October 2019 Press Review: Victimization, Delegitimization, and “Democracy”

The Press on Palestine is an initiative by Palestine Square. It highlights bias in mainstream American print media when it comes to reporting on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Uncertainty has been a major theme in the political arena for both Palestine and Israel this October. The outcome of the Israeli election is inconclusive, with a third election possible. Talks about holding elections in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem are underway, with the usual participants and problems. Under these complex circumstances, select news outlets have found reason to continue to propagate an idea of Israel that is fundamentally flawed.

VICTIMIZATION

  1. The New York Times – Oct. 8, 2019
    Israelis Watch U.S. Abandon Kurds, and Worry: Who’s Next? By David M. Halbfinger

The bias is subtle but nonetheless present in Israel’s self-victimization in the face of growing U.S. isolationism in the Middle East. The author paints Israel as a nation besieged by enemy states in the region, neglecting Israel’s generally good relations with Egypt, Jordan, and some Gulf states. The article lumps Israel and the Kurds together, as if they have suffered the same violence and share similar fates. A former Israeli ambassador to the UN is quoted saying “I feel like a Kurd today.” Halbfinger portrays both parties as freedom fighters against radical oppression, despite the fact that the Israeli government operates as an oppressor. 

Halbfinger essentially asks: if Trump abandoned the Kurds, who is to say he won’t abandon Israel? Halbfinger, the chief of the NYT bureau in Jerusalem, purports to be reporting on the local reaction to the U.S. decision, yet this reaction is exaggerated. The US decision seems to have “set off clanging alarm bells” and the American public should apparently worry for Israel’s very existence if such decisions continue across the region. However, in many cases, Israel has boasted about its military capability against any threat.

In the context of the Trump administration’s perceived inaction in response to Iranian assaults in the Gulf, Halbfinger quotes sources that illogically link Israel’s security with progress on the peace process: 

“Why would the Saudis be on board with a peace process? Why would the Emirates? Nobody’s connecting the dots. If you’re in favor of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, you’ve got to be in favor of a strong policy towards Iran”

Michael B. Oren, former deputy minister under Netanyahu and former ambassador to the U.S.

Halbfinger laments that Trump’s decision on the Kurdish situation fell on the remembrance day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “a national trauma” for Israel. The author does not provide historical context to the uninformed reader, who is left with the belief that Israel has always been a victim. 

Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel are not mentioned or quoted in the article – these are the groups who bear the brunt of Israeli repression, and Halbfinger conveniently ignores them as he seeks local reactions. This article tries to make readers see Israel as the underdog, the region’s dominant military force and its only nuclear power, and the nation committing some of the gravest human rights abuses in the Middle East.

DELEGITIMIZATION

2. Coverage of J Street’s Annual Conference

a. The Washington Post – Oct. 29, 2019
The Trailer: The Democrats’ fast shift to the left on Israel by David Weigel

b. The Wall Street Journal – Oct. 31, 2019
Democratic Candidate Debate Using Aid to Israel as Leverage in Policy Disputes by Sabrina Siddiqui

c. The New York Times – Nov. 1, 2019
Criticize Israel? For Democratic Voters, It’s Now Fair Game by Giovanni Russonello

All three articles do a decent job in covering the shifting landscape on Israel in American politics. Yet, interpretations vary; all three articles, to differing extents, present the Democratic Party’s shift on Israel as a negative occurrence, as if Democratic presidential candidates are not championing humanitarian policies, but are rather abandoning a U.S. ally for political expediency.

The articles highlight a variety of poll numbers that show support and disapproval for Israel, referencing the general public, as well as young Democrats and Jewish Democrats. Despite reporting the drastic demographic shift against the Israeli government – only 27% of American under the age of 30 hold a favourable view of the Likud-led administration – the articles are quick to note that, despite this shift, sympathy for Israel over Palestine is still apparent among the general public. American support for Israel is downplayed as a potentially risky partisan issue.

The articles report that presidential candidates Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg vow to condition aid to Israel if it continues to abuse human rights. They reference the annexation of parts of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza in their criticisms. However, the authors treat this legitimate humanitarian policy proposal as a mere talking point to win over certain progressive voters. These statements were made at a conference organized by a Jewish organization working to shift the conversation on Israel-Palestine towards a two-state solution – there is obviously political outreach and calculation involved. However, in the past, these Democratic Party candidates – as well as former candidate, Beto O’Rourke – have repeatedly condemned the Israeli government’s human rights abuses against the Palestinian people. Many other Democratic Party representatives, including Obama Administration officials, have spoken up against continued settlement activities for decades. There is legitimacy and sincerity among elements of the Democratic Party when it comes to dealing with the Israeli government.

The condescending headlines stop short of outright ridicule of the candidates, but they reveal animosity and skepticism for those who attempt to alter the status quo in America-Israel relations.

THE “DEMOCRACY” TALKING POINT

3. The New York Times – Oct. 22, 2019
Israel Seems Paralyzed, but Is the System Broken? By David M. Halbfinger

This article overstates the institutional strength and stability of Israel, primarily by ignoring Israeli institutional repression. What reads as a dissection of Israel’s “democracy” neglects its undemocratic actions, laws, and policies, including the Jewish Nation State Law. Democracies do not occupy other countries, and democracies ensure equality of rights for all citizens. This is notably not the case for the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arabs, and discrimination against whom is historical and structural. Halbfinger neglects to even mention the institutional violence and voter intimidation that sprung from the past two Israeli elections, as well as all previous elections.

A reader with limited knowledge of local actors and the exact election results may assume that the “kingmaker” Liberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party may be the third-largest force in Israeli politics, when, in the last two elections, they came in seventh and fifth place respectively. Lieberman can only be a kingmaker because normalized racism toward Palestinian citizens of Israel means the third largest-party is the Arab Joint List, which has 13 seats, would not be accepted as a coalition partner. As usual, readers are not given the full story by Halbfinger who omits these facts as he pushes a positive image of the Israeli state, the only “democracy” in the Middle East.

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About Laura Albast 5 Articles
Laura Albast is Palestinian-American and works at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut, and an MA in International Affairs and Communication from Boston University. Her research has focused on public diplomacy, arms control, and community health work in the Middle East. She is also a professional translator.

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