Mideast upheaval has undermined long-held dogma blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the region's instability
Most of the Western World, including the media, were caught off guard by the mass demonstrations that spread throughout the Arab world in early 2011. Though popular dissatisfaction with autocratic Arab regimes had been percolating for years, the media had been preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American involvement in Iraq.
Only a few years ago the conventional wisdom held that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the root cause of the region's instability. Since Jan. 2011, a different picture has emerged. Israel's presence as an island of stability in an otherwise volatile region calls into question the emphasis news organizations gave to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the media devoted enourmous resources to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did it miss more essential causes of regional instability?
Journalists have long flocked to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to cover every hiccup of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A sparsely attended demonstration against the security barrier, an ownership dispute over a home in east Jerusalem, a sporadic act of vandalism in the West Bank, all prompted international media coverage. Activist groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others operated in tandem with the media, compiling dense reports documenting in fine detail alleged Israeli infractions against the Palestinians. These reports duplicated the efforts of already redundant United Nations organizations like U.N.R.W.A. and the Human Rights Council.
When Western activists injected themselves into the conflict, coverage was amplified. Two "aid" flotillas to Gaza carrying no actual needed aid generated extensive coverage. When an American college girl named Rachel Corrie lost her life while interfering with an Israeli brush-clearing operation near the Israeli-Gaza border, an extended media campaign followed prompting a theatrical production about her life and on-going activism.
Palestinian grievances became the celebrated cause on college campuses, in churches and at film festivals. Periodic Israeli military responses to Palestinian terrorism provoked saturated news coverage for weeks. In an environment animated by hyper-scrutiny of every Israeli action, it is no surprise that a poll conducted in Europe in 2003 by the European Commission labeled Israel the greatest threat to world peace. Meanwhile, with the exception of American involvement in Iraq, the rest of the vast region received only sporadic attention.
In Arab societies burdened with endemic human rights abuses and hardship, popular discontent finally boiled over in 2011. The news media took notice. Western audiences learned of a bitter Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide not just in Iraq, but tearing apart Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. In Syria and Iraq, the scale of the violence in the past two years alone claimed more victims than the cumulative toll of the Israeli-Arab conflict over the last hundred years.
Even further from the media's radar was a conflict pitting Saudi Arabia and the status-quo regimes against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This contest between competing versions of political Islam extends into Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan , Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Palestinian autonomous territories, North Africa and Iraq. Prior to the establishment and subsequent overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2012-2013, it received only occasional brief attention from the mainstream media.
Evidence of the media's preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian confict at the expense of broader regional crises is not hard to come by. The vast imbalance in coverage can be quantified. Compare, for example, the volume of articles produced by The New York Times and the Associated Press [AP] addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the number of articles dealing with the political conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the most influential status-quo regime, Saudi Arabia.
Using the news database, Lexis-Nexis, a query on The New York Times articles published between Sept. 11, 2001 and Jan. 1, 2011 that contain both the terms "Palestinian(s)" and "Israel(i)," found 14,061 news reports, analysis pieces, columns and editorials.
A query on articles containing "Muslim Brotherhood" and "Saudi Arabia" - the two poles in the inter-Sunni regional conflict - turned up only 110 hits over the same time period. In other words, for every one item mentioning both the "Muslim Brotherhood" and "Saudi Arabia," 128 items mentioning both "Israel"and "Palestinian" were found.
A similar search was done on the Associated Press, whose stories are used by many newspapers and news organizations. The time period from Sept. 11, 2001 to Jan. 1, 2011 was used. This query turned up 26,117 articles in which both "Israel(i)" and "Palestinian(s)" appeared. Only 149 articles contained both the "Muslim Brotherhood" and "Saudi Arabia." This calculates to a ratio of 175 to one.
Even since the outbreak of Arab unrest, the Times continued to devote more articles to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than to the conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. Between Jan. 1, 2011 and July 1, 2013, a query turned up 2,357 articles containing both "Israel" and "Palestinian" versus 140 containing "Saudi Arabia" and "Muslim Brotherhood," nearly a 17 to one ratio. This at a time when Israel, the West Bank and Gaza have been mostly quiet, while Egypt has undergone regime change, elections, regime change again, anti-Christian riots and continuing tumult.
