An Interview with Media Watchdog Yizhar Be’er
Israel has always been a news-media-obsessed society. The three major daily newspapers have an estimated combined circulation of 1.2 million, and many Israeli households are also perpetually tuned to television news. The country is simply too intimate, small, and stressed out by years of war, occupation, and terrorism for people to be less than passionate about the political and security situations.
Since the breakdown of the peace negotiations between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000, certain assumptions have become pervasive in the mainstream Israeli media — most strikingly, that there is “no negotiating partner” on the Palestinian side. In general, noted Ilene R. Prusher in the Christian Science Monitor of October 16th, 2001, television news features “about the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians . . . have become few and far between. Meanwhile, Israeli radio has returned to the way it covered the conflict in the years before peace efforts began.” As a result, Prusher concluded, “one of the casualties has been the loss of interest in understanding how things look from the other side.”
The processes by which the media shape public attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been scrutinized and analyzed since 2005 by Keshev, the Center for Protection of Democracy in Israel. Founded after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Keshev has now put the bulk of its resources into a media monitoring project called “Words Can Kill, Too.”
The organization works in partnership with Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, founded and headed by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, with the stated goal of changing “patterns of discourse and coverage in the media in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which express prejudices, incitement and defamation, bias, delegitimization and dehumanization of the other side.”
Keshev’s president is David Grossman, the Israeli novelist who lost his son, Uri, 20, on the final day of the conflict in Lebanon. Major sources of funding for Keshev have included the European Union, the New Israel Fund, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
In 2005, Keshev closely monitored the extensive news coverage of the withdrawal from Gaza. In its January, 2006 report, Keshev concluded that “the media chose to represent the disengagement as an internal Israeli affair, a human tragedy affecting only Israelis,” to “disengage the disengagement from the tangle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and to ignore “the security cooperation with the Palestinians (who were nevertheless considered ‘no partner’).”
Yizhar Be’er, the executive director of Keshev, worked as a journalist with Ha’aretz during the first intifada before serving as director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. He met with our Editorial Board in early September.
Jewish Currents: What prompted your shift in focus from journalism to human rights to media monitoring?
Yizhar Be’er: Once the first intifada got going, human rights was the only issue in the game for peace activists. There was no peace process, only the occupation. But once Oslo began, the game moved to the table of the the politicians. Then Rabin was assassinated, and the feeling was that the main threat came not from the conflict, but from underground, violent, anti-democratic streams inside Israel. We established Keshev to monitor such threats.
In the last two years, we’ve concentrated on the media, because in times of crisis — and we’ve been in continuous crisis, there have been thousands of casualties on both sides — the media strongly influences the flame of the fire, to douse it or to encourage it.
JC: Is your concern about the media’s accuracy, or about their political interpretations?
YB: We don’t gather facts on the ground or focus on gaps between news coverage and the truth. We do not claim to know the truth. What we do is check the media’s editorial work, how the headlines, the make-up of the front pages, and the structure of the articles, produce a narrative about the conflict.
JC: And what do you see as the main elements of that narrative?
YB: The main belief is that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side — therefore, unilateral action is required. This was Sharon’s assumption, it has been Olmert’s so far, and the media tend to support whichever establishment is in power.
Another general pattern in Israeli media coverage is that Palestinians are marginalized, or else portrayed as radical and violent. For example, out of more than two thousand items that we checked about the Gaza disengagement, only six headlines dealt with the Palestinian Authority’s effective security deployments and cooperation with Israel — though these factors were mentioned positively by senior Israeli security sources. On the other hand, a short time before the disengagement began, Ma’ariv ran a headline, “Security Sources: Terror May Delay Disengagement”, and quoted a senior officer’s opinion that “there will be no choice but to embark on a major offensive in the Gaza Strip before the evacuation begins.” Yet the Palestinians didn’t shoot one bullet during the evacuation.
Elements of Israeli responsibility for the conflict are also consistently played down, and Palestinian casualties are hardly ever treated as a causal factor that brings on more violence. In December, 2005, only a few articles of 130 that we monitored [regarding Hamas’ ending its ceasefire after Israeli air strikes in Gaza] raised the possibility that the killing of Palestinians might lead to further violence. This viewpoint did not make it to the headlines.
JC: To what extent does this reflect the public viewpoint of “targeted assassinations” as a necessary tool against terrorism?
