The road map is not a long or difficult document, yet some in the media have an astonishingly hard time keeping its basics straight. Key written provisos, prepared by an international “quartet” of the E.U., UN, Russia and the US, are regularly cast as irritating “demands” laid down by Israel.
Agence France Presse's Hisham Abdallah, for example, reported on July 19:
A government spokesman said Sharon intended to press Abbas to ‘dismantle terrorist infrastructures’ - a demand repeatedly put forward by the Israeli premier with US backing.
The “demand” is, of course, a central tenet of the document on which the current peace effort is based. Phase I of the road map explicitly requires not only “an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere,” but also stipulates that the PA “undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks.” PA security forces are to begin “sustained, targeted, and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror” as well as the “dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”
Reports often muddy the matter, as in an Associated Press story (July 27) by Jill Lawless saying:
Bush also said terrorism must be rooted out, an apparent nod to Sharon's demand that the Palestinians move to disarm the militant groups. The road map says the Palestinians must dismantle 'the infrastructure' of the groups; Abbas refuses to do that by force, preferring persuasion.
The notion that calls for disarming and dismantling terrorist groups are a “nod” to Sharon, not a core component of peace, is curious - as is the offhand reference to Abbas essentially refusing to implement this obligation of the road map.
Chris McGreal in Britain's Guardian took the same tack, noting at the close of his July 28 piece that:
the Israeli government is again pressing its demand that the Palestinian leadership meet a road map obligation to disarm and dismantle groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Mr. Abbas has repeatedly rejected any such move, saying it would provoke a Palestinian civil war.
But few stories match that in the July 25 Economist entitled “Making the most of the ceasefire; Bush's Middle East talks.” Beyond the familiar pique with Israel evinced by the magazine, and indulgence of Palestinian positions, there are near-comic euphemisms regarding events and aspects of the road map.
The writer applauds a “truce” achieved by Palestinian militant leaders halting violence that “had threatened to wreck the Middle East peace process.”
Threatened? After nearly three years of bombs exploding in Israeli cities killing hundreds, and retaliatory actions inflicting heavy casualties on Palestinians, had the writer not noticed the “peace process” was already wrecked?
Solicitous of Mahmoud Abbas, the Economist writes not only that Israel and America “must help" him in his “challenges” against the “old guard - especially Yasser Arafat” and “young, militant leaders” but the publication also sees the “release of Palestinian prisoners,” though not “a formal part of the road map," as “the main obstacle to progress on the peace plan.”
The magazine laments that Israel “has promised to free only 400 of the more than 6,000 Palestinians it holds... And it continues to arrest those it suspects of planning attacks.”
How unreasonable, arresting possible terrorists and thwarting attacks!
Having itemized these and other grievances of the Palestinians, the Economist turns briefly to expectations of Abbas. With apparent annoyance, the writer avers that the Palestinian leader “is too weak to disarm the militants. However, Mr. Sharon is demanding that Mr. Abbas send his police to close the workshops in Gaza that continue to make and test missiles, even though the militants have stopped firing them at Israel.”
Again, how unreasonable, closing missile-building workshops in pursuit of peace! The Economist writer then gives readers a bit of news - that Palestinians “are ready to give up violence for negotiations, and accept the Palestinian Authority's security obligations under the road map.”
Perhaps the magazine would be less peevish about Israel's “demands” of Abbas and the PA if it bothered to take note of Palestinian polls contradicting its own sanguine view. The Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, for example, a well-known Palestinian polling agency, found in its latest survey from April 2003 “a great majority of Palestinians, 75.3 percent, remained strongly or somewhat supportive of continuing the al-Aqsa Intifada.” And “as for suicide bombing operations against Israeli civilians, there is a slight trend of decreased support” down to 59.9%.
Any fairminded reader, if previously not fully comprehending the Quartet's, and Israel's, insistence on dismantling of the terror infrastructure would be moved by such polls to see the necessity of doing so. But then, fairmindedness is a quality all too often lacking in Economist coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post on July 31, 2003.