It might be argued that the media responds to the preferences of Western audiences, who show greater interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than in inter-Muslim conflict. But is such imbalance in coverage justified ? One way to evaluate this question is to look at quantifiable elements.
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood has impact on countries with a population of 110 million (Egypt has 85 million, Saudi Arabia 25 million). By contrast, there are about 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and eight million Israelis. So the Muslim Brotherhood-Saudi conflict directly affects a population 10 times larger. On a per capita basis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received 1,000 times more coverage than the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia. If the expanded fault lines of conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and existing Arab regimes is considered, some 250 million people are directly affected. Furthermore, the strife is not confined to the Arab world. Its repercussions are felt in Western countries with significant Muslim populations.
Logically, the intensity of a conflict would also affect the amount of coverage. But here too it is hard to justify the attention paid to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a low-intensity conflict by any objective measure. Since September 2000, when the Second Intifada broke out until today, about 6,000 Palestinians and about 1,200 Israelis lost their lives due to Israeli-Palestinian violence. This contrasts with conflicts pitting Muslim Brotherhood affiliates against autocratic Arab regimes resulting in hundreds of thousands of victims, with no end in sight. While the violence has escalated since January 2011, the catalysts fueling the violence were in place long before and deserved more attention.
Journalists and activists point to the hardship and alleged abuses experienced by the Palestinian population to justify the attention devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is nothing unique to the hardships that Palestinians experience. In fact, due to ample Western aid flowing to the Palestinians in the West Bank and even Gaza, Palestinians enjoy better access to clean water, health care, child immunizations and sufficient nutrition than do the majority of the region's Arab inhabitants. Even the impositions of Israeli security measures and the lack of full political autonomy do not distinguish the Palestinian predicament from the experiences of most of the regions inhabitants.
Misreading the Muslim Brotherhood
One of the repercussions of the preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that news organizations failed to provide adequate contextual background on broader regional conflicts to their audiences. It is useful to look at The New York Times, widely believed to provide the most comprehensive coverage and analysis of the region for American audiences.
The Times's Middle East correspondents Michael Slackman, Mark Landler, Neal MacFarquhar and David Kirkpatrick did occasionally mention the enmity between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the sort of in-depth analysis and consistent reporting characteristic of its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not replicated in the rest of the region.
David Kirkpatrick, The Times chief correspondent in Egypt, summarized on July 13, 2012, that "The Islamist movement has long opposed the Saudi monarchy as a decadent, hypocritical and undemocratic tool of Western interests in the region ..." Yet he consistently underestimated the Brotherhood's commitment to its own extreme agenda. As late as Sept. 24, 2012, Kirkpatrick argued that the Muslim Brotherhood had reformed, assuring readers that it had jettisoned much of the extreme ideology of the Brotherhood's founders, like Sayyid Qutb. Kirkpatrick wrote:
But I find Qutb often looms larger in the West these days than he does in Egypt or the Middle East, because his later ideas became the foundation of a different, far more militant and antidemocratic strain of Islamist thinking that led to Al Qaeda...
Contending that the assumption of governmental responsibilities would moderate the Brotherhood, Kirkpatrick followed a well-trodden path. This fallacy that extreme ideologues moderate their behavior when confronted with the burdens of governance was proven false in the 1920s with the Bolsheviks in Russia and after 1933 with the Nazis in Germany. Yet, it is so appealing to those averse to conflict, that it reemerges whenever uncompromising movements take power. Where is the example Kirkpatrick can point to of the Muslim Brotherhood moderating once it is firmly in control?
The Times and other media did not clarify to their audiences that the Brotherhood leaders have never veered from their stated goal of eradicating the Jewish state. Nevertheless, during a question and answer session for journalists on Sept. 24, 2012, Kirkpatrick reassured a questioner that "The stated goal [of the Brotherhood] is putting more pressure on Israel to ensure Palestinian self-rule not wiping Israel off the map." On further questioning, however, he admitted that he hadn't found time to ask Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi about Israel.
Ten months later, appearing on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" on July 22, 2013 Kirkpatrick assured listeners that the Muslim Brotherhood "didn't do anything that is noticeably Islamic" during its brief governmental reign.
