It has been almost 30 years since John LeCarré's The Little Drummer Girl was published as a book and then produced as a film. It is a powerful statement about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and now, as decades of peace making seem to be coming to a dead end, it deserves to be reconsidered. In fact, missing from the reviews of the book and film written three decades ago was any really serious inquiry into what it all meant.
In the most obvious sense, it is the story of Charlie, an American actress in London and how she gets swallowed up by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When we first meet her she is an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights and a critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Yet Israel's Mossad sees something inauthentic and vulnerable about her and chooses her as a potential asset to be used in one of their operations. They set out to ensnare her in an elaborate ruse that brings her into a circle of Israeli agents posing as a production crew for a commercial being shot in Greece. They even use one of their agents to draw her into a romantic relationship. When she is inside their circle, thinking that she has a part in their commercial, and believing that she is in love, they reveal the truth. They hold her hostage while they break her down emotionally and force her to expose her true self, namely, someone who has invented a personal history and whose whole life is essentially an act. Then they tell her that they want peace and a Palestinian "homeland" as much as she says she does. If she will help them in an operation against a Palestinian bomb maker, Khalil, she will be helping to realize these idealistic objectives. In part for love and perhaps in part for peace, she agrees to be a double agent, playing the part of the former girlfriend of Khalil's younger brother Michel, who has been killed by Mossad. She poses as someone who now wants to fight for the Palestinians, but is actually helping Mossad kill Khalil. In the most gripping scene in the film, as he is killed in front of her, she is brought face to face with what she has done and who she is. Traumatized, she is admitted to an Israeli hospital. At the end, we are left to wonder if she will recover, and whether her romance with the Israeli agent will be revived.
The Palestinians in this story are portrayed as terrorists: both brothers are killing innocent civilians. In fact, Khalil is attempting to kill an Israeli peace activist and his audience in Freiburg, Germany, which seems particularly senseless. The Israelis are portrayed as being engaged in enhanced interrogations and targeted killings in order to defend themselves. Despite this, LeCarré asks us to recognize the humanity and the cause of the Palestinians and to see the cunning manipulation and questionable morality of the Israelis. Unfortunately, he does not do an adequate job of explaining the roots of the conflict. Most of the explanation is provided by Charlie's lover/handler while he is preparing her for the operation so that she will know a boilerplate Palestinian narrative about Deir Yassin and the West Bank. In particular, LeCarré does not shed much light on Palestinian refugees or Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He fails to adequately deal with the questions of how we should define terrorism, freedom fighting, resistance, self-defense and even colonialism.
But in a larger sense, what does it all mean? Perhaps Charlie should be seen as a literary metaphor for the United States of America. The narrative she tells about her own history has often (but not always) glossed over the treatment of Indians and Black Americans, for example. She says she believes in something, but she can be rather easily seduced by emotional and intellectual manipulation to embrace another belief — or at least buy into an argument that acting against her first belief will actually advance it. "You are a trusting person," the Mossad interrogator tells her, "I took advantage of you." (Or, as Netanyahu has said: "I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily.") Does this country actually believe in national self-determination? Is its rhetorical support for a Palestinian state sufficient? Is it blinded by an emotional attachment to Israel or confused by the twists and turns of Israeli strategy and tactics? Does its economic, military and diplomatic support for Israel make it possible for Israel to advance peace or does it actually facilitate Israeli control over more and more Palestinian territory? "Who do you work for Charlie?" asks Khalil, as he realizes he is about to die. "The Germans, the Zionists? Are you Jewish?" "No" she answers. "Do you believe in Israel? What are you?" he asks. "Nothing. I'm nothing. I fell in love with a man who was after me," she says in a small voice. "You believe in nothing. You have no beliefs."
Has America realized yet what it is doing? Even after the assassination of a presidential candidate in 1968, an oil embargo in 1973-74, the death of marines and embassy officials in Lebanon in 1983, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the destruction of it in 2001, has the United States started to realize the price yet? Will it be able to recover from paying a final price? Will the relationship with Israel survive? Americans who want to see a two-state solution to this conflict should ponder these questions before Israel has swallowed too much of the West Bank for a Palestinian state to be viable, and before America's Arab friends in the region completely give up on America. Notably, Henry Siegman has recently argued that Israel is committing "politicide – the violent termination of Palestinian national political existence."
There is something more to be considered. LeCarré calls Charlie "the little drummer girl," a play on the little drummer boy who came after the Magi and asked what he could give to the infant Jesus. Charlie is giving the little that she can give to Israel. The United States, a relatively young country, coming along after so many other major world powers have dealt with the Holy Land over the millennia, is giving what it can — but failing. It is also claiming a monopoly on the peace process, especially with its Security Council veto power. That should end; other powers and institutions should march in front of the United States to resolve the conflict.