SIR: David Twersky did well to give an independent account of Israel’s politics in the Lebanon war when reviewing Timerman’s book The Longest War (LRB, 21 April). ‘If The Longest War has one central error, it is its elastic approach to the facts,’ he writes. Twersky’s review does not suffer from this error: he states a number of the crucial facts boldly and without sentimentality. His treatment of Israeli politics is clear and incisive, in admirable contrast to the book he reviews. It is when it comes to the Palestinians, and the PLO in particular, that a sudden elastic approach emerges, not so much to the ‘facts’ as to the rhetorical rigour with which these are presented. ‘PLO artillery in southern Lebanon’ becomes the ‘PLO “mini-state" ’ in the next sentence, becomes a ‘PLO “military option" ’ in the third, only to revert to the PLO ‘mini-state’ again which Sharon set out to destroy. The detour includes the obligatory reference to ‘your child’ who ‘gets shot in a border kibbutz’. Now Twersky had just told us that ‘the onion needs peeling, however many tears we shed in the process.’ While he peels the Begin-Sharon onion fearlessly, he doesn’t begin to touch the Palestinian one, which he wraps instead in an additional layer of cling-foil. PLO artillery in the south, with a range to include border kibbutzim, is one thing: a small position of the military wing of the PLO which, moreover, we know to have kept a ceasefire for over ten months. The PLO mini-state in Lebanon is quite another thing and included, as we know, the administration of numerous refugee camps all over Lebanon, a Research Centre in Beirut, a comprehensive health service, the Red Crescent Society, giving free medical treatment to Palestinians and Lebanese in the absence of a viable Lebanese health system. A PLO military option is yet something else, located not so much on the geographical map as on the edge of international politics and diplomacy. ‘The PLO “mini-state" was not aimed at protecting Lebanon from an Israeli invasion,’ says Twersky before turning it into a ‘military option’. Quite right. It was aimed at providing a minimal ‘state’ for the stateless Palestinians, at providing the barest essentials for the dispossessed in the refugee camps and a semblance of cohesion for the dispersed. It was, above all, the non-military option.
While Twersky’s semantics are over-elastic, his viewpoint lacks flexibility. He shares this with Timerman, and with most of the discussions in the Western press: they are all essentially engaged in an intra-Jewish discourse, a dialogue with the Jewish conscience, a searching of the Israeli heart, a national or Jewish self-analysis. As such, it never quite stretches to a political analysis of the whole Middle East, an international perspective, a review of both sides of the problem. And ‘the Palestinians’ remain a counter in the Jewish/Israeli scenario. ‘Annexing the West Bank and Gaza into Israel is not a democratic act, and not only because it denies the Palestinians the right to choose their own, separate, national identity: it will alter the basic features of the Israeli polity for ever.’ The Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood is subordinated in a dependent clause: the main thrust of the argument is the Israeli polity. The viewpoint is unambiguously Israeli-interested. A danger of the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, says Twersky, is the reproduction of ‘South Africa’s equivalent fiction’, the Bantustan tribal homelands – ‘though without the odious underlying racist ideology’. Without? (And what of Begin’s ‘two-legged animals’?) Isn’t this what the South Africans themselves would say, if they were making the analysis? They don’t describe themselves as ‘racist’. They are simply in favour of Apartheid.