Eric Trager, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, has a less sanguine view. He describes the group as a "totalitarian cult," whose members are firmly bound to their extreme ideology. Trager dismisses the notion that somehow they would transform into something more reasonable after assuming the responsibility of governing. He points out that, in fact, the opposite occurred. Morsi quickly attempted to insert Muslim Brotherhood figures throughout Egypt. In Trager's view, the fact that Morsi did not act to implement the broader program of the Brotherhood in Tragers view reflects incompetence and the failure to devise a coherent plan of action.
Others at the Times, however, expressed a similar perspective to Kirkpatrick. Columnists Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof and correspondent Steven Erlanger also lulled their readers with the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood was transitioning towards a more pragmatic and modern outlook.
In a Dec. 8, 2011 column, Kristof wrote of a conversation with a young female Muslim Brotherhood supporter who portrayed the Brotherhood as making efforts to appeal to younger more progressive types. Kristof wrote, "My interviews with supporters suggest that the Brotherhood is far more complex than the caricature that scares many Americans."
Columnist Roger Cohen was impressed by Morsi's post-graduate education in America, assuming exposure to American culture would make the new Egyptian president a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Islamist leader. Such misplaced optimism is remniscent of how the media greeted the appointment of harsh regime apparatchik Yuri Andropov to the Soviet leadership in 1982. News media, including the Times, gushed that Andropov enjoyed listening to jazz, collecting abstract art and spoke fluent English. As if that made a difference.
During the Times question and answer session with journalists on Sept. 24, 2012, Erlanger downplayed the Muslim Brotherhood's extremism, drawing a comparison to Singapore's authoritarian, but hardly extremist, leader Lee Kwan Yew.
Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew often talked of Asian values as different from Western values on social issues as well as issues of human rights. And Beijing's leaders are very aggressive in stating the same thing. Mr. Morsi is breaking no new ground here.
Erlanger judged "Mr. Morsi is a man with a lot of good will." He admired, he said, "the openness and inclusiveness of America," and he admired, too, he said, "the way that Americans worked hard and managed their time."
In such a propitious milieu, it is not surprising that one of the questioners volunteered, " My first impression is that Mr. Morsi sounds a lot more agreeable, logical, sensible and more contemplative than his counterpart in Israel." Only a few months later, on January 14, 2013, the Times belatedly revealed Morsi's "sensible and more contemplative" side reporting on comments he made in 2010 describing the Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "descendants of apes and pigs."
As it turned out, President Morsi proved to be inflexible and incapable of building bridges to non-Islamist groups. He was firmly aligned with the Brotherhood's hardline ideology. This should not have come as a surprise to the Times. In 2010 Middle East analysts from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, commenting upon changes in the Brotherhood's leadership, predicted the growing strength of its conservative element and the marginalization of its reformists.
Pointing out the knowledge gaps at the Times only serves to highlight the problem among other news purveyors that follow the Times' lead. The television networks demonstrated a similar focus on Israel and the Palestinians, giving little in-depth coverage of the rest of the region prior to the mass demonstrations in 2011. Unfortunately, Christiane Amanpour's August 2007 "God's Religious Warriors,"one of the few news programs prior to 2011 to feature the Muslim Brotherhood, misled with a grossly distorted portrait of a moderating, modernizing Brotherhood organization in Egypt. Morsi's brief tenure refuted this depiction.
In the wake of Morsi's overthrow by the Egyptian military after mass demonstrations spurred by the Muslim Brotherhood government's inability to govern, The New York Times seems to have modified its message. In a sharply worded editorial titled "Dangerous Divisions in the Arab World" on June 29, 2013, the author expresses alarm at the "pernicious sectarianism that was largely repressed by pre-Arab Spring dictators but that now threatens Egypt and much of the Arab world." The Times confirms that Morsi and the Brotherhood opted for "solidified ties to Salafist hard-liners"and "derided opponents, including many secularists, as 'enemies of Egypt.'" The editorial concludes by observing "that nurturing hatreds, for whatever reason, inevitably backfires and makes stable societies impossible."
Having finally arrived at this assessment of the pathologies running amuck in modern Arab societies, the Times should now apply this wisdom to Palestinian society and coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.