Palestinians Are Blurry in the Editorial Frame

Norman Solomon’s Column

In times of crisis, many policymakers and journalists pay special attention to the editorializing from America’s most influential papers. The spin of news coverage and the mix of individual opinion pieces usually indicate the outlooks of the media establishment, but the editorials by powerhouse newspapers convey more direct messages.

With carnage a daily reality in Israel and the West Bank, some editorials have been entirely predictable. The Wall Street Journal, true to ideological form, applauds Israel’s iron fist and urges the White House to stand firm behind Israeli leaders. In contrast, more refined Washington Post and New York Times editorials tell us a lot about common U.S. media reactions.

For editorial writers at the Post and the Times, an incontrovertible fact is that Yasser Arafat must be held responsible for the suicide bombings of recent weeks. “It cannot be forgotten that Mr. Arafat refused to take serious action to stop a sickening wave of suicide bombings against Israel, and that Israel has a right to self-defense,” a Post editorial proclaimed on April 3.

Countless other commentaries also echo officials in Washington. Few have any use for a point that Zbigniew Brzezinski made on the PBS “NewsHour” as this month began. “It’s absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism,” the former national security adviser said. “And it’s — let’s put it mildly — poor information on the part of the president to be maintaining that. This guy (Arafat) is sitting isolated. Sharon is trying to repress the Palestinians and terrorism is not stopping. How is Arafat supposed to put a stop to it?”

Typically, both the Post and the Times fixate on the strategic efficacy of the Israeli military offensive rather than its flagrant illegality and fierce cruelty. “Like Mr. Sharon’s previous attempt to destroy Palestinian national aspirations through an invasion of Lebanon, this strategy is doomed to failure,” the Post editorialized. A day earlier, the Times had clucked that Sharon mistakenly “seems determined to end terrorism by military means alone.”

The Times could not resist clanging a timeworn bell about terrorists who “aim to drive Israel and its Jewish inhabitants straight into the sea.” Such hyper-rhetoric punches old emotional buttons. (Cue Hollywood’s “Exodus.”) But as Michael Lerner, an activist American rabbi, observed days ago in an open letter, “Israel is in no danger of going out of existence — it is the fourth largest military power in the world, and it faces a Palestinian people who have no tanks, no airplanes, no heavy artillery.” Lerner was cogent: “Let us be clear that Israel is using its power today to preserve the occupation, not to preserve its safety.”

While quite properly calling for an immediate halt to the horrendous suicide bombings, New York Times editorials are notably patient and rather equivocal about bringing an end to Israel’s occupation. In the first paragraph of a March 30 editorial, the Times recommended “a commitment to withdraw from occupied lands.” In the closing paragraph, the newspaper declared: “Israel must make clear that it recognizes the need to relinquish the bulk of the territories it took in 1967.”

Translation: Even at this late and bloody date, the New York Times can’t bring itself to forthrightly call for an immediate and total end to the occupation. Instead, the paper resorts to ambiguity; Israel should recognize the need to leave “the bulk of the territories.” If a foreign power had been occupying your home for 35 years, how would you feel about the idea that it should “recognize the need” to leave most of it — merely remaining in control of, say, all the hallways and doors?

Most editorial writers seem determined to detour around obvious parallels with apartheid-era South Africa. Evasions and apologetics for basic elements of Israel’s policies dominate so much of the U.S. media landscape that insightful comments by Brzezinski were conspicuous: “The Israelis are becoming increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life, not hesitating to kill a great many of them.”

Parrot-like, highly selective media use of the “terrorism” label is providing top U.S. and Israeli officials with invaluable propaganda cover. Meanwhile, Brzezinski has it right: “You cannot define the loss of human life in terms of the number of Israelis killed by brutal, savage, inexcusable Palestinian terror. And it does take place. The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds of children.”

The New York Times ended an April 3 editorial with this sentence: “Only the most bankrupt leadership — spiritually, intellectually and politically — allows this macabre, self-delusional act of ruin to pass without anguished condemnation.” Those words referred to a recent suicide bombing. But they also apply to the U.S. government and major media outlets continuing to wink and nod while the Israeli military slaughters Palestinian people.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media : Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News by Norman Solomon