April's Best Books, Comics, Video Games, and Films
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THE ONLY LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTAND: FORCING COMPROMISE IN ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
Speaking alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House press conference in February, President Donald Trump said that while "the United States will encourage a peace and really, a great peace deal," it will be up to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves to figure out how to make it happen.
Nathan Thrall, a highly regarded Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, argues in a new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, that this is the kind of approach least likely to yield results. Thrall makes a persuasive case that instead of leaving the Israelis and Palestinians alone or limply warning of the peril facing Israeli democracy if a two-state solution isn't achieved, the only weapon in the US arsenal that has ever produced meaningful gains on the issue is force—diplomatic, economic, or otherwise.
The conventional wisdom among the US foreign-policy elite over the past 25 years has been the opposite, directed toward building "faith" and "trust" and avoiding the use of force at all costs.
But whether it was Menachem Begin's landmark peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 or Israel's acquiescence to allow limited Palestinian self-government during the 1993 Oslo Accords, what has consistently led to success, Thrall shows, is the willingness of outside parties (primarily the US and Arab states) to apply pressure. And the absence of force accounts for the lack of results.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter threatened to "withhold aid and downgrade [US-Israel] relations" unless Begin signed an agreement, which he later did in 1979. In 1983, Ronald Reagan blocked arms sales to Israel after it was discovered that Israel was using American weapons in its invasion of Lebanon (Israel withdrew). And in 1991, which was "the last time the United States applied pressure of this sort," Bush administration secretary of state James Baker forced right-wing Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir "to attend negotiations in Madrid by withholding a $10 billion loan guarantee that Israel needed to absorb immigration of Soviet Jews."
The negotiations in Madrid were the basis of what later became the Oslo Accords, the historic agreement that resulted in the creation of the Palestine Authority, a quasi-autonomous-government entity for Palestinians. It also, however, set forth a five-year interim period at the end of which a comprehensive peace agreement was to be reached. This never happened, as Israel's settler population in the West Bank doubled over the following decade.
Though Thrall spends many pages exploring the fragmentation of Palestinian politics, the essential drama of his book has to do with the Israelis and the Americans, who have been the most important foreign player in the conflict, and for whom Thrall saves his harshest words.
President Obama, who had remarkably close ties to the Palestinian community, is a particular disappointment. Before becoming a senator, Obama had in the past spoken admiringly of Palestinian American advocates and intellectuals like Ali Abunimah and Edward Said, and many pinned their hopes on him to be the American leader who would at long last secure a final peace agreement.
After early missteps, Obama's second-term secretary of state, John Kerry, attempted to reignite peace talks in 2013, which ultimately failed in 2014. Thrall, citing sources on diplomatic teams present for the negotiations, writes that these talks were doomed, in part, because Kerry misled both Palestinians and Israelis about what the other side had agreed to at the outset.
This final effort from the Obama administration amounted to nothing, Thrall points out, largely because the president did nothing that would have actually pressed the Israelis to accept an independent Palestine. Instead, Obama spent much of his final years in office working on a $38 billion military-aid package for Israel—the largest amount of US aid ever given to a single country. And since 1993, the number of Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank has nearly quadrupled to around 400,000, a rate of entrenchment that has intensified in the last eight years that Netanyahu has been in power. Presenting Israel with a carrot and no stick, Thrall writes, was a strategy doomed to fail from the start.
In fairness, as Thrall concedes, Congress would have never allowed Obama or Kerry to do something drastic like threaten to withhold aid to Israel; where Carter was able to condition aid to Israel on peace negotiations without inviting the wrath of a united Congress, Obama faced bipartisan opprobrium for merely declining to veto a December UN resolution condemning Israeli-settlement construction. But if a final, tenable peace agreement really had been within reach (it wasn't), Obama could have perhaps successfully fought back the pro-Israel lobby, as he had with the Iran deal.
Under President Trump, the idea of using force to end the Israeli occupation appears more distant than ever. Though recent bouts of Palestinian violence in Jerusalem (what Thrall and others call a "silent intifada") caused temporary disruptions in the administration of Israeli occupation, Thrall notes that these are "occasional bursts of violence that the greatly overpowered Palestinians are too weak to sustain." Simply put, Thrall writes, "There is no contest."—NOAH KULWIN
PRETENDING IS LYING
New York Review Comics
Pretending Is Lying, the Belgian artist Dominique Goblet's newly translated graphic novel, opens with a magic trick. The young Dominique falls, and her mother makes the holes in the knees of her tights disappear. Dominique stops bawling and stares in awe at her mother, unaware that the holes have just been flipped to the backs of her legs.
Feeling better might require playing pretend, Goblet suggests, though in this tender, messy autobiography, it's often pretending that causes the hurt in the first place. Originally published in France in 2007, Pretending Is Lying was written over the course of 12 years, as Goblet revisited and reworked episodes at the heart of her most difficult and important relationships. The focal points of Goblet's story are dissimulators: her boyfriend, Guy Marc, who badly disguises his feelings for his ex, and her father, who is in denial about his alcoholism and neglect. Both have the capacity to make Goblet's face grow longer and straighter, receding into a mask of pain.
