In a semi-autobiographical novel, a former editor for The Washington Post and United Press International reveals the media's myopic denial of a Middle East mess they so enthusiastically helped create
The novel "The Tribalist" might have also been entitled "The Non-Apologist." At a time when President Obama is rumored to be considering presenting outlines of a future "two state" solution at the United Nations Security Council before he leaves office – despite the reality that Palestinian leadership steadfastly refuses to prepare its people for peace or in any way to embrace compromise -- the novel is as relevant today as it would have been in the 1990's, the decade in which it is set.
Written by former UPI editor Louis Marano, "The Tribalist" presents one journalist's account of his work covering the failed Oslo Peace Process, which started with a handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 and culminated in the historic meeting between Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000.
What is most striking about the book, available on Amazon.com, is its analysis of Oslo, especially the West's willingness to engage in elaborate self-deception over the course of many years in the embrace of an agreement that never came close to achieving a solid foundation.
As the late Saul Bellow once wrote, "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
The book's protagonist, Frank DiRaimo, was endearing to this reviewer for his great love for Jewish people and Israel. A hardworking, cerebral Vietnam veteran, DiRaimo is uncannily perceptive and refreshingly honest in politically incorrect ways that resonate and even startle.
One of the novel's great rewards for a Jewish reader is that this protagonist profoundly "gets" us – those of us who are proud, strong Zionists, as well as those of us who aren't. And it is those Jews who are not – who, as DiRaimo puts it, seem to live in fear and dread of being seen as having any "tribal loyalties" – that he analyzes with uncanny insight.
Reading the novel, I kept thinking of the old Yiddish expression, "A stranger comes for a while and sees a mile."
The book also offers a candid look at the inner workings of prominent news organizations. From the start, we understand DiRaimo feels the need to balance getting the story with other ethical imperatives, and this loyalty to the truth and prioritizing of ethics is in some instances frowned upon.
Discussing with an editor the Janet Cooke scandal of the early 1980's (in which Cooke, a Washington Post reporter, fabricated the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict), DiRaimo expresses moral outrage not just at the fabrication but also that editors were willing to protect the anonymity of adults who they believed were, as DiRaimo puts it, "shooting heroin into the veins of a little boy."
In response, DiRaimo's editor suggests that perhaps DiRaimo shouldn't be so quick to volunteer he would jeopardize a "juicy story like that" by calling in the cops.
DiRaimo brings a healthy skepticism to his reporting for the wire service Consolidated Press (a stand-in for the now downsized United Press International,) where the book's author, Marano, worked for five years as an editor and reporter covering (among other beats) the State Department during Madeleine Albright's tenure as Secretary.
We get a view of Israel through the eyes of a first time gentile visitor as DiRaimo travels there to cover the peace negotiations for Consolidated Press. Shortly after his arrival he speaks with an IDF soldier outside his hotel:
Frank extended his hand.
"Frank DiRaimo," he said.
"Gil Tamir. Are you a tourist?"
"Reporter. I'm here with Secretary Albright."
"Albright? Those settlers don't like her much. Did you hear the crowds demonstrating outside the hotel last night? 'Albright, go home! Albright, go home!'"
"I was out here and heard that. But then they chanted things in Hebrew I couldn't understand."
"Oh, it was something like: 'We know the Palestinians. We live with the Palestinians. They don't want peace!'"
"Are they right?"
As the novel progresses, the reader gets a front row seat in press briefings with Barak and Arafat; after a counterpart of DiRaimo's, referred to here as Morris Gordon, asks Arafat a real (as opposed to softball) question about the peace talks, Arafat tells him, "[M]aybe you will need some tutoring to become a successful journalist."
(Marano says this is based on a real incident).
DiRaimo thinks, "The veteran Associated Press correspondent, far from needing tutoring to be a successful journalist, was the only reporter present doing his job. Frank's respect for Gordon grew."
We get a front seat, too, for DiRaimo's direct interactions with prominent figures including Albright, Jesse Jackson, and Former Likud Party Communications Minister Limor Livnat.
Alongside these events, we get DiRaimo's thoughts, which include his examination of Oslo's architects' and supporters' reluctance to see the Palestinian leadership's obstructionism. The novel's style is spare and journalistic, and its pace brisk.
Pervasive throughout in the book is DiRaimo's incredulousness over the denial about Oslo that predominates not just among its architects, like diplomats and politicians, but also among the press, who scramble around competing for scoops and reporting every detail they can grab about the unfolding process, but seem blind to the big story that the emperor has no clothes, or the Palestinians – at least their leaders - don't want peace.
DiRaimo frequently references his past service in Vietnam and his "gut instinct" that Oslo is folly. But the book also contains a good amount of history and logic based argument, without being boring; perhaps that is because many of the arguments are dramatized in dialogue.
(Readers who have had heated discussions, whether at family dinners, on dates, etc., about Israel and the Mideast in general, and felt they couldn't - as a matter of principle - drop the subject, will identify).
