Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Monstrous Rehabilitation

Azmi Bishara is alienated by the carnival that surrounds the demise of Ariel Sharon

The latest episode in the life of Ariel Sharon, the carnival surrounding his cerebral haemorrhage, marks a new staging post in the media's march towards totalitarianism. For the blanket coverage of the Israeli prime minister's health has given that term a new meaning as, at exhaustive length, it has endeavoured not to expose the life and acts of Sharon but instead keep them shrouded.

Israeli news channels have been keeping open studio. Journalists, politicians and a rat bag of assorted experts have been taking their turns in the seats before whatever anchormen are on duty, chatting away in the intervals between the updates from in front of the hospital. The remaining airtime is filled in with interviews with officials from abroad or else documentary flashes hastily pasted together until more professionally made ones come along. Not everyone, though, is in such a hurry. I was recently approached for an interview by a journalist who told me he was making a film to be broadcast in the event of Sharon's death. There was no great urgency about the request. Apparently he, like many others, shares the conviction that this eventually is a long way off.

In the first phase of the Israeli media's extensive coverage of Sharon's illness the experts being paraded before the cameras consisted mainly of brain surgeons and neurologists. The sudden spotlight did not catch them at their best: many were shocked to discover how quickly this newfound celebrity went to their heads. Is there a single neurologist left in Israel who has not made an appearance on television in order to comment on Sharon's deteriorating health and to offer his views on what the prime minister's physicians have done and what remains for them to do? One even brought a life-size model of the brain into the studio in order to explain to viewers what has been going on inside the prime minister's head. News networks, for their part, vied with one another to keep the man billed as Israel's top neurosurgeon in their studios for ever longer stretched. Surgeons, as we know, surpass journalists in their ability to keep going without sleep.

Soon, though, news commentators began to lash out at these physicians expounding upon their diagnoses without ever having come into contact with the patient. It was a phase that lasted two days after which the decision was made to dispense with expert opinions on Sharon's condition and to replace it with comparisons to similar haemorrhage cases. These opened with a careful "if" and concluded with an even more cautious refusal to comment on whether the comparison was valid in Sharon's case.

Then came a period of mutual recrimination between medical experts and journalists over aspersions cast by the latter on the former's competence. So frenzied was the race for any scrap of information that might keep viewers riveted to their screens that journalists descended upon the home of the parents of one of Sharon's surgeons. Maybe the son had let a word slip to his parents on the condition of his patient? But no. What we learned was that the parents hailed from Argentina and that their hometown once had a Jewish community that numbered 7,000.

Naturally politicians jumped onto the open studio merry-go-round though it was as if they had agreed to an unwritten pact to adhere to certain rules. They would not to speak ill of the stroke victim; they would not rake up any unsavory altercations with him nor broach the subject of the fate of his party or the future of Israeli politics. To do so would be to admit that he might die at any moment, or that the speakers were busily jockeying to step into his shoes while he was on life-support. So assiduously did they cling to this unofficial protocol that, try as they might, interviewers were unable to pry out any hint of the manoeuverings or haggling going on behind the scenes. Journalists, along with everyone else, eventually grew bored with the endless repetition of the standard pieties to unity in times of trouble and heartfelt hopes for the prime minister's recovery.

Then suddenly programming was by a special announcement. "Tomorrow, physicians are going to try to wake the prime minister," reported the newsreader. Soon afterwards another broadcaster appeared to announce that the patient had moved his left hand. The report is almost immediately corrected: it was, instead, the right hand that moved. After each new report and each subsequent retraction yet another medical expert is hauled in front of the cameras to elucidate. Meanwhile Sharon's sons, one of whom has been charged with corruption and receiving bribes while Sharon senior remains mysteriously in the clear, play Mozart beside their father's bed. Doctors had told them the best way to help the patient was to expose him to the sounds and smells of the things of which he was most fond. More effective, perhaps, would have been recordings of the blasts of artillery fire, the rat-a-tat-tat of bullets, the screeching of missiles, the wails of orphans and the screams of the rape victims of Sabra and Shatila.

Then came the biggest surprise of all as Israel's Channel 1 reported that Sharon's sons had passed a shawerma sandwich beneath their father's nose. Among other things Sharon is a gourmet with a famously large appetite as he has himself confessed. Initially I assumed someone in the newsrooms was attempting irony at the expense of his reputation. But no, it actually happened. In a medical first a shawerma sandwich was being used to help a patient regain consciousness.

