A year ago in this space I wrote a piece comparing the violence Palestinians and Israelis were inflicting on each other and finding both sides equally barbaric. Neither could claim moral superiority. I was wrong. There is no comparing Israelis and Palestinians, no "moral equivalency," as the high horsemen of sanctimony like to put it. On the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis are the occupiers, Palestinians the occupied. Israel's occupation is wrong. The Palestinian cause for independence is right. Everything else is details, obfuscation, myth-history -- the sorts of things, fictions most of them, Israel has been concocting in order to obscure the fundamental injustice at the root of a problem of its making.
Palestinians haven't done themselves any favors with their blood rhetoric and glamorization of the suicide bomber. But except for a minority of Hamas-type Islamic diehards, they no longer question Israel's right to exist. And although you wouldn't know it from the American media's monolithic take on Palestinians, only a minority supports the suicide bombings. Most know that the bombings are a spectacular failure that retards the cause and taints it with the stink of war crimes. That said, Israel has just as spectacularly used suicide bombings to strategic advantage, abetting those Israeli fictions on which occupation depends and barring progress to peace. It is now all about Palestinian terrorism and Israeli victimization. But this isn't 1967, when Israel last fought a just war and did indeed hold the moral high ground.
As Israeli novelist and critic David Grossman wrote in The New York Times last October, "The story that now reigns nearly unchallenged in the media and political discourse obliterates more than 33 years of roadblocks, thousands of prisoners, deportations, and killings of innocent people. It's as if there were never long months of closures in cities and villages, as if there had been no humiliations, no incessant harassment, no searches of houses, no bulldozing of hundreds of homes, no uprooting of vineyards and olive groves, no filling up of wells and, especially, no construction of tens of thousands of housing units in settlements and large-scale confiscation of land, in violation of international law."
Into this come President Bush and his team of cartographers with their "road map" to a Palestinian-Israeli peace. It wouldn't normally matter very much to the American public, for whom the Palestinian-Israeli problem has settled into that permanence of acceptable blight, like inner cities here or starvation in Africa. But in his bargaining for Baghdad, Bush promised that war in Iraq was justified because it would not only get Saddam and get those weapons of mass destruction, but it would also get Palestinians an independent state and Israel some peace. The plan was more astrology than logic, and Bush is still 0-for-2 in Iraq, where American troops have swiftly adopted the Kent State method of crowd control on Arab civilians. But Bush wore a really cool flight suit with a tag that said "Commander in Chief" and landed on that aircraft carrier last week to declare the war in Iraq over and something like peace in our time in the Middle East. So it must be true: The Bush matrix of speech writers, stage managers, costume and set designers decides what's real. Beyond that, the script has no room for the reality on the ground.
Nor has the road map, which draws a blind spot around the source of Palestinian anger and Israeli occupation: settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Some settlements built after 2001 would be dismantled, according to the Bush peace plan, but only in bargaining for Palestinian concessions. Acceptance of the permanent presence of most settlements is implicit, so is the gerrymandering of a new Palestinian state's borders along the lines of some of those majority-minority congressional districts in the United States -- the kind that snake along highways and curlicue around neighborhoods in a mockery of unity and sensible political boundaries. As the plan was made public last week, the Israeli army was off on another one of its brutally routine rampages through the occupied territories, killing a dozen people, among them a 2-year-old. (In 15 months between the fall of 2001 and January 2003, the death toll totals 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis.)
The "road map," in short, is drawn from that storyline Grossman summed up last October. It is based on yesterday's news and on Bush's Because-I-Say-So messianism, but not on decades of conflict or conflicting histories. The actual map that comes to mind is Saul Steinberg's famous Manhattan-centered "View of the World from 9th Avenue," with minor substitutions. Instead of Manhattan, Israel is the lordly center of the world. The Jordan River replaces the Hudson. The insignificant sliver of land that passes for New Jersey is the West Bank (settlements weren't quite an issue when Steinberg painted the map in 1976). And the rocky sands of the American beyond are identical to the rocky sands of the Arab beyond, maybe with an oil derrick or two instead of buttes.
Steinberg would have forgiven the comparison. He was all about irony. I'm not sure Bush would get it.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com
© 2003 News-Journal