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Just another rant about the Mideast

Special to The Times

The Case for Peace

How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved

Alan Dershowitz

John Wiley & Sons: 246 pp., $22.95

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ON the subject of Israel, Alan Dershowitz writes in a white heat, and what he’s defending is not always so much Israel but himself. His latest book, “The Case for Peace,” is a mishmash of quotes, screed and rant; it’s topped by a Dostoevskyan assault on Dershowitz’s detractors, a cabal -- as he sees it -- of entrenched anti-Semites. In his final obsessive pages of attack and vitriol -- which, one suspects, are the real reasons Dershowitz put together this compilation of unoriginal ideas and arguments -- he sounds like a mad Russian prophet who has been stalked beyond human patience by a rabble of doppelgangers who will not let him be.

Before reading this book, I had always had faith in a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine sharing the land, with an established border and real sovereignty for both. But reading Dershowitz defend it with intemperate, ill-considered rhetoric and poor argumentation made me begin to appreciate how others might have come to question it -- even to reject it.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the world’s most intractable problems, one that at times has seemed to threaten the security not only of the people of the Middle East but also of the wider world. The struggle dates back to artificial borders drawn in the region by European leaders after World War I and the tragic displacement of European Jews after World War II. It’s as if a little piece of those world crises has continued to fester long after much of the rest of the world has moved on.

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In this book, Dershowitz provides many old, uninteresting answers to already asked questions. The way he looks at every problem is skewed by his fierce love of Israel -- never quite stated but always in evidence -- and his almost total adherence to Israeli government policy.

Chapter 3, for example, is called “Is a Non-Contiguous Palestinian State a Barrier to Peace?” Nope, is Dershowitz’s answer to this complicated question about internal borders of a future Palestine. According to Dershowitz, the proposed Palestinian state is contiguous, or at any rate, as contiguous as he (along with the Israeli government) deems necessary for the Palestinians’ well-being.

“Is the Division of Jerusalem a Barrier to Peace?” Dershowitz asks in Chapter 5. Nope, he says. First of all, he contends, the city is not really being divided, though he acknowledges that the precise lines of what could be a future division are visible. Second, he says, Jerusalem came to be regarded as a Muslim holy city only for political reasons, when the Palestinians wanted the Israelis out of it. Dershowitz asserts that Muhammad did not ascend to heaven on his horse from Jerusalem but from Medina, citing a columnist from the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y., to bolster this religious argument rather than the dozens of Islamic specialists who’ve been debating this legend for decades. Then he dismisses a countervailing assertion that Solomon’s temple was not in Jerusalem and therefore the city is not holy to the Jews; instead of admitting the truth -- that both of these notions are not important in themselves but are ploys used by each side to gain time or to make a point in the negotiations.

This is Dershowitz’s usual trajectory: He asks a question for which he has the answer already (he is a lawyer, after all). Then he pretends to debate the issue, while undermining every possible argument for the opposing side. Then he reaches the conclusion that fits his overall thesis. Here, almost five decades of life in Palestinian refugee camps are dismissed as not much of a problem. He also contends that Arab anger and rage over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands are at bottom fueled by anti-Semitism. Indeed, according to Dershowitz, the occupation is not really an occupation, and anyway, the Arabs occupied the area first, so what’s everyone complaining about?

Dershowitz is not the only supporter of Israel and of peace who argues in this way. Many Jews in America never really examine how Palestinians might feel about certain Israeli policies, always assuming that Israel tries to be humane (even when it drops a bomb on an apartment complex to eliminate one terrorist and also kills 10 children; even though more than 500 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers since the start of the second intifada). He always assumes that Israel will be the one to set the parameters of what’s an acceptable peace. Sadly, the vicious and self-defeating suicide-bombing strategy of the masterminds of the second intifada has not changed such condescending and intemperate talk, to put it mildly.

Dershowitz doesn’t believe that Israel bears a responsibility for what has happened in the Middle East. The problem, as he sees it, has two root causes: anti-Semitism (including the anti-Semitism of American academe, all of Europe, the United Nations and most human-rights organizations) and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. (Arabs also see the problem as having two root causes: European and American imperialism in the Arab world and Jewish intransigence concerning Israel.) Thus the second half of the book -- called, with typical grammatical awkwardness, “Overcoming the Hatred Barriers to Peace” -- looks justifiably at anti-Semitic writing and teaching in the Arab world as an impediment to any real peace with Israel. Dershowitz uses this section to attack what he calls “organized hatred,” which for him also includes the Nobel Peace Prize committee, the poet Amiri Baraka, the leftist linguist Noam Chomsky and the journalist Alexander Cockburn.

Last but not least, he includes Norman Finkelstein, a controversial Holocaust “expert,” critic of Israel and friend of Chomsky’s who -- in an extensively researched book, “Beyond Chutzpah” -- accused Dershowitz of plagiarizing parts of his 2003 book, “The Case for Israel.” Dershowitz’s defense of himself (including an effort to stop publication of Finkelstein’s writing) is unconvincing: His definition of plagiarism apparently does not include sourcing as primary certain citations that were actually lifted from others’ works.

In the end, Dershowitz’s arguments here on behalf of peace negotiations and possible solutions to the continuing crisis are not needed. They’ve been amply propounded, without the alienating attitude, by the Israeli and Palestinian coauthors of the 2003 Geneva accords, and by others working toward peace before that. Though Dershowitz cites New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and Israeli author Amos Oz as like-minded comrades, these two are level-headed, thoughtful and serious in ways Dershowitz is not. What Dershowitz brings to the table is indignation and an absolute assurance of his correctness. The Middle East, though, is a funny place for anyone to be certain of himself. Surely Dershowitz is aware of where moral absolutism has led in the past in this troubled land.

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Amy Wilentz, a contributing editor of the Nation magazine, is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” as well as “Martyrs’ Crossing,” a novel. She is now at work on a book on California in the age of Arnold Schwarzenegger.


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