Are We Witnessing the Beginning of a Change in Discourse on Israel-Palestine?


It goes without saying that for the past 30 or so years in the U.S., real debate about our policy on Israel and Palestine is almost non-existent in any real sense of the word. The media, politicians, commentators etc. stick to one theme- unwavering, blind, unquestioning support for Israel no matter what, even if it undermines our own national security interests and credibility on the world stage.

The one-sided portrayal of the conflict by the media, the Lobby and politicians has resulted in a majority of the American public being not only largely clueless about what is actually going on on the ground in the Middle East, but it has ensured that Americans unquestioningly support a foreign policy that has become so flawed, self-defeating and tone deaf that we actually find ourselves playing a key role in undermining our own long-term goal of resolving the conflict by creating two states.

Because Americans have been spoon-fed an agenda-driven media narrative of the conflict, most people who do not follow the issue closely do not even notice, let alone question, the media bias which frames the debate. Sometimes the bias is subtle and is based on the language used to describe the conflict. For example, it is quite rare for the media to actually refer to the situation as military occupation, despite the fact that that is what it is under international law- and as such, Israel as an occupying power, [is supposed to have] has to comply with certain legal requirements in it’s policies and treatment of the Palestinians. So the failure of the media to hardly ever refer to the occupation as such means not only that Americans will be left with the impression that things really aren’t so bad for the Palestinians, but they won’t be aware of Israel’s flagrant refusal to comply with international law. As a result, when people hear about the Palestinians anger and resentment towards Israel and even at times violent confrontations with the IDF (I am not referring to terrorist attacks), they probably understandably conclude that the actions of the Palestinians are motivated by nothing more than an irrational hatred of Jews and the existence of Israel and that as a result, Israel is the real victim of the conflict.

Another example- you will rarely see the media refer to the settlements beyond the Green Line as “illegal” despite the fact that the entire world, with the exception of Israel, agrees that they are very clearly illegal under international law. Many years ago when the U.S. first confronted the issue of the legality of the settlements, the State Department issued a comprehensive legal analysis and finding that would form the basis for the U.S. policy position that held that the building of these settlements beyond the Green Line was illegal and needed to stop. Back in those days, the U.S. would openly refer to the settlements as “illegal” and that continued until some time in the 1980’s when under pressure from Israel and the Lobby, the U.S. stopped officially using the word “illegal” and instead started using vague words like “unhelpful,” “counterproductive” and “illegitimate”- something which continues to this day. For the media to adopt the government’s disingenuous and agenda-driven terminology is totally inappropriate because it leaves the impression that the settlements’ legality is disputed and that there is no real consensus on the issue. And that is not true. They are illegal and the world recognizes that. And once again, the effect on the American public’s perception of the controversy is clear- after all, if the issue of settlement construction is framed as merely being about a political disagreement between the two sides as opposed to being about a near-constant violation of international law for which the Palestinians have a right to seek redress, then the Palestinians’ insistence on a halt on settlement construction prior to entering peace negotiations could arguably be seen as an unfair “precondition” to talks which forces Israel to make a huge concession at the outset, demonstrating that the Palestinians aren’t serious about peace.

And honestly, their are so many examples of pro-Israel media bias but I just wanted to highlight two really basic, really subtle ways the media frames the debate.

Because of all of the above, it’s been somewhat surprising to see commentaries starting to pop up in the MSM which are not only critical of Israel’s current policies, but Israel’s contemptuous treatment of the President and even acknowledgment of the disproportionately large and counterproductive role the Israel Lobby plays in our Mideast foreign policy. A few weeks ago the NYT’ Thomas Friedman let loose on Bibi Netanyahu, the Lobby and the ridiculous people who are claiming Obama is anti-Israel. Here is an excerpt:

This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.

[snip]

What Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is responsible for is failing to put forth a strategy to respond to all of these in a way that protects Israel’s long-term interests.

O.K., Mr. Netanyahu has a strategy: Do nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Turkey that will require him to go against his base, compromise his ideology or antagonize his key coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme right-winger. Then, call on the U.S. to stop Iran’s nuclear program and help Israel out of every pickle, but make sure that President Obama can’t ask for anything in return — like halting Israeli settlements — by mobilizing Republicans in Congress to box in Obama and by encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote. And meanwhile, get the Israel lobby to hammer anyone in the administration or Congress who says aloud that maybe Bibi has made some mistakes, not just Barack. There, who says Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy?

Ouch. But it’s absolutely true and it needed to be said.

