Book Reviews : A Volatile Debate on the Mideast

November 26, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Through Different Eyes: Two Leading Americans--a Jew and an Arab--Debate U.S. Policy in the Middle East by Hyman Bookbinder and James G. Abourezk (Adler & Adler/Distributed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 312 pages)

As I have done in the past when reviewing books on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I must announce that I am an American Jew with a strong commitment to Zionism. But I should point out, too, that I was nurtured in the traditions of Labor Zionism, which has always recognized the political aspirations of Arabs in Palestine. And so I came to "Through Different Eyes" with high hopes. Here, I thought to myself, is an opportunity for two men of good will to soften each other's prejudices, to defuse each other's passions, and--at the very least--to arrive at some common ground where the seeds of accommodation between Arab and Jew may be sown.

I was bitterly disappointed. "Through Different Eyes," which is styled as a formal debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, turns out to be an exercise in anger, manipulation and frightening rhetorical overkill. Ultimately, the book demonstrates that the obstacles to peace in the Middle East are so profound, the antagonisms between Arab and Jew so intractable, that we are left only with a sense of despair. Even the authors seem to acknowledge it: "Anyone who has read this far has to be dismayed," remarks David K. Shipler, the author and journalist who "moderates" a portion of the debate. "It raises questions about the purpose, the utility, of dialogue."

The premise of the book is promising enough. Hyman Bookbinder is the veteran Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee; James G. Abourezk, a former U. S. senator, is the founder and chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Each is an able advocate for his people, and each approaches the debate with a point of view that will surprise no one. Bookbinder urges that the United States maintain its traditional support for the Jewish state: "In the global struggle for human rights and democracy, it is comforting to know that my country has forged an alliance with the only fully democratic nation in the Middle East."

Abourezk, by contrast, urges that the United States cut off financial aid to Israel and force Israel to submit to multilateral negotiations that will include the PLO and the Soviet Union: "When Israel is made to realize that America will no longer support its violent adventures, then perhaps realism will replace arrogance, and Israel will begin to live within the confines of international law."

Even these fragmentary quotations, however, reveal the flaw in the debate--the two debaters find themselves in such fundamental conflict with each other that their arguments are unlikely to change the mind of anyone who already has an opinion on the subject. The two men can hardly agree on the historical record--much less the political future--of Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Above all, the two men cannot even bring themselves to acknowledge the fundamental right of each people to sovereignty in its own state. In fact, the face-to-face dialogue would be comical if it were not so heartbreaking--Bookbinder literally begs Abourezk to concede Israel's right to exist, but Abourezk manages to evade the question with lawyerly skill.

A Disheartening Stance

I was disheartened, too, by the tenor of Abourezk's remarks, which Bookbinder accurately characterizes as "Israel-bashing." Abourezk will take pleasure in knowing that his argument is likely to have considerably more impact than Bookbinder's, if only because Abourezk's rhetoric is less familiar to the American reader. (He has a point when he says, again and again and again, that the Arab cause has been articulated less fully and less effectively than the Israeli one.) And Bookbinder, who has produced an elegant, fair-minded and morally compelling essay, fails to effectively rebut Abourezk's sensational (but, I fear, misleading) litany of horror stories, ancient and modern, real and imagined, from the Balfour Declaration to the Pollard affair.

But what is accomplished by Abourezk's unrelenting attack on the Jewish state? Clearly, Abourezk is less interested in peace-making than in creating a domestic political constituency for the Arab cause. Specifically, he wants to shame, cajole, muscle or entice the U. S. government into abandoning its essential support of Israel, and leaving the tiny Jewish state to the mercies of the Soviet Union, the PLO and the vast Arab nations that have threatened its existence. "What if the Israeli lobby were prohibited from intimidating members of Congress?" he asks rhetorically. "How much richer would the American taxpayer be?"

Bookbinder prefers the moral high ground: "With the great majority of Americans, I am proud that, from the start, our country has identified with the determination of the Jewish people to build again a state of Israel on the land of their ancestors." But Abourezk insists on climbing an altogether different mountain. And if two Americans, each of whom is intimately familiar with the traditions and practical problem-solving techniques of a democracy, are able to produce only the rhetorical stalemate of "Through Different Eyes," what can we expect of Arabs and Jews who confront each other across armed borders and centuries of hatred and distrust?

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