What, I wondered, would happen if the sandwich succeeded and Sharon did recover consciousness, though with partial amnesia? Rolled out of the hospital to meet the press, would he confront reporters with his customary antagonism, thinking they had swarmed around him to question him about Sabra and Shatila and the war against Lebanon? Or perhaps his mind would take him further back to 1955, when he and Moshe Dayan undermined the Sharet plan to negotiate with Nasser by provoking tensions along the Israeli-Egyptian border, or to 1967 when he took part in the generals' uprising against Eshkol to force him into waging war. What, I wondered, would be the international reaction if Sharon started again to threaten to murder Arafat or bomb Beirut?

Political leaders around the world have expressed their concern at the deterioration in Sharon's health. Arab leaders -- as is their custom -- joined in the globalised anxiety, and outdid themselves in hand-wringing: they followed the news "with concern", sometimes "with grave concern". The expressions of commiseration have continued unabated though the longer the anticipation drags and the more it appears likely that Sharon will vegetate while his vital functions are kept going by machines then the greater the prospect this solicitude will yield to tedium. Time is no great friend of concern.

For the moment Sharon's associates have set aside their concerns to pace hospital corridors waiting for the results of this battle between life and death. But a prolonged wait leads to an uncomfortable predicament in the short life, so full of embarrassing quandaries, that is ours. You cannot wish for the waiting period to end for that is tantamount to wishing that the patient would hurry up and die. But you cannot keep your daily affairs on hold indefinitely. Perhaps this is why the people who sit around the bedside have taken it upon themselves to urge others to get back to their jobs or to their studies, so that they might themselves soon follow. The living must look after themselves, they coo soothingly. As for the near-living, that, apparently, is the job of the press and in Israel journalists are paid handsomely for monitoring every breath and every tremor of the hand in the hospital room.

In the meantime, television stations around the world interrupt their scheduled programmes regularly to cut to their reporter outside the hospital. So sparse is the news that reporters now interview one another, turning the scale of the media coverage into the story. So, asks reporter from country X of reporter from country Y, what brought you here? How is this event being covered in your country? How are people from where you come taking the news about Sharon's illness? Not far beneath the lines lurks the question as to whether people are really interested in the subject. But the media imposes its agenda on spectators. It decides what audiences want to know and people take on the role of audience as scripted for them.

One of the most bloodthirsty military adventurers and most notorious war criminals of the second half of the twentieth century has been transformed into a man of peace, just as the wolf turned into Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother after having gobbled up the elderly woman and hastily donned her clothes. However, whereas the wolf exposes its voracious teeth shortly before the hunter comes to the rescue the media is busy perfecting Sharon's new mask while physicians are working on his health. The journalists and the doctors are part of a single surgical team.

Arabs and Europeans, in their weakness, yielded to the American demand that Sharon be treated as a man of peace even as he continued killing Palestinians, building settlements and constructing the racist separating wall. As Sharon unilaterally dictated Israel's conditions, unilaterally set the pace of political activity and made it abundantly clear that his purpose in doing so was to avoid having to implement the Roadmap the Arabs kept insisting that he was implementing the Roadmap and that he had changed. And when, in exchange for unilaterally disengaging from Gaza Sharon received an American pledge to support the Israeli view concerning everything pertaining to a permanent settlement, the Arabs glossed this by saying they, in turn, had received a general commitment from Washington that everything would be settled by negotiations rather than by an exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon, as though the latter could be simply shrugged off.

Every politician clinging to America's coat tails as far as affairs in the Middle East are concerned has hastened to link the fate of the peace process with the state of Sharon's health. Try as you might to explain to these people that there is no peace process because Sharon has buried it and they continue to insist that it is still there and somehow linked to Sharon's health. In short, your opinion counts for nothing. The only option is to believe that Sharon has changed and become a man of peace -- or a kindly grandmother -- and join the crowds who are waiting in silence by his bedside.

Above all you are not allowed to spoil the party. There can be no mention of Sabra and Shatila, Nahalin or Qabya, of Rafah past and present or of the ongoing targeted assassinations. And if you insist on the view that Sharon is not a man of peace and that the Arabs have simply surrendered you will stand out like a piece of wood in the media's plastic forest.

Under ordinary circumstances waiting by the deathbed can become very tedious. In Sharon's case, though, many want the vigil to continue. Even if the international media packs its bags and leaves, Sharon in his current state of suspense will remain, for he has become the Sharon that people love and for whom they light candles. If elections are held the contestants will campaign from his bedside and votes will be cast amidst expressions of commiseration and comforting embraces "at this sad and crucial hour". Delegations from the Diaspora will arrive to affirm the unity of the Jewish people gathered around a symbol beneath whose nose a shawerma sandwich has been passed that caused involuntary spasms in his face. Here is the locus for rallying sympathy and for yet another construction of Jewish identity, this time around a general and military adventurer, a figure who stands for militarisation, for combat and mistrust of Arabs, for diplomacy by force and for Jewish nationalism but who, somehow, has managed to don a meek and harmless, even a touching, guise.