CAIRO, Egypt (March 26, 2008) – It appears that Israel is taking a page from the George W. Bush book of public diplomacy: attempting to influence coverage by Arab media by boycotting the most influential television station in the Arab world.
In the latest news from Jerusalem, it seems the Ehud Olmert government has decided Al Jazeera favors Hamas over Israel in the Gaza conflict and will now refuse to deal with its reporters.
You have to admit, Israel and Al Jazeera were unlikely bedfellows. But the fact that we are even discussing banning Al Jazeera reporters from the Knesset speaks volumes about what had previously been a very pragmatic relationship.
Israelis understood from the start what the Bush administration has only lately come to realize – that it was better for Israeli officials to use Al Jazeera to explain the country’s policies in their own words to the Arab world than to demonize the station and let its presenters put their own spin on Israeli policy. Not only does Al Jazeera have a bureau in Israel, but Israelis can watch both the Arabic channel and Al Jazeera English, neither of which are readily accessible in the United States.
It’s not that Israelis are naive. They know the Qatar-based channel’s policy of presenting “the opinion, and the other opinion,” does not change the fact that it is – according to its own mission statement – an “Arab media service.” And that means it reports events in the Occupied Territories through an Arab camera lens, just as it reported the Afghan and Iraq invasions from an Arab perspective, incensing the Bush administration.
Even so, successive Israeli governments have continued a policy of engagement with Al Jazeera because it made good, strategic sense. The new boycott was apparently sparked by the fact that, in the latest round of Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza, Al Jazeera focused heavily on Palestinian casualties – zooming in on the dead and wounded for close-ups, a practice Israeli TV has stopped doing with Israeli victims to avoid exacerbating trauma and desire for revenge.
But should anyone be surprised? According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, “Three Israelis and more than 120 Palestinians were killed, including dozens of civilians, before the fighting subsided earlier this month.”
All this naturally raises the question, “What is balance?”
Various studies have found that U.S. media gives substantially more coverage to Israeli deaths than those of Palestinians, even though the Palestinian death rates are much higher. That’s true in spades for Israeli television. Shouldn’t we then expect that Arab journalists, reporting for an Arab audience, are going to focus on Arab casualties?
As Ahmed Mansour, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the U.S. siege, once told me, “When I was in Fallujah, every girl I saw reminded me of my daughter. When I tried to [separate myself from what was happening], sometimes I could not. I saw a child injured or dead, and I’d remember my son. They are Arab like you, Muslim like you.”
Granted, Al Jazeera is far from perfect. It can be sensational, opinionated and irresponsible. But, the same can be said about many Western channels.
Lately, many observers – even inside Al Jazeera – say there has been a decided tilt in favor of Hamas over the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. But Al Jazeera, like the Arab world, is no monolith. Its newsroom is divided between pro-Hamas supporters of political Islam and Arab nationalists, who tend to favor the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. At the moment, the pro-Hamas faction has the upper hand.
The claim that Al-Jazeera’s coverage of events in Gaza builds support for Hamas is essentially true. But any time people see their own dying, it tarnishes the attacker and helps whatever army happens to be defending the attacked. We saw this most recently during the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war in which Lebanese – and Arabs – of all political stripes rallied to Hizbullah’s cause.
The irony of this tempest is that Israel’s ally in its attempt to control Al Jazeera’s message is no other than the Arab League. Arab information ministers recently adopted a new Arab Satellite Charter that gives them the right to pull the plug on channels that “jeopardize social peace, national unity, public order and general propriety,” and those “broadcasting any materials that would incite violence and terrorism [or] imply that [a] crime or its predators are heroes or justify their motives.”
The Qatari government, which funds Al Jazeera, abstained from the vote. It knows the channel is about as popular in the palaces of the Arab world as in the halls of the Knesset. Which is precisely why it is so influential among the Arab public, and why non-Arab governments seeking to influence Arabs – whether Israeli or American – ignore the channel at their own peril.