Once on this track, Twersky continues to slip into the old and familiar clichés: that Begin has managed to sell his West Bank policies, ‘not through the manipulation of national and religious totems, but because of a widespread feeling that the Arabs cannot be trusted to live in peace with Israel.’ How does he suppose that widespread feelings come about, and manage to persist in the face of the evidence that the Arabs can indeed be trusted not to come to the aid of invaded Lebanon, its besieged capital, or the hapless Palestinians, while indeed Israel cannot be trusted not to invade Lebanon, possibly overthrow the Hashemite kingdom, and annex territories it faithfully swore it had no intention of keeping? While Timerman with all his elastic approach does advance to the question ‘whether Israel will be able to accept the Palestinians’ rights’, Twersky continues, in line with international diplomacy, to blame ‘the Arabs’ historical inability to “mouth the essential yes" to Israel’s existence’, and to assert ‘it is an Arab peace initiative that is required.’ Despite the fact that the Reagan plan shares this perspective, it has nevertheless made it clear to the world that the Arabs indeed are considering peace initiatives, are even making their own (Fez, Saudi Arabia), while Israel rejects them out of hand, and has not yet come up with any of its own, let alone with any willingness to ‘mouth the essential yes’ to the Palestinian state. And yet Twersky maintains that ‘a more generous share of the blame needs to be given to the Arabs.’ If we are talking about the Palestinians, they certainly have had an over-generous share of destruction and persecution: do we really need to insist on the victims taking the blame as well – is it really a question of blame-sharing? Is it not the peculiar luxury of this democratic, principled, philosophical, victorious people to indulge in the self-allocation of a little bit of the blame (the Kahan inquiry!) and then a generous redistribution of it? Would the unequal power-balance not require a temporary shift of perspective to the victims, not the ‘60 per cent which survives’, but the 40 who don’t, the 12-15,000 killed, twice that number injured, and hundreds of thousands dispersed, homeless and unable even to return to the bulldozed rubble heaps of their camps? Perhaps Timerman’s ‘reflective images’, his passion and humanist naivety are less inappropriate than Twersky’s arithmetic of blame conducted firmly from the one side of the problem. Or if we want to look at the facts and figures, the human cost, the dollar cost of the ammunition, the economic cost and profit, could we allocate a double page to a review of Michael Jansen’s The Battle of Beirut, Nassib and Tisdall’s Beirut Frontline Story, or the MacBride Commission’s Report, Israel into Lebanon?
SIR: I do feel to blame for John Kerrigan’s recklessly pedantic review of Shakespeare the Director, a book written by my wife, Ann Pasternak Slater (LRB, 21 April). I’m afraid I taught Mr Kerrigan for a time at Oxford – not very well, it’s now plain to see. Had I been a more gifted teacher, I would have explained to Mr Kerrigan what most people think of as a speech, for instance. He says quite correctly that Ann Pasternak Slater believes Othello’s last speech begins ‘Soft you; a word or two … ’ and takes her to task for it. Othello does have, after this speech, a final couplet – but I really should have explained to Mr Kerrigan that most scholars wouldn’t regard this as a speech. Never mind, I make up for it now. When he writes his book on Shakespeare, he’ll know that most readers will be seriously misled if he refers to Othello’s last speech, meaning this couplet. Also, in my bungling way, I don’t seem to have lodged a clear enough distinction in Mr Kerrigan’s mind between an ‘error’ and a difference in interpretation. Or between ‘criticism’ and ‘vulgarity’. It was slipshod of me to assume that he was clever enough to work out these things for himself. Mea culpa. No wonder I now work as a publisher.
SIR: Your readers will of course judge Ann Pasternak Slater’s Shakespeare, the Director for themselves when they read it, but may I respond to John Kerrigan’s review? In the same issue of your excellent journal Graham Bradshaw calls the book ‘the best new book on Shakespeare I have read in the last year’. Last week Frank Kermode wrote glowingly of the book in the New York Review of Books. To adopt a fashionable idiom, Brighton and Hove Albion beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 in the FA Cup Semi-Final. Ann Pasternak Slater currently leads John Kerrigan by a similar margin. John Kerrigan may not proceed to Wembley.
Harvester Press, Brighton
SIR: I should like to reassure Graham Bradshaw (LRB, 21 April) that if he can provide me with one of Shakespeare’s own manuscripts of Hamlet I should be delighted to prepare both a diplomatic and a critical edition of it, and should have reasonable hopes of persuading a publisher to issue them. I should not, however, expect any actor to learn his part from either.
The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford
SIR: D.A.N. Jones does not inspire confidence in his report on the Darlington by-election (LRB, 1 April) by describing the successful candidate, Simon Hughes, as ‘candidate for the Social Democratic Party’. After all the publicity, it takes something like wilfulness to overlook the fact that Hughes is a Liberal, and that that – in the context of Bermondsey – was a factor in his success. Besides, even speaking as a Liberal who fully supports the Alliance, it’s plain the two parties are not the same.