One of the many misconceptions Americans have of the Middle East is that it is a place of constant, violent change. There is plenty of violence out there, but precious little change in the timeless quality of the region's most serious and enduring conflict, the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians who claim the same homeland.
This is mostly the doing of modern journalism. Our daily front page headlines and evening news snippets inevitably convey an impression of fast-moving events, whether it's the bombing of an American aircraft bound for Athens or the latest moves of the U.S. 6th Fleet. There is seldom the time or resources -- particularly in television -- to explore in depth what lies at the heart of this changeless conflict that in the past four years has cost about 300 American lives.
Tonight at 8, WHMM (Channel 32) will make a valiant and largely successful effort to convey some of the anger, bitterness and, yes, hopelessness that permeate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will devote 2 1/2 hours to "Flashpoint: Israel and the Palestinians," a production of public television station KQED in San Francisco.
It is not a pretty or uplifting picture, but then neither was the news film of the bodies of marines being carried from their Beirut barracks in 1983. Israelis talk of the trauma of 1948, and of the massacre of Jews in the West Bank town of Hebron in 1929. The Arabs speak of their own trauma in 1948, and again in 1967, and recount tales of confiscated land and brutal repression under the Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The program is an inventive attempt by a public television station to produce an electronic version of the zesty exchange of opinion and ideas that can be found on the best of op ed pages of newspapers. It features three frankly partisan films, two told from the Israeli perspective and the third, about equal in length to the other two combined, from the Palestinian point of view.
To a large extent, the format works, thanks in part to the scrupulous work of KQED host reporter Stephen Talbot, who makes clear that the production is not a "comprehensive or definitive" treatment of the Middle East and who points out the inherent bias in each of the films.
Talbot also makes the larger point, usually lost in the daily rush to report events from the region, that at the heart of "one of the few regional conflicts which could actually provoke a nuclear war" is a dispute between two peoples "over what each considers its rightful homeland."
This format is aided by the presence of two spokesmen for the competing sides who were interviewed separately by KQED after viewing the films. One is Ehud Olmert, one of the most able and articulate young members of the right-wing Likud bloc in Israel's parliament. His counterpart is an equally articulate and engaging American-born Palestinian, Prof. Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University.
Given the subject matter and the format, the production was bound to be controversial, and it has become all the more so because of the refusal of some public television stations to carry it. These include WNET in New York, the Maryland public television network and WETA (Channel 26), the main PBS outlet in the Washington area.
It is tempting to think that these stations based their decisions on a fear of viewer (and contributor) backlash from an audience that is perhaps not accustomed to seeing some of the harder edges of religiously motivated Zionism or hearing much about the Arab side of this very complex story. At the least, the decision was dumb.
Gerald Slater, WETA's executive vice president, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But explaining the thinking at Channel 26 when the decision was made, Slater told John Carmody of The Post last month: "We don't think that the three films acquired by KQED are very good. Here at WETA, we're looking for other films on the subject, which we would like to put on the air in the future . . . One of the films is at least four or five years old," Slater continued, and "does not really speak to the current circumstances . . . "
To make that argument is to confess one's ignorance of the Middle East. Indeed, two of the films are more than five years old, but the one Slater may have had in mind, which will be the most controversial to U.S. audiences, is called "Occupied Palestine." It tells the story of the creation of Israel, and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, from the Palestinian perspective.
Introducing this film, Talbot says, "It was filmed in 1980 during an upsurge of Palestinian resistance and mass protests on the West Bank. At the moment, these large protests have declined, but the Palestinians say that the conditions which led to the protests have not changed, and the simmering resentment remains."
This spring there was another, albeit more contained outbreak of violence in the West Bank.
In the ambitious, "op ed page" format of "Flashpoint," it is less important whether all the details of alleged instances of repression and brutality related by the Palestinians are accurate than it is that the film is an accurate portrayal of the dominant political and social culture in the Israeli-occupied territories. It is in this culture that a whole generation of Palestinians has come to maturity since 1967. The conflict doesn't change, nor will it go away.
The voices that speak from these films are authentic. This is as true of the first film, called "Two Settlements: Etzion and Hebron," which conveys the deep devotion of religiously observant Jews to Eretz Israel ("The Land of Israel"), as it is to the last film, "Occupied Palestine."
You could go to Israel and the West Bank today, have gone 10 years ago and probably go 10 years in the future and hear the same things.
Of the three, "Occupied Palestine" is probably the least effective. This is in part because it takes up the latter half of a long program on a complicated subject and because it relies heavily on English subtitles as the Palestinians express themselves in their own language.
But the producers also overdo it on the individual horror stories long after they have made the point that life under military occupation is not pleasant.
The middle and most balanced film, called "Peace Conflict," is probably the best. Part of its focus is on two Israelis who serve in the same Army reserve unit: Benny Katzover, a leader of the Gush Emunim Jewish settlement movement who lives in the West Bank, and Ron Cohen, a left-wing kibbutznik who is willing to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The film unavoidably exaggerates the strength and vigor of the Israeli left, but it captures the depth of feeling among politically aware Israelis as they passionately debate their country's future. After watching it, Khalidi, the professor and spokesman for the Palestinians, says this:
"I think it is a tragedy that while you have such a debate in Israel, there is no such debate in this country. Things that are said in Israel cannot be said here, or are not said here. People in this country just have no idea of the complexity of the reality out there . . . In Israel you are not likely to hear the argument made out of ignorance. Here, the argument is made out of ignorance."
Tonight at 8, while for the umpteenth time it is showing something called "The Lions of Etosha," the management of Channel 26 will make its own small contribution to our ignorance and that tragedy. bybio Edward Walsh was The Post's correspondent in Jerusalem from 1982 to 1985.