US media should not play into the hands of Israeli PR

The blaring headlines on Sunday, May 25, 2003, were all about how Israel had “finally accepted” the Quartet-proposed Road Map for the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005 and the end of hostilities between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states.

But anyone who has followed this conflict from any distance and possesses a minimum sense of history can only view the latest declarations from the Israeli government as nothing more than a stalling tactic necessary given the circumstances.

First is the basic fact that Israel has fought, every step of the way, the establishment of a truly sovereign Palestinian state, has pursued the relentless infiltration of Palestinian land by illegal settlements, and since the second Intifada started in September 2002, has consistently frustrated attempts at calming the situation down and getting back to real negotiations.

Second is the basic fact that Ariel Sharon has never wavered in declaring that he sees the Palestinian territories as part of “the Land of Israel” and is willing at best to tolerate a token “state” in no more than 40% of the West Bank and Gaza.

And third: the last time an American President leaned “hard” on an Israeli prime minister — George Bush the father on Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir — we saw a reluctant Israel first drag its heels to the negotiating table, and then pretend for a whole decade that it was willing to make peace, while at the same time frantically doing everything to delay any real progress towards the establishment of a truly sovereign Palestinian state.

Indeed, during the so-called peace process between 1993 and 2000, a period during which Israel was supposed to gradually withdraw from Palestinian land, the size of the settler population in the Occupied Territories — Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — doubled! And when at last the US tried to force the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians (and mainly force it upon the Palestinians), the proposed Palestinian state was nothing close to an entity upon which a politically sovereign and economically viable state could be built. Since then, Israel under both Labor’s Ehud Barak and Likud’s Ariel Sharon, has done all it can to create roadblocks against any return to the negotiating table — i.e., assassinating Hamas leaders and officials, closing down whole towns, killing children for violating curfews, demanding that there must be seven days of uninterrupted “calm” before even talking to the Palestinians, building more settlements, demolishing houses, uprooting trees, destroying the infrastructure of civilian Palestinian institutions, refusing to consider international monitors to act as buffers between the Palestinians and the occupying military forces, imprisoning whole populations, etc.

Given this basic backdrop, anyone who does not actively want to be fooled — again — can easily predict what will really happen in the next couple of years if we don’t actively engage in ensuring that Israel is not allowed to engage in its usual games (and then proclaim that the Palestinians yet again did not miss a chance to miss a chance!).

First, the Israelis will make a lot of noise about how they have “accepted the road map” — and this they will do shamelessly, when in fact they have already rejected some key requirements that the map makes — i.e., that Palestinian efforts to stop attacks from militant groups must be accompanied simultaneously by Israeli actions to roll back to the pre-2000 situation; and that the issue of refugees’ right of return is a point of negotiation that must be left to the end of the process to resolve. They will then not only continue to do what they have been doing — i.e., provoke militant groups by assassinating their leaders and punishing civilian populations — but will step up their all too familiar tactics. The militants, predictably enough, will retaliate, the Israelis will escalate, and so on, up to the point where the Israelis will suspend ongoing talks (initially saying that the suspensions are temporary, that they are committed to the Road Map, etc.), then haltingly restart them again for political show, never really leaving the so-called “security talks” stage anyway, where the focus will remain the Holy-Grail issue of “Israel’s security”.

All along, Israel will as usual blame Yasir Arafat for being the prince of darkness behind all the violence, and at the appropriate moment (probably after the 2004 elections), will declare that the Palestinian Prime Minister they are talking to is at best totally powerless, and that they will negotiate only with someone who has the authority to stop the violence. We will no doubt be treated to a new cheesy formulation from the usual Israeli PR suspects to the effect that Arafat is not willing to stop the violence and that Abbas is not able. And all of this they will say while simultaneously asserting that they will negotiate neither with Arafat nor any representative of militant opposition groups. Israel was able to buy at least a year with the demand that the Palestinians “engage in political reform”. Given that the US has accepted the ludicrous premise that Israel is willing to negotiate with a “reformed” Palestinian Authority, all that Israel needs to do is to avoid serious talks is to insist that the Palestinian Authority they are dealing with is not “reformed” enough.

All of this should take us well beyond the 2004 elections. Between now and then, Israel will pretend that it is trying all it can to implement the Road Map, while at the same time doing everything to sabotage real progress. And of course it will all along blame the Palestinians for the stall.

Whether the US Administration and the rest of the Quartet are sober enough to plan for such a tactic remains to be seen. For us, our mission as far as the media is concerned is clear: are we going to allow the media to give the usual Israeli PR machine free reign, or are we going to insist that this time around they must challenge Israeli spokesmen to explain why Israel is obstructing a rare chance for progress?

Because, once again, the real battle is one over the hearts and minds of the American people. If the American people are allowed to see what is really happening and why it is happening without the usual whitewashing, smoothing of edges, and classic sanitization of ugly Israeli actions and tactics, chances are that a monumental shift in US public opinion, and also probably policy, may very well take place. If Israel is seen to be the obstacle to peace that it is, chances are that it will never again be able put humptydumpty together and sell its old canard that it is a victim in all of this. But if the American people think that it is all the usual “same-old-same-old”, then chances are that we will see the conflict go on and worsen with no end in sight.

Let’s not let that happen!

Mr. Ahmed Bouzid is President of Palestine Media Watch and author of “Framing the struggle.” He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Pennsylvania, USA.