Action, Inaction


James Zogby’s Column

Appearing a short while ago on an important U.S. television news program, President Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice described the Administration’s position with regard to the performance of the Palestinian leadership as follows: 

“Arafat is somebody who. failed to lead when he had a chance.  Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, gave him a terrific opportunity to lead.  And what did they get in return?  Arafat started the second Intifada instead and rejected that offered hand of friendship.”

    This short paragraph, in its highly distilled form, is the clearest example of what has become the accepted history of the past two years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It begins with what is called “Barak’s most generous offer” at Camp David.  The tale then moves on to describe the Palestinian rejection and refusal to negotiate.  It concludes with the accusation that the Palestinians turned to violence and, so as a result, discredited themselves as a responsible peace partner.

This story has been told over and over again and is now believed here in the United States.  Like a mantra, it is repeated and has now become an accepted truth that underlies the assumptions and actions of policy-makers and commentators alike.

Because it has been so often repeated it also has come to define the public’s understanding of the conflict.  As early as one year ago we polled U.S. public opinion and found that this Israeli view of history was accepted by more than two-thirds of Americans.

That this narrative is not true is, of course, problematic.  That the policies based on such a fanciful telling of history are disastrous for the Palestinians and the entire Middle East peace process is even more troublesome.   But the simple fact is that this narrative is accepted and it presents us with enormous difficulties when we engage in discussions with officials, in televised debates or in conversations with ordinary Americans.

What is most disturbing is that this state of affairs did not have to be.  If the Palestinians and Arabs had engaged in the shaping of the public debate in the United States and contested the one-sided Israeli view of history, it might have been defeated.

Just as actions have consequences, so too does inaction.  It is a tragedy that after all of the talk of an Arab information campaign for the United States, we are where we are today.

The Israelis worked hard to get their view of history to take hold.  Not a week went by where they did not have a delegation of Israelis visiting U.S. cities telling their stories.  Their messages reinforced and were reinforced by statements from official Israeli spokespersons.   And they succeeded, in large part, uncontested.

Where significant efforts have been made to counter this official Israeli story it was not Arabs who made the effort.  Barak’s view of Camp David has been sharply critiqued in a number of important articles written by former Clinton National Security Council Near East Advisor Rob Malley.  Former Israeli government officials like Yossi Beilin (former Justice Minister) and Shlomo ben-Ami (former Foreign Minister) have also made substantial contributions to correcting the myths of the “generous offer” and the Palestinian Authority’s  rejection of negotiations.  Former Senator George Mitchell’s outstanding report on the causes and history of the Intifada also goes a long way toward debunking the myth that Arafat simply started the violence.

And in a brilliant piece in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahranot, commentator B. Michael helped lay to rest the fabrication, created by the Israeli government that the Palestinian Authority is the “architect of terror”.  Taking the book of documents the Israeli Defense Forces raided from Palestinian ministries, B. Michael did what no one else has done.  He read them all-not just the headlines on the press releases issues by the IDF, but the entire book, as it appears on the IDF website.

His conclusion:

“If you surf superficially over the full pages, it seems a well-constructed site..Excavate deeper, and you will make a fascinating discovery: The whole site is constructed as if the IDF spokesman was convinced that no one would bother to read the documents themselves, and that all would only read its learned interpretation, presumably based on the “captured documents”. Yet, if you.insist on reading the full documents, you will find a very different picture. Actually, not just different, but truly opposite. .[The IDF book is a]  transparent web of propaganda, whose sole goal is to create a false picture that the grinding of the PA was security necessity, not just a political whim.”

To be fair, my criticism should not only be about Palestinian inaction because of the fact that Palestine is an Arab concern and many Arab states and entities have failed to take action on their oft-promised information campaigns.  I am also concerned because it is not only the Palestinians who are victims of a sustained campaign of disinformation that is working to shape U.S. thinking, and, as a consequence, U.S. policy.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and other Arab states are also targets and they too must make sustained and comprehensive efforts to counter their detractors.

As a result of their failure to act here in the United States, we are in danger of being overwhelmed.  The overgrowth of fabrications and myths are at times choking us.

What is needed is a commitment to a sustained, long-term information campaign-not an advertising effort, not an Arab-owned TV station, not a one-time visit and not just a meeting with U.S. officials (even though they are, at times, of course, needed) because while Arabs are meeting with U.S. leaders, the well of public opinion is being poisoned by a campaign that threatens any possibility of a change in policy.  Believe it or not, Americans are now being told that Syria is a their enemy and Saudi Arabia is as well.  Egypt is being projected as untrustworthy.  Americans hear that the Palestinian Authority must be ignored and a new Palestinian leadership must be refashioned.  And that Iraq must be invaded regardless of the consequences to or opposition from surrounding Arab states.  These ideas are gaining ground in the United States.  These are dangerous political ideas, but if left unchecked and uncontested they will gain significant public support.  To counter them Arab Americans can play a part, but there is no substitute for direct Arab engagement in the changing U.S. public debate.  Now, before it is too late.

What Americans need is to meet Arabs, to speak to them, to hear their stories, have their questions answered and their views reshaped by new information.  A real effort must be made to engage to end the damage that has been the consequence of decades of inaction.


A final note.  If it is true that inaction has consequences, it is equally true that actions have consequences as well.  Even more to the point, horrible actions have horrible consequences.

In this context, I feel compelled to say (especially after I wrote “Remembering Dina”) that the horrible Hamas bombing at Hebrew University has already had horrible consequences.

In the first place it is a terrible act of murder of innocents, who were no more deserving of death than were the victims of the bombing in Gaza City or those who die daily as a result of the evil of this brutal occupation.  Killing innocents is evil and criminal period.

Revenge is no justification.  Deaths do not cancel each other out, they only add new victims to this terrible conflict and increase anger, hatred and fear.

Moreover, the killings were stupid.  Already those voices in the U.S. who were questioning Sharon’s behavior last week, have now been silenced.  Because five of the seven were Americans there are now voices being raised calling for a more aggressive U.S. role in hunting down the perpetrators.  This only threatens to aggravate the conflict.  Hamas’ explanation that they did not target Americans rings hollow, at best.  The perpetrators of that act didn’t care who was killed, any more than the Israeli Prime Minister and the pilot who dropped the one-ton bomb on Gaza City cared who they killed.

It is especially tragic that both acts of murder appear to have aborted efforts at peacemaking.  In the first instance it was the Palestinian Authority’s effort at a cease-fire that was ended by the Gaza bombing.  The Hebrew University bombing stopped Reverend Jesse Jackson’s efforts this past week.

Actions do have consequences.  More Palestinian dead, more Israelis dead, Dina Matar will be forgotten and the cycle of violence will grow to include yet another round.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.