Then there is this from Nick Kristoff, who usually avoids any real commentary of Israel in his columns:

Nothing is more corrosive than Israel’s growth of settlements because they erode hope of a peace agreement in the future. Mr. Netanyahu’s latest misstep came after the Obama administration humiliated itself by making a full-court diplomatic press to block Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. At a time when President Obama had a few other things on his plate — averting a global economic meltdown, for example — the United States frittered good will by threatening to veto the Palestinian statehood that everybody claims to favor.

With that diplomatic fight at the United Nations under way, Israel last week announced plans for 1,100 new housing units in a part of Jerusalem outside its pre-1967 borders. Instead of showing appreciation to President Obama, Mr. Netanyahu thumbed him in the eye.

[snip]

The Palestinians’ best hope would be a major grass-roots movement of nonviolent peaceful resistance aimed at illegal West Bank settlements, led by women and inspired by the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A growing number of Palestinians are taking up variants of that model, although they sometimes ruin it by defining nonviolence to include stone-throwing and by giving the leading role to hotheaded young men.

The Israel Defense Forces can deal with suicide bombers and rockets fired by Hezbollah. I’m not sure that they can defeat Palestinian women blocking roads to illegal settlements and willing to endure tear gas and clubbing — with videos promptly posted on YouTube.

What’s notable about Kristoff’s column is that everything he said is painfully obvious to everyone and yet just the fact that he said it is groundbreaking. The last part of the excerpt I take issue with- anyone who follows the Palestinian anti-occupation protest movement knows that they have already largely embraced the vision espoused by Kristoff. We also know that Israel has in fact had no problem violently suppressing the protest movement while the U.S. government looks on and does nothing and the U.S. media totally ignores it. Would it be nice to see more women in the Palestinian movement? Yes. Do spoilers sometimes show up and throw rocks at the IDF? Yes. But given Mr. Kristoff seems to have no problem with Libyans and Syrians using actual weapons and fighting back against their oppressors, I’m surprised to hear him admonish the Palestinians for throwing stones. That’s another media theme by the way- everyone else but the Palestinians not only have the right to self defense but the right to use massive, overwhelming lethal force. Also, no one really took issue with the people in Tahrir Square when they fought back with Molotov Cocktails, stones, burning tires etc. in response to the brutal crack down by the security forces. Same thing goes for the protesters in Bahrain. So at the very least, lets be consistent.

Do these two articles mean that media coverage and commentary of the conflict will be more even-handed from now on? Well, it’s a possibility, but it’s very likely that it will be a very slooooow, gradual change and there will be a lot of resistance to it. On the other hand, the fact that these articles are being written also may indicate that some in the Jewish community are questioning the “thou shalt never question or criticize Israel, ever” rule, particularly with respect to the younger generation. Lets face it, it is getting harder and harder for some in the Jewish community to defend Israel when Bibi Netanyahu carries on like he does. I mean, come on, announcing new settlements in East Jerusalem right after Obama gave a speech at the UN in opposition to recognition of Palestinian statehood that sounded like it had been written by the President of AIPAC? Even my partner’s mother, who has a knee-jerk response in defense of Israel whenever there is even the slightest whiff of criticism, thought that was out of line on Israel’s part.

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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2 Comments on “Are We Witnessing the Beginning of a Change in Discourse on Israel-Palestine?”

  1. Steve Says:

    You know, while I am glad Kristoff finally addressed the Israel-Palestinian issue in an up front manner, I found the part about the Palestinians to be sort of condescending- you highlighted and discussed the same concerns in your post- I’m glad I’m not the only one who found his call for peaceful resistance to be naive and hypocritical.

    Americans have been saying “where is the Palestinian Gandhi” for years and now that there is a meaningful, organized protest movement which engages in nonviolent demonstrations every single week in towns where Israel continues to grab huge swaths of Palestinian land under the auspice of continuing to build the so-called security fence, the media largely ignores the violent crackdown against protest movement leaders. It’s true that Israel is terrified of a large nonviolent Palestinian movement, just as Kristoff suggests, but to totally ignore Israel’s 24/7 campaign to prevent the protests and even destroy the movement is disingenuous of Kristoff.

    A lot of the “Palestinian Gandhis” are languishing in Israeli military prisons having been arrested on trumped up charges and by using draconian emergency laws which basically give unlimited authority to arrest anyone if they are deemed a threat to Israel’s security and naturally, Palestinian protesters are deemed a very dangerous threat to Israel’s security.

    Reply

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