Home inFocus Israel: Refuge and Renaissance (Spring 2018) The News Media and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Today

The News Media and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Today

Sean Durns Spring 2018

In his 1985 book Double Vision: How The Press Distorts America’s Views of the Middle East, the American-born Israeli writer Ze’ev Chafets catalogued the ills that plagued U.S. news media coverage of the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular. Chafets, who had served as the director of Israel’s Government Press Office, noted that “the choices that have shaped the American press’s approach to the Middle East in recent years have been influenced by a complex mixture of inexperience, parochialism, radical chic, economic self-interest, U.S. government manipulation, and the strong-arm news-management techniques of the Arab world.”

More than three decades since Chafets’ book first appeared, Western media coverage of Israel has increasingly come under fire from writers, analysts and organizations that charge the Fourth Estate with an ingrained bias against the Jewish state. And indeed, there is much that the press gets wrong about Israel. In key ways, the media fails to provide readers with a full and accurate depiction of the country.

The principle problem is narrative. Like all people, journalists are not immune from having their own preconceived notions warp their analysis. As Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press reporter, noted in a Nov. 30, 2014 Atlantic Monthly article about media bias and the Middle East, ”the news tells us less about Israel than about the people writing the news.” He’s right. It also tells us a lot about how the news gets reported.

As both Chafets and Friedman have observed, Israel is the victim of an obsessive media focus. The country of eight million receives a disproportionate level of coverage thanks, in no small part, to the safety and freedom that it provides the press in an increasingly unsafe region—and world – that is filled with governments and groups who menace  – and sometimes murder – reporters. As Friedman noted in an Aug. 26, 2014 Tablet Magazine article, the AP alone had “significantly more” correspondents covering Israel than it had in “China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined,” and higher than the total number of employees in all the countries in which the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted. This fixation has a distorting effect that is complicated by a narrative that is widely embraced by many in the press.

Israel, the thinking goes, is an obstinate nation that exaggerates—and even creates—many of the threats that menace it. Israel could have peace if only it wanted to. By contrast, the Palestinian Arabs are seen as a native people oppressed by a Jewish colonial entity. Accordingly, Palestinian acts of terrorism are excused—even celebrated by some—as  “resistance.” This line of thinking—what Chafets called “radical chic” in the 1980s—is not new. But acceptance of it has grown.

This has contributed to a pronounced tendency by the press to present the Arab-Israeli conflict as a battle of narratives, as opposed to a catalogue of facts. The very idea that facts matter has been under constant assault in the conflict itself. For example, when asked if there was ever a Jewish Temple on Judaism’s most holy site, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Ahmad Tibbi, an Arab-Israeli Knesset member, balked. There are but Jewish and Arab narratives, he said, and he was only subscribing to the Arab narrative, which—unlike Muslim religious authorities in Jerusalem in the 1920s—claims no Jewish Temple had ever existed.

Western media indulges the Palestinian narrative. For example, a Nov. 30, 2016 Washington Post article about a new museum on Yasser Arafat in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) described the Palestinian leader as a “revolutionary and guerilla leader…a diplomat and peacemaker.”

The Post presented the longtime head of the Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in romantic terms; uncritically repeating the presentation of him as a “liberation” fighter turned peacemaker whose “new path earned him a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize” for signing the Oslo accords.

But Arafat never reformed. Neither he, nor the entities that he led before his 2004 death, ever changed their long-term objective: Ending the Jewish nation of Israel. He spent the months and years after Oslo’s September 1993 White House lawn signing ceremony repudiating Oslo’s terms, rejecting U.S. and Israeli offers for peace and statehood and supporting terror attacks.

Arafat remained a terrorist until his final days. And the institutions that he left behind also failed to reform. Yet, media accounts are insistent on portraying Palestinian leaders and organizations as something that they are not. The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today and others, routinely describe the PLO, Fatah, the PA and their hierarchy as “moderate” or “peace partners.” Yet, these entities support and praise terrorist attacks.

The desire to fashion Western-style political moderates out of anti-Semitic autocrats is so pronounced that even after PA President Mahmoud Abbas exhorted on August 24, 2017 that he would “continue to pay” terrorists killed, wounded or captured in anti-Israeli attacks “until my last day”— the Palestinian leader and his authority were still painted as peace partners in numerous subsequent editorials and commentaries. And when Abbas said that Jews are “really excellent in faking and counterfeiting history”—denying Jewish history and Israeli claims in the land of Israel—at a Dec. 13, 2017 summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and others failed to cover his remarks—or ran a selectively-edited Associated Press dispatch that omitted his anti-semitism.

News treatment of Hamas, the U.S.-designated terror group that rules the Gaza Strip, provides another glaring example. A Muslim Brotherhood-derivative, its charter proclaims: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” At the beginning of 2017, Hamas found itself increasingly isolated and financially strained—in part due to pressure from the Egyptian government, which under President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has been at war with the Brotherhood—and chose to reword its charter as part of attempting rapprochement with Cairo. Although Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told a Gaza audience “we still are in open war” with Israel and “Hamas is not changing its skin,” outlets like The Independent, The Guardian, Ha’aretz and others nonetheless filed reports suggesting that Hamas might accept a Jewish state.

By constantly using the terminology of “moderate” vs. “hardline” Palestinian leaders, many news outlets engage in false distinctions, substituting their hopes for careful, accurate reporting. A quick look at official Palestinian media—including via easily accessible English-language translations provided by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) or the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI)—would show a society and culture in which anti-Semitic violence is enshrined. That many major news outlets fail to use these sources—or indeed, often fail to cite Palestinian media at all—is itself an indictment. As Chafets noted in Double Vision, what Arab leaders tell reporters in English is often quite different from what they tell their domestic audiences in Arabic. The problem then, is not new, but in an age in which translations for non-Arabic speaking reporters are abundant, it’s both less excusable and illustrative of the media’s bias and laziness.

