The BBC is Listening

February 8, 2004
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Article published in The Jerusalem Post on 8th February 2004

Making the case for Israel should, in theory, be easy.

Its achievements are vast and have no parallel in any other country of comparable size or age. They have been reached against an unremitting threat of violence, war, terror and delegitimation that might have defeated any lesser people.

In almost every sphere – economic development, technology, integration of immigrants and the maintenance of democracy – Israel should today be internationally heralded as a model for others to emulate.

Above all, Israel has pursued peace. In a mere 10 years it made a cognitive leap for which it would be hard to find a precedent. In 1990 the PLO was a proscribed terrorist organization with whom it was forbidden to make contact.

By 2000 the Israeli Prime Minister had offered its leader a Palestinian state in the whole of Gaza and 97 per cent of the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Students of international politics hail the European Union as a triumph of peace over war. How many are aware that the attitudinal changes that took France and Germany three centuries, were achieved in Israel in a single decade?

The case for Israel should be apparent even to thoroughgoing supporters of the Palestinians. Who else has offered them a genuine future? Egypt? Jordan? Syria? The Gulf States?

It takes only a cursory glance at the history of the Middle East to realize that for the most part, neighboring states have ruthlessly exploited the Palestinians for their own ends with callous indifference to the consequences.

Two years ago I had the chance to discuss the Middle East with Bill Clinton, who was on a speaking tour of Britain. He told me something extraordinary, namely that Yasser Arafat had said to him, in a moment of candor, "Do you think we are unaware that you [the Americans] care more about our Palestinian children than our Arab neighbors do?"

Israel, alone in the Middle East, has attempted to construct, with and for the Palestinians, a viable and peaceful future.

Yet – at least in Europe as opposed to the United States – Israel has not won the argument since 9/11, at least not in significant sections of the media or public opinion. A recent poll, for example, showed that in every country in Europe people regarded the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the single greatest threat to world peace.

Why has Israel lost the argument in some sectors of Western opinion? Some will say, 'twas ever thus. Europe, in this view (shared by many Israelis and Americans), is irretrievably anti-Semitic. All that has changed is the focus of antisemitism: from Jews as individuals to Israel as the Jewish state.

This may be true. I cannot tell. But true or not, it is not the best basis on which to proceed. It is defeatist, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leads people not to try to influence public opinion, on the grounds that all efforts are certain to fail. What is left is a kind of impotent anger – and impotent anger is neither healthy nor constructive.

Jews and Israel do have enemies. They also have friends. But friends must be cultivated and enemies (as far as possible) neutralized, if an honest picture of Israel is to emerge.

So strongly do I believe this that I led a mission of (non-Jewish) journalists to Israel at the start of the present conflict. In January of this year I took a mission of Anglo-Jewish rabbis to the headquarters of the BBC in Jerusalem to protest about its coverage of the Middle East. Some months ago, addressing the top 100 executives of the BBC, I spoke about the need for balance and contextualization in covering the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

At critical points – when, for example, the media were talking about a "massacre" in Jenin – I went on the BBC to refute Palestinian claims and insist that when the facts were known it would be clear that, to the contrary, Israeli casualties would be high precisely because of the extra risks they took to avoid civilian casualties.

But influencing public opinion has ground rules, and they are different in each country. In Britain they require a certain tone of voice: subtlety, the use of nuance and an absence of stridency. This is not always understood by Israelis or members of the Jewish community who sometimes feel that the purpose of a media intervention is to make Jews feel better rather than to persuade the unpersuaded. Shreying gevalt may be good therapy, but it is poor hasbara.

The BBC has begun to address our concerns about its reporting, not least by appointing Malcolm Balen to monitor its Middle East output.

Following the Hutton Report and the resignation of its chairman and director general, it will have to engage in self-examination as to the objectivity and impartiality of its news output.

Now is the moment for constructive engagement, not anger and vituperation. If stridency worked, the image of Israel in Europe would be different than it is today. It doesn't work, and that is why some of us who care passionately about Israel and its image will choose a different way.