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Scouting the middle ground in Middle East's complex history

Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens. New York: Verso. $39.95 hard cover. $13.95 paperback. ``Blaming the Victims,'' a collection of essays grouped into four topical themes, offers a very different picture of the history, culture, and politics of the Palestinian people from that presented by those labeled Zionists.

One of the main counterarguments presented is an attempt to rebut the thesis that Israel has been Jewish ``From Time Immemorial.'' The phrase is the title of a widely promoted book by Joan Peters, who purports to show that Palestinians were interlopers and thus have no legitimate claims. Editor Edward Said and contributor Norman Finkelstein both cite the work as an example of egregious distortion of the reality of Middle East history. They are not alone. Many other scholars see the Peters volume as so limited - and biased - as to be of little value in the continuing debates over ``the historic right to the land.''

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That controversy is not the only one that tends to be seen through different eyes; nor is it the only one discussed in ``Blaming the Victims.'' A number of other issues are considered.

There are commentaries about what happened to the local populations during the 1948 war. Co-editor Christopher Hitchens and Israeli journalist Peretz Kidron dispute the view that the Palestinians were encouraged by the Arab High Command to flee their homes. Instead, they say, they were driven out by the Israeli forces.

In papers on the character and quality of United States press coverage of what goes on in the Middle East, especially relating to the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Noam Chomsky and Said claim there is an anti-Arab prejudice in reporting and in the expressions of editorial opinions. This is said to be manifested in the way situations are described and in the rhetoric itself - especially in the selective use of words like ``terrorism.''

According to Chomsky, Jewish violence against Palestinians, such as occurred in Lebanon in 1986, rarely gets reported in the American news media. When it does, he says, it is generally explained away as an unfortunate incident in a continuing struggle of a beleaguered people. However accurate Chomsky's - and the others' - claim of biased reporting, during the last several months, there has been little press reluctance to show and criticize Israeli strong-armed tactics against demonstrators in Gaza and elsewhere in the area.

In another essay, Said discusses what he sees as more sophisticated distortions promulgated by those far less inclined to simplify the complexities of Middle East politics. He focuses on the thoughtful, fascinating, and ``tragic'' (Said's word) study ``Exodus and Revolution,'' a book by Michael Walzer that draws parallels between ancient struggles and modern ones. Said contends that what Walzer calls ``the Jewish account of deliverance and the political theory of liberation'' reveals a double standard, ``one applied to outsiders, another to the members of the intellectual's own community.''

The point about Walzer's alleged ethnocentricity is important; so, too, is the view that no single group of people - or scholars - has a monopoly on it, as the authors of several of the articles in ``Blaming the Victims'' themselves clearly demonstrate.

Said and Hitchens's book ends with papers by G.W. Bowersock, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Rashid Khalidi, Said, and several others presenting an ``alternative'' view of Palestine and its ``victims of victims.'' The second and fourth pieces are especially noteworthy: The latter, based on a study commissioned by the United Nations, provides a comprehensive demographic and political profile of the Palestinians today; the former suggests that the ``politics of negation'' in which each side denies the legitimacy of the other must be replaced with the ``politics of affirmation.''

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Abu-Lughod's case is powerful. The question is whether Israeli politicians and their supporters, and the Arab leaders of surrounding states and of movements like the Palestine Liberation Organization - whose views are conspicuous by their absence in Said and Hitchens's book - will accept Abu-Lughod's fundamental premise that both people have rights and that some compromise must be reached to satisfy the needs of both Arabs and Jews in the area. This is a logical solution, but one that is unlikely to be adopted in the foreseeable future.

Despite the worldwide publicity about the revolts in the refugee camps, the growing dissent in some Israeli quarters, and the pressure of the superpowers, the lines seem to be hardening as those who continue to control the chessboard remain convinced that compromise is tantamount to treason.

Peter I. Rose, a sociologist and writer, teaches at Smith College.

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