YB: In general, Israelis believe what the military says much more than they believe other parts of the Israeli establishment — even the High Court. And in general, the media is much less critical of the military than of other parts of government. Sometimes it’s because they have no alternative sources of information. Sometimes it’s because they’re lazy. Sometimes they fear the public atmosphere: Under a situation of terror and violence and casualties, the public doesn’t like criticism.
Criticism does get made, of course, in columns of opinion. But we know that it’s the headlines and the subheads and the leads of the news articles — the editorial work — that most shape public opinion, and what we see in that work is increasingly the same narrative, shared by all three of the major newspapers.
In that narrative, Palestinian life becomes visible only when it affects settlers and the IDF. At the end of the Gaza evacuation, Yediot Akhronot ran this front-page headline: “Six Days, 35 Communities, 15,000 Evacuees, 0 Casualties”. And Ma’ariv: “Without Fire, Without Serious Violence, Without Death”. Yet eight people were killed — all of them Palestinian, four inside Israel and four in the West Bank. They were killed by Jewish Israeli terrorists, as provocation to halt the disengagement.
Similarly, after Israel and the Palestinians came to an historic agreement about Gaza having a free passageway to Egypt and the world beyond [in November, 2005], the front-page headline in Yediot Akhronot said, “Hundreds of Palestinians Will Pass through Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat.” Why this headline? Because the agreement also dealt with Palestinian access between Gaza and the West Bank. The editor of the newspaper chose to emphasize the “danger” of Palestinians crossing parts of Israel while ignoring the significance of the agreement for the Palestinians themselves.
Even the extensive coverage of the Israeli takeover of Jericho prison last March — Jericho being the most calm place in the occupied territories, with a police force that an Israeli general described as giving “100 percent cooperation” — included no critical discussion of the operation, and no consideration of its implications for the stability of the Palestinian Authority. The action was described in a front-page headline in Yediot Akhronot as “A Moment of National Pride”; Ma’ariv said “Got Them”, and “Fast and Elegant”. I haven’t seen this kind of tabloid-style patriotic sentiment since the Entebbe raid.
JC: How does Keshev wield influence to address these issues?
YB: Through our published reports, our website, and our regular meetings with editors and journalists.
JC: Does Miftah, in the Palestinian community, do something parallel to what you’re doing in Israel?
YB: There is no symmetry between our situations. Israel is a democratic state with freedom of speech. On the Palestinian side, there is no state, no freedom of speech — Palestinian political culture is not democratic — and they are under occupation. The local Palestinian media is tiny and has much less influence than the Israeli media. Palestinians are far more influenced by the Arab satellite stations.
Miftah does criticize the Arab media, but probably not as strongly as we voice our criticisms. What they are doing is providing some of the resources for building up Palestinian civil society. And there is excellent cooperation between us — even in the middle of war. We have a joint steering committee and we plan strategic forms of cooperation.
Two and a half years ago, the biggest demon in Israeli eyes, the terrorist with Jewish blood on his hands, Arafat, got sick and died. And two years later, the biggest demon in Palestinian eyes, the man with Palestinian blood on his hands, left the stage. It was a symmetrical moment in history, and it was very interesting to see how each media told the story. We analyzed the coverage of Arafat in Israel. The headlines were very ugly, really below the belt. Miftah analyzed the coverage of Sharon in the Palestinian media. It was 1-0, a moral victory for the Palestinians. They were much more respectful. I asked Dr. Ashrawi about this, and she said it was because they’re a traditional society: When somebody is dying, she said, we treat it with dignity, it’s a religious moment.
JC: The idea that there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side has also affected the Israeli peace movement in a paralyzing way, ever since Arafat refused to make a counter-offer to Barak and the second intifada broke out. Does this idea really lack credibility?
YB: The main question is whether this is a one-player game or a two-player game. Israel has also sometimes raised the level of heat in this struggle, or refused an offer without making a counter-offer.
But even before the Hamas election, the “no partner” narrative was being strongly enforced in the media. In one headline in Yediot Akhronot, Prime Minister Sharon is quoted as saying that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority] “will not survive” at the top of Palestinian leadership. We learn what Sharon really said only deep inside the article on the jump page: “In the coming period, it will become possible to estimate Abu Mazen’s chances for survival atop the Palestinian leadership.” Deeper in, the article continues: “Nevertheless, Sharon was cautious not to take an adamant position on the issue,” while “America sees in Abu Mazen the only Palestinian leader who can now lead the Palestinian people. Abu Mazen is the only game in town, and Israel needs to help him succeed.” Clearly, the headline is the work of an editor trying to shape the narrative.
