing Palestinians opposed in principle to the peace-process but forced to choose between 1 percent of the cake now or none at all for the foreseeable future.

Another interesting aspect of the book is his interviews with various Israeli figures, including Shimon Peres, historian Ilan Pappe, and Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Shas party. These may have been intended to balance the presentation somewhat, but in the context of other articles they create a sense of the the situation and the enemy that the Palestinians are facing.

Less successful are his pieces on the Islamic movement. Hamas and Hizbullah both get extended essays. These are excellent on fact and detail, but by no mean sympathetic. There is also a chapter entitled ‘The Politics of Atrocity’, which unfortunately pays only lip-service to Israeli terrorism - with a passing reference to Baruch Goldstein - before discussing Hamas operations as ‘terrorism’ with little attempt to correct their usual distorted portrayal. This is perhaps inevitable; Usher is a rare westerner with genuine sympathy for the Palestinians’ plight; but that doesn’t make him the slightest bit sympathetic to Islam or the Islamic movement.

It also needs to be mentioned - and this is not a criticism - that this book focuses on detail with little reference to the wider geo-political framework in which these events are unfolding. Usher perhaps assumes that his reader has a broad knowledge of the events of the time. If one needs a chronological and contextual analysis, this is not the book to buy.

The new edition of Chomsky’s classic Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel & the Palestinians is left to the end of this review only because it is not a new book. First published in 1983, shortly after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, it is among the essential English-language works on the Palestinian issue. Having said that, this reader had not looked at it for many years until this new edition was published, so it is perhaps worth reintroducing to a new generation of readers.

Chomsky is a critic of remarkable thoroughness, clarity and powers of analysis and exposition. He has recently been criticised in Crescent for not having more constructive prescriptions to offer along with his diagnoses. But that is perhaps too much to demand from a man who is, after all, a jew.

In this book, he focuses his talents on Israel, tracing its relations with America and its treatment of Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries. His exposes of America’s blind support for Israel and Israel’s policies, particularly in Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s, is quite brilliant. The new chapters added for this edition - on the intifadah, Israel’s continued involvement in Lebanon, and the 1990s’ peace process (up to last year’s Wye Agreement) are thin. But overall, this remains a must-read on the issue.

Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999

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