Unlike recent posts that have analyzed media performances, today I want to present some direct political criticism. Rather than “perform” our distinguished art of analysis, as we have recently been doing on this blog, I want to underscore the notion that powerful media set our agenda and our performing analyses are determined by what is given to us by media as bones to chew, often with quite negative results. Nothing original, but the topic and the circumstances are.
There is a fundamental difference between the way news is produced and read in the United States and Europe. Here, we have one or two authoritative print sources. Thus, much of the reflection presented at Deliberately Considered draws on reports from The New York Times. This is in sharp contrast to European practice. I miss my daily reading of at least two or three newspapers to tap into contrasting opinions or sources of information. The near monopoly in America is troublesome. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I worry that there can develop an unquestioned prevailing commonsense, with the media reiterating the obvious, instead of challenging dominant points of view and generating new areas of debate.
This struck me in the reports and commentary concerning the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, announced two weeks ago. All of what has been written in the Times columns since the surprise reconciliation announcement in Cairo has re-hashed the usual storyline: Hamas is not a peace partner. Israel has good reason to feel threatened by a national unity government, and Congress should use aid as a threat to push moderates not to accept a deal with the Islamists. This Monday, an editorial summed up the argument.
The only good thing in this editorial was its subtitle, “Continued stalemate with Israel will only strengthen extremists,” but, ironically, this disappeared in the online version. Indeed, the remainder of the piece is just a series of peremptory remarks (“we have many concerns,” “the answer, to us, is clear…”) and hollow statements. Yet, intriguingly, the top ten most recommended replies to the online version were all critical of Israel, showing how people can resist the newspaper’s views.
Nonetheless, I am deeply concerned: first, because this commentary illustrates how the media tend to have short memories when it comes to the Middle East. It is strikingly odd to say, “Fatah was committed to peace” when, at the peak of the second intifada or twenty years ago, Fatah was as much the enemy of peace (Arafat the arch-terrorist) as Hamas. As striking is the apparent obliviousness to the fact that Israel actively favored the emergence of Hamas back in the 1970s and 1980s in order to undermine the influence of the P.L.O.
Second, the usual argument about pre-conditions to return to negotiation is seriously flawed. Hamas, it is well known, should recognize the Quartet’s three principles announced in January 2006, namely renouncement of violence, accepting previous agreements and recognition of Israel. But, as other experts have underlined in a report analyzing the problematic western policies vis a vis Hamas:
“With the exception of the conditionality on violence, these political conditions are legally dubious, a fact whose seriousness is magnified by the participation of the U.N., in the Quartet. The conditionality on Israel’s recognition has no legal grounding in so far as only states (and at most the PLO as the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, of which Hamas is not yet part), and not political parties, can recognize other states. Furthermore, as Palestinians promptly note, the peace process between Israel and other Arab states has never been made conditional upon the Arab world’s recognition of Israel or its right to exist.” (Report by Nathalie Tocci What Went Wrong? The Impact of Western Policies towards Hamas and Hizbollah. CEPS Policy Brief No. 135, 16 July 2007).
Third, the western chancelleries’ idée fixe that current West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayaad must remain in this position in a national unity government is also an insult to most of the Palestinians. Remember, his party won only 2.4% of the national votes in the last legislative election in 2006, so there are legitimate reasons for many Palestinians to ask for a change.
Fourth, the aid argument is used again in this Times editorial, as elsewhere in Yemen, or earlier in Egypt, in relation to negative conditionality (“If you don’t do this, we will cut our aid.”). It is sad to see aid, in this dominant line of reasoning, being used as a stick, rather than as a carrot promoting actors towards pluralism, effective cross-partisan collaboration or much-needed reforms in the field of education or justice.
Finally, there has been little critical reflection as to why the transition government in Egypt, busy with so many important changes at home, would focus such effort on the moribund reconciliation process that failed under Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman since 2007. Why did Egypt recently declare its willingness to keep Rafah’s crossing continuously open, and even worse (ultimate crise de lèse-majesté) to state that it would welcome the recognition of a Palestinian State in September by the General UN Assembly (the body that voted for the creation of Israel back in 1948)? Maybe one should reflect on these questions and realize that the past stalemate around Gaza was simply not viable. One way for the current government in Egypt to ease the pressure exerted by its population and the Islamists was to take effective measures to bring the Gaza situation closer to normalcy. What Egypt has been doing in the last weeks in relation to the Palestinian issue is sound politics, and the fact that Turkey has also supported these changes gives more regional credibility to this initiative.
Yes, continued stalemates will only strengthen extremists.