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
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.
Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here