For example, after the young soldier, Gil, invites DiRaimo to dinner with his family, DiRaimo has a disagreement with the boy's mother, Dahlia, despite being attracted to her. She insists, "We've tried everything. We can't go on like this. Israel has to have this deal."
He argues, "It's meaningless to agree to something in principle if you avoid looking at the hard stuff." He also argues that Israel is in better shape than she realizes, and need not make concessions in desperation.
DiRaimo is hard pressed to report substantive news in the waning days of Oslo, as the circumlocutions required to sustain the flagging peace process make for repetitive and airy copy, and his editor, the British-born Tobias Moore, reacts badly to his efforts to submit more analytical pieces that question Oslo's premise. His refusal to suppress his questions results in confrontations with his bosses.
The book is laden with psychological insight. In a conversation with Gordon, the veteran AP reporter, DiRaimo explores the theme of self-imposed desperation by a party that lacks faith in itself.
Gordon, one of the few Jewish reporters in the book who does not bend over backward to be excessively critical of Israel, shares with DiRaimo his opinion that Israelis' embrace of Oslo stems from a deep insecurity, specifically the desire to be accepted by the world, including Europe. At one point early in the novel, the two men discuss the psychology of Israelis' pursuit of Oslo:
"So what these insecure, love-starved Israelis hear is, 'Why can't you make peace with your neighbors? Just give them something! We don't want high oil prices because of you. We don't want to be dragged into your quarrels. We don't want bombs going off in our cafes. Your people cause trouble wherever you go… Violence begets more violence. Learn to be like us, or you'll be without a friend in the world. Even America will grow tired of you. You think you have problems now? You don't know what problems are. You'll be a pariah state worse than South Africa.' "
"That's why the Israelis imposed Oslo on themselves?"
"Pretty much. Israel emerged from the 1991 Persian Gulf War in fairly solid shape. The Palestinians had discredited themselves by siding with Saddam Hussein. Israel finally had put a lid on the riots in the West Bank. And the PLO was in Tunis."
"If I were Rabin," Frank said, "I would have asked my cabinet: 'How do we consolidate our advantage? How do we keep the bastards on the run?'"
Gordon snorted, "They could use you over there…. "
While the subject of denial can get a little repetitive, it is insightful, and the insider's look at how news agencies covered Oslo is interesting. Also, the novel presents a stimulating parallel on the theme that "self-induced desperation is the most dangerous kind" in chapters presenting background about DiRaimo's personal life, especially his romantic relationships, including a profoundly incompatible marriage, entered into at a low point in his life when, after his return from Vietnam, he sustained several years of social isolation at a large northeastern university, as well as a long-term relationship with an anti-Semitic woman.
In the character's impulsive marriage to Sandy, a highly dysfunctional, manipulative woman who uses their children to try to get her way, is the author suggesting a comparison to Israel's attempt to make a deal with a dysfunctional, manipulative Palestinian leadership that uses – and abuses - its children?
And in his long, on-and-off relationship with a Franco- and Germanophilic woman who, despite being cultured and giving, displays anti-Semitism, is Marano suggesting an analogy to Israel's overemphasis on satisfying European opinion in exchange for acceptance?
It is intriguing to speculate.
At any rate, Marano writes very well about feeling trapped in a bad marriage, and also writes perceptively about being in an up and down relationship. There is also some nice writing about Israel's settlers, so often reduced to one-dimensional stereotype in media coverage.
For instance, when DiRaimo covers the portion of the negotiations taking place in Thurmont, Maryland, he describes the opposition protesters:
The nationalists asked Frank if he wanted to speak with a "real settler." The boy, about 14, lived in the Judean hills but commuted by bus to his school in Jerusalem. What impressed Frank most was the boy's serenity. In his place, Frank would have been defiant and truculent. But the youth had the peace that comes with submission to a Higher Power.
"It's our land," the boy said softly. "G0D gave it to us."
Moved by the boy's innocence, Frank once again choked back tears. I guess that's the difference between faith and politics, he thought.
There's also discussion of Israel's treatment of its Christian allies in the South Lebanon Army, and a frame involving Dahlia Tamir, the soldier's mother who befriends DiRaimo and who works with Palestinian Arabs.
Without giving away the plot, this reviewer can say it is adequate to hold the reader's interest, though the book's real strength is DiRaimo's character and his insights - into Oslo, into Jewish identity issues, and into relationships.
If the character can be criticized for anything, there's some macho language regarding women and their various physical attributes that some female readers might find off putting.
That said, the prose is brisk and workmanlike, and "The Tribalist" will be a quick and enjoyable read, especially for political conservatives, Zionist hardliners, and those who are interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of major American newspapers, including The Washington Post, where the character DiRaimo – and the book's author – worked as a copy editor for the decade of the 1990's, as well as UPI.
If "The Tribalist" is ever made into a movie, Clint Eastwood should produce it, and Jon Voight should play DiRaimo, at least the older version of him, looking back "Titanic-style" on the costly, absurd disaster that was Oslo.