Divided Arabs are losing war of words in America

Jennifer is Jewish, a member of the liberal - and brave - little Jewish community in Madison, Wisconsin. She had helped to arrange my lecture on Iraq and Kosovo. And she mentioned a young Palestinian who always sought her thoughts and those of her colleagues. Hassan was his name.

He joined us for dinner one night. It began politely enough.There was a plot, he explained, to create Israeli hegemony over the West Bank. He had read that Yassir Arafat's father had been involved in land deals in Egypt. "Do you want to know the truth?" he suddenly asked. "Arafat is a Jew. It is the Israelis who put him there." Jennifer groaned. Who could blame her?

Two days later, in Boston, I spoke at a conference on Palestinians' "Right of Return" to the homes they had in pre-Israel Palestine, enshrined - for the Palestinians - in UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Edward Said, the greatest and most courageous Arab scholar, spoke for 45 minutes. But he was ill - his leukaemia is taking dreadful hold - and the organisers hadn't bothered to put his slides in the right order. I watched Said, obviously in great pain, angrily demanding to know why his lecture illustrations could not be shown correctly, his fury tangled up with his denunciations of Jewish settlement policy.

Noam Chomsky, the Greatest American Liberal of them all, linguist, philosopher, activist, excoriator of US governments from Kennedy to Clinton - and thus of course deprived of a regular column in the American press - spoke with passion of the injustices visited upon the Palestinians, the worthlessness of the Middle East "peace process" and America's total control over the region. But many in the audience were talking to each other. When Jabour Sleiman droned on about the "Bantustan" of the West Bank, the Arabs read newspapers and pamphlets. When I told the audience I thought they were out of touch with the realities of the Middle East, that their lobby groups were self-satisfied and often lazy, there was uproar in the audience. "Don't be so sarcastic," one young man shouted at me. Arabs cannot - must not - be criticised.

A few days before setting off for the United States, I walked again through the ruins of the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut in which up to 2,000 civilians were massacred by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies in 1982. I've been there perhaps a hundred times since the slaughter. And the place never ceases to horrify me; the football-size rats that roam the garbage heaps, the mass grave used as a rubbish tip, the concrete huts containing the survivors and their memories, the stench of sewers. If I lived there, I always think, I'd go mad.

But in Boston, the conference organisers saw fit to offer drinks in the Harvard Faculty Club, a place of fine wines, oil paintings, expensive carpets and attentive waiters. And it was there that a young, highly educated Palestinian told me she had never been to Palestine because she had young children and "travelling with children is not pleasant". And she compared a journey to Palestine with a recent family expedition to Disney World. "Can you imagine," she asked me, "travelling to Palestine with children?" So much, I thought, for the Right of Return.

Lecturing about the Middle East on the American East Coast is always a bizarre experience; from the heat and danger of Lebanon to the trillion dollar economy of the world's only superpower with its lobby groups and its policy analysis institutes and its chic little dinner parties. There are no end of Wasp do-gooders, anxious to make up for their sins in power. Take the ex-State Department man who piped up at the end of a Washington talk I gave on Palestinians in Lebanon. "You shouldn't blame the State Department so much, Bob," he said. "They don't make policy. The Near East Department's job is to put a gloss on things." The audience did not gasp with astonishment. They merely asked safe questions that used the language of the State Department - about the "peace process", whether it could be put "back on track", whether US "leverage" - one of the great Middle East myths - might be applied to, of all countries, Israel. No one asked where this language - process, track, leverage - comes from. Even Said and Chomsky used it, albeit with cynicism.

The Boston Globe greeted the Said/Chomsky-led conference with an editorial that said Palestinian refugees were not refugees at all - they were "displaced". And I was asked - mercifully in vain - to talk about "Arab Regional Positions on the Palestinian Right of Return", as if Arab states had ever formulated a policy on the one issue that lies at the centre of the 3.6 million Palestinian diaspora. In Washington, just before I spoke to an audience of ex-ambassadors and liberal-left Americans, I found an anonymous letter on my seat.

It was from an Arab-American who complained bitterly about the lack of democracy in her lobby group. "The president makes all the decisions, often without even consulting the board ... the board members are too afraid or lazy to question the president's words," she wrote. "It is a weakness of character and a gross deference to those in power." It all sounded to me like a typical Arab regime - despite the US pressure group's by-laws, which are supposed to ensure democracy within the lobby.

Is it any wonder, I asked myself, that the Arabs lose the Middle East war of words?

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