Another common media narrative is the idea that settlements—not Palestinian rejectionism and violence—are at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By fixating on Jewish West Bank settlements instead of Palestinian leaders, the media is able to engage in false equivalency; pretending that Jews building houses is on par with Palestinian Arabs murdering Israelis.

Indeed, the Western press devotes an inordinate amount of coverage to Jewish homes being built in Judea and Samaria, but nonetheless fails to fully detail or accurately report the matter. The Washington Post is representative. In 2017, for example, the paper ran no less than two-dozen reports relating to settlements. This is a curious fixation considering that a March 31, 2017 Post dispatch was headlined “Israel set to approve first new settlement in 20 years.” Yet, a reading of coverage from The Post’s Jerusalem bureau could mislead readers into thinking otherwise, conveying the false impression that settlements are expanding, as the newspaper has reported, at a “rapid rate.”

However, most of the population growth is the result of natural increase and not from new arrivals—a fact omitted in most media coverage. Similarly, most of the construction that has occurred has been in blocs that Israel is expected to keep in any future agreement. The Washington Post’s editorial board, citing a research project by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that mapped settlements electronically, noted in a September 17, 2017 commentary:

“Of the some 600,000 settlers who live outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders, just 94,000 are outside the border-like barrier that Israel built through the West Bank a decade ago. Just 20,000 of those moved in since 2009, when [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu returned to office; in a sea of 2.9 million Palestinians, they are hardly overwhelming. Last year, 43 percent of the settler population growth was in just two towns that sit astride the Israeli border – and that Abbas himself has proposed for Israeli annexation.”

However, in a January 30, 2018 report entitled “The road to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is vanishing,” The Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius claimed, “settlements may be the hardest problem on negotiators’ agendas.” This cognitive dissonance is readily apparent in The Post, whose editorials on settlements have, on a number of occasions, contradicted the paper’s own Jerusalem bureau.

The fixation on Jewish homes comes at a price paid in news space and reader understanding.

Many outlets routinely fail to profile Palestinian leaders and decisions they make. The PA has rejected U.S. and Israeli offers for peace in exchange for statehood in 2000 at Camp David, 2001 at Taba and 2008 after the Annapolis conference, among other occasions. However, despite numerous reports in 2017 about the state of the “peace process”—some with headlines like The Washington Post’s “The last gasp of the two-state solution”—many major newspapers failed to inform readers about this pertinent history. Indeed, shortly after President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6, 2017 announcement that he would be implementing the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act and moving the U.S. embassy to Judaism’s historic center and Israel’s capital, the press was awash in commentaries and reports saying that the move would hurt peace talks because Palestinian leaders wanted “East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.” Yet, the dispatches omitted that that the Palestinian side was offered—and refused without submitting a counteroffer—precisely that by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. By repeatedly omitting relevant information, the media leaves itself open to charges that it is more interested in propagating narratives instead of reporting facts.

Palestinian politics similarly go underreported. For example, in February 2017 Fatah announced the appointment of Mahmoud al-Aloul, an unrepentant and convicted terrorist, to be the as deputy to the octogenarian Abbas. The appointment of a terrorist nicknamed Abu Jihad to be next in line to lead a nominal U.S. ally and aid beneficiary should be newsworthy. But more than a year later, not a single major U.S. news outlet has noted his ascension. By contrast, Israeli politicians are routinely profiled.

The reason for ignoring Palestinian internal developments is simple: Doing otherwise would refute the narrative of helpless Palestinian Arabs at the mercy of an imposing Israel. Instead, many media outlets prefer to use Palestinian figures as props for their anti-Israel ledes.

But the media is changing. And one can expect coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict to change as well. Legacy media has less and less influence. In a dramatic departure from when Chafets’ book first appeared, the narrative is no longer theirs alone to shape.

As reporter David Patrikarakos highlighted in his 2016 book, War in 140 Characters, social media is reshaping not only conflict in the 21st century, but also how news gets reported and disseminated. As Chafets detailed, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere were previously adept at shaping stories, either through intimidating journalists or controlling access to areas, participants and sources that might be of interest. Although these regimes, and non-state actors like Hamas or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have shown themselves to be efficient at using social media to push their narratives and propaganda, the narrative is no longer solely theirs to control.

Much of the news about the 2016-2017 protests in Iran, for instance, has come from social media users posting against regime wishes. And both the PA and Hamas, to name but two examples, have been sufficiently concerned that they’ve arrested Palestinian Arabs for criticism posted on social networks.

The rise of so-called citizen journalism presents similar challenges; verification is more difficult, agendas can be more difficult to trace, and the possibility for spreading misinformation and disinformation is vastly greater. Although major outlets, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, remain the chief news aggregators, their influence is steadily eroding under more nimble competition.

The decline of advertising-based print media and with it, budget cutbacks that have shuttered foreign bureaus and public editor positions, also has changed today’s media landscape dramatically. Without public editor positions, outlets lack a direct address for accountability. Without foreign bureaus, outlets are more reliant on local reporters and wire services—for better and for worse. These developments are particularly problematic in a Web-connected environment in which the competition to “break a story” is fiercer, and errors and disinformation more easily shared.

This presents both Israel and others concerned with fair and accurate media coverage of the Middle East with both opportunities and difficulties.

Coverage of the Middle East in general, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, is, rapidly changing and more chaotic. Whether these changes will result in a move away from the Palestinian narrative-based reporting that has been regrettably embraced by the legacy media, or whether they’ll reinforce it, changing the conflict into the “virtual warfare” discussed in Patrikarakos’ book, remains to be seen.

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).