Saturday, July 11, 2009

Media Coverage? Israeli Policy? You be the Judge


Barry Rubin

Uzi Arad, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's national security advisor, gave a fascinating, broad, and detailed interview to one of Israel's top reporters. Arad explained why he didn't believe there was any real Palestinian partner for peace, discussed the tremendous importance of the Iranian nuclear issue, and said a number of important things--many of them for the first time--explaining the regional situation and Israel's policy. So how did the Associated Press, the world's biggest provider of news to the media, cover it? Almost every word was devoted to saying that Israel wasn't planning to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights to give it to Syria. The headline by the way, is "No Golan Pullout for Peace," implying that Israel wouldn't give up the land even in exchange for peace, while Arad's clear point is that Israel doesn't believe it would get peace even if it gave up the whole Golan Heights, a rather crucial difference!

And how did Reuters cover it? Just as narrowly but choosing a different, equivalent, angle, that Israel threatened to hit Iran with nuclear weapons if Iran attacked Israel using them. What did this leave out? A whole discussion of the threat from the Iranian regime to destroy Israel and how it might be countered in a variety of ways.

I've been talking for years about how much of the media--and especially the wire services--never really report Israel's positions, analyses, and explanations for its behavior. Now here is a superb example.

Compare the two and see. And if you want to understand Israeli policy, read the Arad interview.

Misunderstanding Syria: How the Media Leaves out the Important Stuff

Posted: 10 Jul 2009 02:32 AM PDT
By Barry Rubin

Western coverage of the Arabic-speaking world is often a trifle one-sided, to say the least. Take the question of Syria. Hundreds of articles present the case for Syria becoming more moderate and engaging with the West without even mentioning factors to the contrary. Today, let’s consider Sam. F. Ghattas, “Syria mends US, Arab ties as ally Iran in turmoil,” Associated Press, July 3, 2009.

In general, this article is professionally done which makes this kind of distortion all the more noticeable.

Briefly the story is this:

“Syria's leader sent a July 4 message full of praise to President Barack Obama on Friday and invited him to visit Syria , the latest signs Damascus is hedging its bets in Mideast politics, warming up to its rival the United States at a time when its longtime ally Iran is in turmoil.”

“The United States and its Arab allies have been hoping to pull Syria out of the fold of Iran and Islamic militant groups in the region.”

Ok, fair enough. But what’s missing? Ghattas gives all the reasons why Syria might go along with this but none of the reasons why it might not! True, he writes: “Damascus so far appears unlikely to take such a dramatic step, but it does appear worried about Iran's reliability and the long-term impact of that country's postelection unrest. Also, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah suffered a setback when its coalition failed to win June parliament elections, beaten out by a pro-U.S. bloc.”

He continues that events make dialogue “look even more attractive,” quotes Assad’s “peace” rhetoric extensively, says success with Syria would be a major victory, quotes the Syrian dictator’s wife and a pro-Syrian newspaper editor on how the regime wants good relations with the United States, and points out that Iran has problems following the internal crisis over the stolen election. It tells us:

“Syria also wants U.S. economic sanctions lifted and foreign investment, particularly Gulf Arab money for its economy. It is also wary of an international tribunal set up to try the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut at a time when Syria controlled the country.”

But what doesn’t it tell us?

--Syria is ruled by a radical, anti-American dictatorship which directs its media to produce a high daily level of hatred and antisemitism (for example, a multi-part television series showing Jews as seeking to take over the world and drinking the blood of non-Jewish children).

--The regime regime, of course, genuinely mistrusts America and the West and would never abandon a reliable, fellow radical ally to throw itself on the West's mercy.
--Iran provides badly needed Islamic religious cover for Syria’s non-Muslim rulers.

--Iran provides extremely important strategic depth for Syria whose alternative would be to throw itself on the mercy of Americans and Europeans it mistrusts. Once Iran gets nuclear weapons--which the Syrian leadership knows is on the way--it will be an even more indispensible ally.

--Syria is sponsoring terrorism against American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Iraq, as well as against Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

--Iran pays for Syria’s weapons. Is America going to do this? Of course not. So how could Syria possibly switch?

--Iran subsidizes Syria’s (and Iran’s) clients Hamas and Hizballah.

--If Syria were to open for “foreign investment” the regime would risk its tight control over the economy and country, having seen how such a step in Communist countries led to the regime’s downfall.

--If Syria were to make peace with Israel, it would face pressure from hardliners who would deem it to be traitorous and demands from citizens for more democracy. Making peace with Israel would be disastrous for the regime.

Not a single one of these points is made or even hinted at? Why not? Such arguments are almost always left out of articles. Many newspapers run op-eds or articles claiming that Syria can be wooed away from Iran and is becoming more moderate without mentioning, much less refuting, all these points.

So while this article contains none of the annoying open propagandizing so common today, it is still ridiculously one-sided. The job of news stories or analyses is not to present a thesis and then ignore every counter argument. It should either be balanced or at least honestly present evidence to the contrary and then prove why the author’s thesis is correct.

And consequently, Syria is profoundly misunderstood in Western policymaking circles, making the fantasy of Syria leaving the radical camp something credible in which time, resources, and concessions are invested.

More Attacks in Iraq? Some Things Can be Predicted in the Middle East

Posted: 09 Jul 2009 12:00 PM PDT
By Barry Rubin

Some things in the Middle East should be totally predictable. When U.S. forces pull out of Iraqi cities, of course terrorists are going to increase attacks to the highest possible level.

This is, of course, what’s happening now. In effect, the terrorists are saying that the U.S. effort didn’t work and that the Iraqi government cannot protect citizens from the revolutionary Islamist forces. It also may show that Syria, which to some extent controls the inflow of terrorists, can cause trouble so Washington better be nice to it. Sort of like the local gangsters going into a store and breaking things to ensure the flow of “protection” money.

What else is predictable? Lots of things! For example if Israel-Palestinian peace ever appeared closer to achievement (which isn’t going to happen for a long time) terrorists will increase attacks in order to destroy any possibility of success. Of course, knowing that they would be targeted for agreeing to a compromise peace is the last of many arguments that ensures Palestinian Authority leaders won’t make such an agreement.

It’s predictable that the current course of Western diplomacy won’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, or persuade Arab states to help in the peace process. It’s predictable that Iran getting nuclear weapons would set off a wave of Islamist recruitment and violence that could dwarf previous destruction from such operations.

A lot is predictable for those who really know the region. Of course, for those whose knowledge is superficial or just plain wrong, they will always guess wrong. If only someone was keeping score perhaps it would be possible to separate the charlatans from the authoritative..

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