The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

The image makers


by Dan Kennedy

There is another, different, higher sort of moral equivalence at work in the Middle East, and the media -- at their best -- have been able to capture some of that, sometimes through intelligent analysis, sometimes simply by letting other voices be heard.

A particularly moving and eloquent example of the latter appeared on Sunday, in the Washington Post, in the form of a long essay by Muhanned Tull, an official in the Palestinian Ministry of Labor. Tull challenged the conventional view that Barak's July offer -- Palestinian control of some 92 percent of the West Bank, plus a resolution of who would govern Jerusalem that should have been acceptable to both sides -- was as good as Arafat ever should have expected. "What the Western media were describing as broad concessions by the Israeli prime minister were far short of Palestinian expectations -- and, most important, far short of what the UN resolutions demanded," Tull wrote. "The final proposal at Camp David would have given us a helpless and disconnected state, scattered across less than half the territory we believe should be ours. It offered nothing to Palestinian refugees and continued to postpone the issue of Jerusalem -- giving Israel time to change the demographics and nature of the whole city."

The pieces by Burg and Tull define a moral equivalence not of two sides too blinded by hate and religious primitivism to stop fighting each other but, rather, of two oppressed peoples with a claim to the same land -- a dispute that, ultimately, may be beyond settling except through the use of force. Israel refuses to retreat all the way back to its pre-1967 borders, arguing -- persuasively -- that those borders cannot be readily defended. The Palestinian leadership -- or powerful elements of that leadership that may or may not include Arafat -- want not just the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, but all of Palestine. Neither position is unreasonable, but they are absolutely irreconcilable. And, of course, only one position allows for Israel's continued existence. That's why moral equivalence may work as a cheap journalistic device, or even as a way of understanding each side's grievances, but not as a way to craft a permanent peace. As Johanna McGeary wrote in a particularly perceptive profile of Arafat in this week's Time: "Right now ordinary Palestinians seem further than ever from realizing their legitimate aspirations. Boys in the streets talk wildly of `war' and `victory,' but war is suicide when one side has stones and the other Stingers, and the victory they crave is total ownership of a land they can only share."

It's undeniable that the Palestinians have suffered greatly in the recent violence. More than 100 Palestinians have died, as opposed to just a handful of Israelis. Those numbers have led to accusations of bias, mainly from critics who are more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

To be sure, there are those who detect an anti-Israel bias in the press as well. For instance, on CNN's Reliable Sources last weekend, the LA Times' Doyle McManus and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (the show's co-host) decried the lead headline in the October 13 Post -- ISRAEL STRIKES PALESTINIAN SITES -- because it made no mention of the fact that Israel was retaliating for the lynching of its soldiers. Kurtz said that "there's been criticism that this headline by itself made it seem too much like Israel was simply committing an act of aggression." Agreed McManus: "Yes, it was probably a bad call. But I don't think there was any ideological bias to it." Well, no, of course not, and to be blunt, the entire exchange was inane.

Far more serious is the brief submitted by media critic Eric Alterman in the current issue of the Nation (which features a surprisingly restrained, if unsurprisingly anti-Israel, meditation on the Oslo agreement by Edward Said, last seen throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.) I expected to be appalled by Alterman's argument that the US media are hopelessly biased against the Palestinians; instead, I came away impressed by the strength of the facts he had marshaled, though hardly convinced. The essentials of Alterman's critique: that the American press has largely overlooked the Israelis' use of deadly force, a practice that recently resulted in condemnation in the UN; that media outlets such as the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have legitimized the "war criminal" Ariel Sharon (a characterization that is difficult to dismiss, given Sharon's record in Lebanon in the early 1980s); and that the Oslo framework falls well short of meeting the Palestinians' needs.

"True, Ehud Barak has taken massive political risks by offering concessions that go well beyond the Israeli consensus," Alterman writes. "But given the magnitude of the physical, psychological and sociological costs of the Palestinian `catastrophe,' Barak's best is simply not good enough. The only chance for lasting peace will come when Israel agrees to share Jerusalem with a full Palestinian partner, granting equal rights to citizens of both nations; with Israeli rule in the West and Palestinian rule in the East."

The problem with Alterman's argument is not that it's wrong, but that it's incomplete. In fact, until the lynching of the Israeli soldiers, it was the Palestinians who were winning the propaganda war -- and the loss of life, especially among the young, was turning American public opinion against Israel. Indeed, a number of analysts have claimed, with some credibility, that civilian casualties are an important part of the Palestinians' strategy. As the Boston Globe's Charles Sennott (among others) has reported, the rock-throwing youths have, on some occasions at least, taken their orders directly from Palestinian officials. Alterman also overlooks some of the truly outstanding analysis that has appeared in the elite press (some of which appeared after his deadline). There was, for instance, last Friday's Wall Street Journal package on the Middle East, anchored by Neil King and Gerald Seib's article documenting the United States' waning influence. Or Jane Perlez's analysis on the front of Sunday's New York Times, in which she painstakingly documented how Clinton and Barak pushed for a comprehensive settlement last July for their own domestic political reasons, ignoring clear signals that Arafat wasn't ready to deliver. In other words, the July summit's failure was entirely predictable, and the disastrous after-effects of that failure have been just as predictable.

But though such journalism may reach opinion makers, they lack the power of the clear, simple, unambiguous image.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

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