The Peace Process Marches On... Television, at Least

By Gabriel Sanders

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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Advised by his Cabinet to strike against a country thought to have had a hand in the murder of Americans, the commander in chief grows indignant. “Are you suggesting,” he sneers, “we use the attack… as a pretext to attack another country we don’t know to be responsible?”

A John Kerry daydream? Hardly.

The speaker was none other than the president himself. Not the one up for re-election November 2, but the one who commands Wednesday night television.

Timely as ever, “The West Wing” began its sixth season this month on NBC where it left off last spring: with a literal bang. After members of a congressional fact-finding mission to Gaza fall victim to a roadside bomb, the American people are calling for retaliatory action — 82%, according to one poll. But instead of lashing out indiscriminately (in this case against Syria and Iran), President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) decides to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit at Camp David.

But here we depart from the day’s headlines a bit, for the cast of characters assembled at the presidential retreat is more Clinton-era than Bush. Though there is little doubt that the Palestinian leader, Chairman Farad (played by Makram J.

Khoury), is a stand-in for Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Eli Zahavy (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) is clearly not meant to be Ariel Sharon (too slender) or Ehud Barak (too old). Instead, Zahavy — stern and resolute, yet still open to reason — is none other than the reincarnation of Yitzhak Rabin.

With a production team that always has included White House alums, “The West Wing” has long prided itself on its verisimilitude. This remains the case with the show’s grasp of the Middle East. Only a nitpicking policy wonk could find fault here, and in places it almost seems as though the writers are showing off. When the vice president has to give a speech before a Washington Jewish group, it’s not the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as one would expect, but the more obscure (and more left-leaning) Israel Policy Forum.

The writers even handle deftly the matter of how Israel has the power to arouse tribal impulses in even the most assimilated of Jews. In one exchange Bartlet’s deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), spars with an Irish photojournalist named Colin Ayres (Jason Isaacs), who has tarred Israel as an oppressive occupying force. Lyman argues that the Israelis are “citizen-soldiers trying to keep their sisters from getting blown up on a bus,” and Ayres responds by asking him if he’s Jewish.

“Why, you antisemitic?” Lyman retorts.

The dividing line between fact and fiction has long been fluid on “The West Wing.” A few seasons back, Ron Silver played Bruno Gianelli, a Dick Morris-style “triangulator” brought in to help Bartlet win re-election. This year, Silver is supporting the real-life president. Together with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, he spoke at the Republican Convention’s “moderate night” in August. Most recently, Silver appeared in the Michael Moore-bashing documentary “FahrenHYPE 9/11,” a film narrated by none other than Dick Morris.

On “The West Wing,” Joshua Malina plays Will Bailey, a hard-charging aide with hawkish foreign policy views. “Farad doesn’t want a deal,” he said in the premiere. “Last time, Israel offered up Gaza, 96% of the West Bank, half of Jerusalem, sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and the lead role in the Temple Beth-El Purim play. Farad walked away.” Though the character he plays is not Jewish, Malina is. He keeps kosher and is an active supporter of Israel. Like Silver, he, too, is in a new film. Malina is featured in “Finding the Truth,” a video designed to prepare high school students for the anti-Israel sentiments they might encounter in college.

And yet, despite the faithfulness with which “The West Wing” generally mirrors reality, the curmudgeon can’t help but point to a few missteps. With her sharp features and uncompromising bearing, the actress playing Israeli ambassador Shira Galit (Natalija Nogulich) may look the part, but she sounds about as Israeli as Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And Rabin would more likely have given Arafat a piggyback ride through the Camp David woods than lead the assembled through a Friday night Kiddush.

Still, some observers are taking the show’s Middle Eastern storyline quite seriously. Writing in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Mark Rosenblum and Gidon D. Remba, both of Americans for Peace Now, heartily endorsed the dovish proposals of the show’s deputy national security adviser, Kate Harper (the doe-eyed Mary McCormack). Going so far as to call her proposals “The Harper Plan,” the authors suggested that “the next president should follow Bartlet’s lead.”

The show was criticized in The Palestinian Chronicle, by syndicated columnist Ray Hanania, who argued that the “plot follows almost word-for-word Israel’s official propaganda about the Palestinians. … It reinforces what Americans have been brainwashed for years by pro-Israel propaganda to accept for the past 56 years.”

And what of the question that inevitably arises whenever Jewish matters are featured in primetime: Is it good for the Jews. So far, Anti-Defamation League has not received a signle complaint. “Usually the people out there are banging down our doors,” said the ADL’s spokesperson, Myrna Shinbaum. But, she added, there’s always the next episode. “We’ll see what happens … when there is no Yankee game.”

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