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 Moderated by David K. Shipler Adler & Adler. 312 pp. 18.95
IT WAS a fine idea in theory: Two eminent U.S. advocates, one with Israeli and the other with Arab sympathies, would debate the Middle East conflict on paper and then face to face.
In practice, it was a disaster. Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee and former senator James Abourezk, founder and president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, found themselves miles apart. Like parallel lines they meet only at infinity, if there, but certainly at no earthly point. On the whole they could not even agree on how to disagree.
Bookbinder starts with an advantage. The arguments for continued U.S. patronage and support of Israel are familiar and compelling. Bookbinder knows them inside out and frames them skillfully. In his view the Arab quarrel with Israel's legitimacy, its "right to exist," should have ended where it began, four decades ago, when the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition British Palestine. Instead, Israel was attacked by Arab armies and there began the still-controversial forced exchange of populations, upwards of a million in all, between Israel and the Arab countries. Bookbinder, noting that the hostility continues, asks repeatedly whether the toll in life, human energies and resources would not be much smaller if Israel's right to live and flourish had been conceded at the beginning, or in 1956, or in 1967 or 1973. The question all but answers itself.
Bookbinder also plays the strategic card. Israel, he argues, is a great "asset" to U.S. security interests. Even at the extraordinary price we pay in economic and military aid, it is, he insists, the best national security investment we make.
Of the two arguments, historical/ethical and strategic, the former seems considerably more persuasive. Israel's shadowy role in the Iran arms-sale fiasco, its rashness in Lebanon, the still not-fully-disclosed official interest in the Pollard spy case -- these recent events have cast more doubt on the absolute value of this "strategic" relationship. They also make it more difficult for Israel's U.S. friends to acknowledge the virtues of its position cheerfully.
Abourezk, in response, makes some valid points here and there. But even the stronger arguments are so contorted by anger and cynicism as to sound unreasonable. A striking example is his caustic condemnation of the Camp David agreements. Most Americans, regardless of parti pris, applauded the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty as an outbreak of common sense in a struggle pitifully short of it. Abourezk, however, views Camp David as a cynical sellout of Palestinian Arab interests by Anwar Sadat. He labels the aid the U.S. has subsequently sent to Egypt a "bribe," helpful only to Israel. The agreement, he says, was "a sham . . . that served the purposes of the parties participating, but did nothing for a comprehensive peace."
The complaint, though cynical, is more revealing than Abourezk intended. Camp David did serve "the purposes of each of the parties participating." So do most treaties, to some degree; and those that do not rarely survive. Was Camp David any more self-serving than are
most of the accommodations by which men historically strive to accommodate and reconcile the mixed ironies and injustices of history?
Like so much else in Abourezk's commentary, his violent execration of Camp David exalts anger at the expense of self-interest. There was, in the Camp David agreement, a small but possibly significant opening for Palestinian nationalism. It was not exploited, and becomes -- tragically -- less and less exploitable as time passes and positions harden. The fastidiousness of the Palestinians about what they regard as historic injustice may be as admirable in its way as the famous obstinacy of the Bourbon kings. It seems equally impractical in a naughty world.
AT BOTTOM, Abourezk seems to be saying that the Palestinian question is the one issue on earth where perfect historical justice (insofar as it might be discerned, and of course it is fundamentally disputed) must be realized; and not only realized but realized as a precondition of negotiation.
Had we but world enough and time, the tangled skein of injustices stretching back to the Balfour Declaration, at least, might be unraveled and debated and submitted to impartial arbitration at leisure. But there is no such luxury; and Palestine, for that matter, was never "Palestinian" in the sense of being under the acknowledged sovereignty of its Arab populations. That hardly justifies Israel's occupation policies on the West Bank or Gaza; it only suggests that no resolution of the conflict will be able to square every corner. Reading Abourezk, one is forced to conclude that his position -- and presumably that of his aggrieved constituency -- could use a touch or two of the cynicism and worldliness he so readily ascribes to Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachim Begin.
Reading Through Different Eyes is an exercise in discouragement. As usual in this tragic matter, different eyes see radically different landscapes. Abourezk speaks for those who believe real peace must begin with a squaring of historical accounts, as Palestinians view them. There are others -- Sadat was one -- who believe that the rectification of historic injustices is likelier to follow then to precede peace treaties. If Sadat and those who agree with him are wrong, most of the history we know is grossly misleading.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.