Yet pretending seems to be the only means of truth telling Goblet trusts. She draws things that aren't there, but that might as well be physically present, like the ghost of Guy Marc's ex, who winds her body around his when summoned by a phone call or innocent question: "Are you really single?" As mood and perspective shift, bodies grow bigger, smaller, more twisted or more luscious. Time collapses as Goblet moves between episodes present and past, and there's often a kind of poetic coincidence at play. The moment Guy Marc and his ex clink glasses at a clandestine dinner date, Dominique is stricken with an ocular migraine.
In his afterword, Guy Marc Hinant, Goblet's real-life boyfriend—with whom she collaborated on this project—asks, "What does it mean to write one's own reality?" He might be asking what it means to try to capture the truth of what one has seen and felt, given the intrinsic uncertainty of the past; or what it means to write one's story in defiance of what others believe to be true; or what it means to take control of the narrative of one's life. Most likely, it is all three. In a single question, he illuminates the ambiguities at the heart of this unsparing autobiography, in which the process of refining truths about self and a shared past becomes something akin to love. —REBECCA STONER
ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
All These Sleepless Nights, a Polish film directed by Michal Marczak, seems at once like a documentary of hedonistic youth and a contemporary drama about Warsaw's vacuous and lively and bizarrely introspective party scene, a bit like an episode of Jersey Shore in which everyone is having a yearlong existential crisis. The film follows two friends, the aimless Krzysztof (the narrator) and Michal, as they wonder if they've figured everything out because they've figured nothing out. (They don't do anything.) They party in cramped apartments where it always looks like the tenants have just moved in, and they have conversations on ratty mattresses or in dirty bathrooms about how they aren't sure if they should be partying in cramped apartments where it always looks like the tenants have just moved in. There isn't much of a plot, unless you count the tension Krzysztof causes when he begins sleeping with Michal's ex, or the often humorous and self-aware asides about the nostalgia they're all creating. Mainly, there's a lot of dancing and a lot of drugs. You will finish the film and really want to smoke a cigarette, preferably indoors—though you'll also wonder if that's a good idea. —ALEX NORCIA
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD
Nintendo's Zelda games have always been consistent in design—sometimes to the point of obstinance. But Breath of the Wild, which launched alongside Switch, Nintendo's new game console, offers something fresh. You still play as Link, and you're still trying to reunite with Princess Zelda, but nearly everything else surprises. Breath offers a vast open world (à la the Grand Theft Auto series): The fantasy world of Hyrule is filled with physics-driven puzzles, mysterious legends to unravel, recipes to perfect, and, yes, a great deal of swordplay. Breath encourages exploration and experimentation in a way that few other games do, and your curiosity is almost always rewarded. But a features list will always miss something about Breath of the Wild. It isn't just swordfights and treasures. Through its score and visual design, its writing and animation, it emanates a warmth akin to the best Studio Ghibli films. It's an autumnal forest filled with ancient, rusted war machines; a wind-swept field split in two by galloping horses; lightning cracking down toward a rusted sword shoved into the top of a hill. In a year so turbulent, Breath doesn't offer empty escape; it offers tender respite. —AUSTIN WALKER
Richard Mosse's previous projects like The Enclave and Infra are some of the most instantly recognizable photographic work of recent decades—his use of expired infrared film throws a surreal, unsettlingly beautiful, pinky-purple cast over images of war and devastation in eastern Congo. His latest video work, Incoming, manages to build on both his penchant for atypical aesthetics and his powerful reappropriation of technology to lend visual impact to already hard-hitting subjects. Using a weapons-grade thermal camera capable of picking out a human being more than 18 miles away, Incoming tracks the movements of those caught up in the migrant crisis enveloping North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, as well as the conflict driving it. This book, a huge collection of stills from the film, reveals everything from the ghostly heat signatures left on rafts to fighter jets strafing targets and the miserable detritus left by those on the move. Pointing the very technology of war at those displaced by it makes for unsettling viewing. Humans rendered as heat signatures lose identity, and the very scale of this unraveling tragedy is brought to the fore—the hulking ships, heavily armed aircraft, helicopters, and sprawling camps seen in a medium that both clarifies and abstracts them. Incoming lays bare the mind-boggling scale of a challenge that affects us all. —BRUNO BAYLEY
THE LUCKY ONES
Spiegel & Grau
In her first book—presented as a novel by the American publisher and a collection of stories by the English publisher—Julianne Pachico draws a sociopolitical map of her native Colombia, outlined through 11 linked stories, each told from the perspectives of different characters—hostages, children, guerrilla fighters. Focusing on the period between 1993 and 2013, when the Colombian conflict was at its most brutal, the stories have a sense of constant menace. In "The Bird Thing," a wealthy family's live-in maid, who grew up amid poverty and mass killings, is haunted by her mother's prophetic warning: You'll think that you've gotten away, but they'll always come back. In "Honey Bunny," a young woman, who immigrated to New York when she was eight, suffers from a coke addiction that deepens her sense of displacement. In a moment of weakness, she goes through her childhood belongings and finds a jigsaw puzzle of Colombia. As she builds the mountain ranges, the southern jungle, the cities, and so on, the shape of her country comes back to her, but an entire region is missing—it's a nod to loss, being incomplete and wanting to belong somewhere, even if that somewhere is dangerous, because it's home and makes you whole again. —ESRA GÜRMEN