Ma’ariv, meanwhile, made a double spread for Abu Mazen after a hundred days in office. The headlines: “He lacks the necessary leadership skills.” “The IDF is disappointed in him.” “He cannot control the hundreds of armed men.” But here are the last two paragraphs of one of the articles: “Nevertheless, while the general feeling at the highest levels of the IDF and the General Security Services is one of disappointment, there are also security officials who mainly emphasize the Palestinian Authority chairman’s achievements.” The piece then quotes these officials: “He completely turned public opinion in the Palestinian streets against attacks.” “He brought a very significant calming.” “It could be that his approach to calming by dialogue and not by civil war will turn out to be the right thing.”
Then came this last paragraph: “Despite everything, since he was elected, Abu Mazen has proved that he is successfully coping with challenges and difficulties, even if he is doing so at his own pace. The lack of faith [in him] that Israel is showing . . . creates a vicious circle. Israel will not help Abu Mazen as long as he is not strong enough, but those close to the chairman say, quite justifiably, that Abu Mazen will not become stronger without Israeli support.”
So here you have two reporters sending information from the field, and the editor creates headlines that highlight only one piece of the information. Responsible coverage would reflect the complexity that is always at the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, report the perspectives of both sides, report on the responsibility both sides have for escalating the conflict, and refrain from headlining only one perspective, however popular it may be, as the absolute truth.
JC: Have you had time yet to assess the media coverage of the war in Lebanon?
YB: One thing we know is that the media pushed Olmert to keep pressing the military operation right up to the deadline of the ceasefire. Olmert was opposed to the last military operation, but he was under very heavy pressure by IDF generals, public opinion, and the media. For what? The ceasefire was established. Hezbollah was very well armed. Israel had long ago withdrawn from South Lebanon. This was a real example of how media can pressure leaders to be more aggressive in a time of crisis.
Channel 10, which is privately owned, was an exception. They are much more critical than other media outlets, and they have some very brave reporters and editors.
JC: Their ratings went up considerably during the war in Lebanon. But Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, has now bought a 9 percent share of Channel 10. It may mean the end of a good thing.
YB: We will see.
JC: What do you honestly think are the ultimate goals of both the Israeli and Palestinian powers-that-be in this struggle?
YB: This question is also missing from the media! There is no discussion of the future, of what will be between us and the Palestinians. Of those two thousand stories on the Gaza disengagement that we studied, only eighty-eight referred to the political future of the region or of the Gaza Strip. Of these, only twenty-five items were placed to receive significant exposure.
JC: What about your own personal beliefs?
YB: I believe there is no one in Israel right now who is in a position to offer the Palestinians a settlement that involves withdrawing behind the 1967 borders, with some adjustments — and there is no Palestinian, however moderate, who can accept less than that. I think Sharon and Olmert hoped to settle the demographic challenges facing Israel by giving the Palestinians a very tiny Palestinian state, with most of the Palestinian population, while keeping some of the West Bank settlements.
So if there is no partner on the other side, it is, in part, because there is no realistic offer on our side.
Among the Palestinians, the only power who could have come to such compromise with the “Zionist entity” was the PLO, and now the PLO has almost collapsed. They were given ten years by the Palestinian people to solve the problem by negotiations, by political means, and they didn’t succeed. They brought nothing. During the peace process, the settlements in the West Bank were expanded twice. So now the people have turned away from the secular leaders to give a chance to Hamas.
Hamas cannot, ideologically, accept the idea that a Jewish state will remain in the region for the long term. It is against their theology. The best they can offer is a long ceasefire. Still, we have seen very close cooperation between Israeli security forces and Palestinian security forces against terrorism. You can find such information at the IDF website and in statements by Israeli generals. But the media persists in saying that there is no partner on the other side, no security efforts on other side —and they convince the Israeli public that this is so. This way of thinking leads our policymakers to the only conclusion: unilateralism.
The good news is that the reporters and editors have a very positive attitude towards our activity. They know that they are busy making the newspapers and newscasts of tomorrow; they don’t have time to look back and evaluate their work. At Channel 1, which is state-owned, they’ve asked us to show them how it could be done: to take their newscasts and present them differently, with less bias. We’re going to do it. And at four universities in Israel, we’re now offering courses in critical communications. We’re trying to influence not only today’s journalists, but the next generation.