Balancing Balance with Results

Categories: Israel

Last month, David Horovitz, editor of the liberal-leaning Jerusalem Report magazine, challenged politically notorious filmmaker Michael Moore to train his lens on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic that Horovitz claims Moore has said he does hope to address one day. “If Moore truly wants to live up to his self-declared challenge,” Horovitz continued, “he could help prompt a reassessment of the prevailing global mentality that has unthinking liberals convinced they must be both pro-Palestine and anti-Israel.” He would “not downplay the suffering of Palestinians because of roadblocks, curfews, and now the West Bank security barrier. But unlike almost every TV station’s coverage of the recent International Court of Justice ruling against the barrier and its U.N. endorsement,” Horovitz wrote, “this movie would also show the terrorism that preceded barrier construction and the other restrictions on movement, film the innocent Israeli families torn apart by the bombers, and document the bona fide effort at peacemaking that preceded the terrorism.” In short, Horovitz was pleading not for a whitewashed message of Israeli innocence and Palestinian culpability, but for what he implied was a balanced assessment of the gruesome situation that has engulfed the Middle East after four years of Intifada warfare and Israeli reprisals.

A morally fine aim, perhaps – but one that may be both empirically impossible and even strategically misguided. Impossible because Moore scoops up his box-office millions precisely from the appetites of international politics-watchers hungry for polemic rather than for disinterested analysis. We live in an “argument culture” – in the words of Deborah Tannen – that thrives more on answers than on ambiguity. Evidenced by Moore’s films being among the most successful and talked-about of all documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11 is the highest-grossing documentary of all time), in their facts audiences want a clear narrative line showing causality and culpability – the classic hallmarks of literary fiction.

But the more pressing issue is whether indeed balanced arguments for the causes and implications of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire are in fact helpful in finding a way out of the mess. While there is no doubt a significant need for even-handedness in Middle East analysis, namely in media reporting, in academic research and in teaching, a broader concern is what sort of tactic is best for progressive Zionists who seek to chip away at the barriers to a successful resolution of the conflict? Urging balance by someone like Moore is certainly understandable from an Israeli journalist who is tired of international liberals painting Israel as the villain, but it may in fact be strategically misguided because the last thing that this entrenched eye-for-an-eye conflict needs is more justification for the actors to hunker down in their blood-drenched trenches.

While there is much about the Middle East that is contentious, what most participants and observers can agree on is that the status quo must end. The mounting casualties on both sides – 2,500 Palestinians and 900 Israelis have been killed since the current Intifada began — are increasingly pointing to the need to find a solution. And while the exact form a peace settlement will ultimately take is far from being decided, most – including an increasing number of hawks – now realize that a Palestinian state alongside Israel will form the basic rules of any endgame.

In order to help bring about a change to the status quo, and leaving aside the extremes of hateful rhetoric, in choosing among polemics political activists find themselves with three options: urge a balanced view of the situation (blame each side equally and perhaps encourage each to wait for the other to reconsider); fault Israel (for engaging in overly harsh reprisal raids, for erecting the security fence, or for settlement expansion); or fault the Palestinians (for not reigning in terrorism, for not presenting a credible leadership, or for rejecting earlier peace offers).

While it is of course psychologically most comfortable to blame the other side, staving off the cognitive dissonance that might result were an Israel supporter to confront the many mistakes committed by the current Israeli government, certainly many morally and intellectually sensitive observers will be drawn to advocating a balanced view of the situation. This is what Horovitz has in mind when he urges third-party political activists to redraw the map of the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Yet, however morally laudable this aim may be, it may in fact be strategically most advantageous for those who care about a peaceful solution to the conflict and a stable and secure future for Israel to pressure Israelis to make the necessary concessions – however politically dangerous domestically – to entice the Palestinians back to the table. The plain fact is that self-declared Zionists will always have more access to the ear of the Israeli government than to that of the Palestinian Authority, and so trying to reshape Israeli policy might just be the fastest way to stem the bloodshed.

This sort of strategy would also involve a recasting of the tired and unhelpful term “pro-Israel.” It would involve posing the question: who is more “pro-Israel”? She who stands by while the nation is engulfed in conflict, or she who tries to intervene? This method would also enable Middle East-watchers to re-evaluate their stance on external politicians; the term “friend of Israel” would thus be recast to mean an individual who takes the necessary steps to help secure a bright future for the Jewish state, not one who necessarily supports every action taken by any Israeli government.

It is true that hardliner Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has jeopardized his political standing among his supporters while he struggles to amass a parliamentary majority for a controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Yet Israel ‘s friends must seek a more far-reaching approach to the conflict, including urging the government to also come to terms with the fate of the much more populous West Bank settlements and with that territory as a whole.

Whether or not the fault for the current situation lies with Israel, the future of the Middle East might lie in the hands of those with the power to bring about change, which may include finding fault where fault lies – even if not exclusively, and however uncomfortable to do while terror still reigns. But change is precisely what this tired and tragic status quo needs.                      

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