Monday, March 31, 2003

One Neighborhood, Two Sets of Rules

We all know that there are three things that count in real estate: Location, Location, Location. North of 96th Street on Park Avenue, there is El Barrio, with tenements, men hanging around during the day, garbage all around – in short, a lower class neighborhood. South of 96th Street there are luxury apartments, fancy shops and affluence. A few short blocks make a world of difference.

So it is in the neighborhood called the Middle East. West of Jordan there is Israel and to the northeast there is Iraq. Both are now places of suicide bombings, the use of civilians as human shields, mistreatment of prisoners and the use of schools and religious places to hide arms and terrorists. There should be one set of rules for both places, one Geneva Convention and one standard for the media to judge what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, here too, geography makes for a world of difference, at least at CNN, BBC and nearly everywhere else in medialand. When Iraqis use men and women as human shields or stash weapons in mosques, they are strongly attacked for using tactics that nearly universally are regarded as offensive to decency. When Palestinians do much the same in Gaza or the West Bank, the likes of Christiane Amanpour regard them as heroes who are fighting against a brutal occupying force.

Israel’s siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where as many as 200 terrorists took shelter was roundly condemned by governments, including the U.S., and the media, despite painstaking efforts to protect both the Church and its clergy. In the end, Israel yielded to pressure and the worst of the lot were exiled to Gaza where doubtlessly they are now eyeless and uninvolved in terrorist activity, as they while away their time chewing sesame seeds.

Super-serious and supercilious as always, Dan Rather intoned on CBS radio that Israel had destroyed the entire Jenin refugee camp. That was a falsehood that he never retracted. Nor did he or other reporters seem to care that Israel had suffered substantial losses in Jenin because it took extraordinary steps to avoid harming citizens who were being used as human shields. Instead of reporting this, the media broadcast around the world to many tens of millions of listeners a fabricated story of Israeli atrocities.

Our government is greatly distressed because American prisoners of war were displayed on Iraqi television, apparently in violation of the Geneva Convention. Israel should be so lucky that its soldiers in Arab captivity would be so mistreated. For them there are no television appearances, no Red Cross, no Geneva Convention and no prisoner exchanges. Their fate is torture and death, as well as the complicity of silence by some of the same reporters who now speak of Iraqi barbaric treatment of U.S. soldiers who were taken prisoner.

There is no reason to suppose that when the war ends the media will learn from the Iraq experience and look differently at Israel’s confrontation with terrorism. The double standard is not a recent invention and while recent events have put it into sharper focus, its continuation is predicated on media nastiness toward Israel and that is not likely to change any time soon. Even as the Iraqi campaign spreads and thousands of innocent civilians are being killed or injured, there is a drumbeat of criticism of Israeli actions that unfortunately result in the death of a very small number of civilians. The New York Times has maintained its nearly daily quota of at least one anti-Israel story that describes how the Israeli military mistreats Palestinians.

In a sense, Israel abets the negative image portrayed by the media by allowing reporters to closely monitor its military operations. Reporters covering Israel are as closely attached to army units as Ruth was to Naomi, although only for the “whither thou goest, I shall go and where you lodge, I shall lodge” portion of the speech. As battles were being fought In Jenin and Gaza and elsewhere, there were reporters and cameramen on the scene and also Arabs who were too eager to give a distorted view of what was transpiring to journalists who were too willing to be duped.

Especially since the media employ a double standard, Israel should restrict access to its military activity. Israel and its supporters also should take a more aggressive approach in refuting media distortions and it must call newspapers and broadcasters to account when they employ a double-standard.

On the road to war, the Bush administration strongly signaled its intention to announce a road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace after Saddam Hussein is deposed. It was already evident before hostilities with Iraq that Israel would have difficulty accepting certain of the provisions of the road map. Furthermore, the indication was that Israel would be subjected to great pressure from the U.S. because of commitments it made to Great Britain and Arab countries that in one way or another have supported the U.S. decision to go to war.

Now that fighting is underway and Arab public opinion has coalesced against the United States, there is the powerful likelihood that the terms of the road map will be made harsher for Israel and that the White House will be determined to compel Israel to accept conditions that Israeli leaders believe are injurious to their country.

While American Jewish supporters of Israel generally support military action against Iraq, it turns out that Arab and Islamic resentment and alienation will serve as the catalyst for what might may be a crisis in American-Israeli relations as the Bush administration seeks to maintain – I think understandably – a measure of good will in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This is a troubling development, but it should not be all that surprising. While the outcome of the war against Iraq is predictable, it is never easy to predict in advance of hostilities what the post-war geopolitical alignment will be like.