Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Language and the Middle East 'peace' talks

Readers of this Web site are by now aware that an issue I keep revisiting is that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partly as a result of my past profession but also because how the media reports on it epitomizes how language creates our reality, something that has long been an interest of mine. Another reason why I often come back to this particular conflict is that, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt so aptly put it in their quite useful The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, as a purported Western democracy, Israel should be judged by higher moral standards than the supposed “radicals” and “extremists” and “terrorists” who oppose it.

The fact that it is not, that the media and the Jewish state’s Western allies continue to give it a moral carte blanche no matter what, underscores the reason why the new round of “peace” talks in Annapolis is, as the Palestinian “radicals” put it, “doomed to failure.”

The Associated Press wire agency, whose reporting I have dissected in previous postings, continues to systematically editorialize its news on the conflict. As AP is carried by newspapers the world over and its credibility assumed by most, how it represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to influence — oftentimes subconsciously — people’s understanding of the issue. AP’s bias, constant though it is, doesn’t stem from a Zionist plot or a deliberate attempt to demonize Palestinians. Rather, it is symptomatic of a Western way of storytelling, in which there must be a “good” party and a “bad” one. The latter has all the mysteriousness and irrationalism of religion and violence attached to it, the “unknown” that creates fear among the civilized “us.”

A perfect example of this can be found in AP’s coverage of the demonstrations yesterday against the Middle East "peace" conference in Annapolis. The story, datelined Gaza City, opens with “Tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip demonstrated Tuesday against the Middle East peace conference in the US,” then spends the next 25 of 27 paragraphs describing Palestinian violence, threats of the “destruction of Israel” by Hamas and crowds chanting “death to America,” and so on.

Only the last two paragraphs — two out of the story’s total 28 — describe Israeli opposition to the peace talks, stating that “[m]ore than 20,000” Israelis gathered to demonstrate against the talks and that “hard-line” (a more neutral term that also conveys a sense of being part of the ‘acceptable’ political spectrum) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had “denounced” the conference.

The imbalance could not be any more stark. Ninety-two point five percent of the story focuses on “militants” using “vitriolic” language to attack the “peace” talks, even quoting a 37-year-old Palestinian mother of eight, “[d]ressed in a black robe and black and green headband,” (again, sustaining the image of the unknown, which otherwise does not serve any journalistic purpose) who adds that the failure of the talks “will be an advantage for the resistance.” Only 7.5 percent of AP’s report addresses Israeli opposition to the talks, and furthermore readers are given a more precise number of demonstrators — more than 20,000 — than what we are told about Palestinians, which is no more precise than in the “tens of thousands,” a convenient quantity blur that encourages the view of swarms of irrational Palestinians against the more scientific, knowable Israelis.

Why couldn’t AP open its story with a Jerusalem dateline and represent the two demonstrations with more balance, perhaps by quoting Israelis who use a language of intolerance as "radical” as that used by the Palestinians quoted in the story? By failing to do this and by disproportionately reporting on Palestinian demonstrations, the latter are once again portrayed as opposing peace. If and when the talks in Annapolis fail — for they will — it will once again be the Palestinians who are blamed, irrespective of the fact that it is quite apparent that, like all its predecessors, the Israeli leadership is coming to the negotiating table less than willing to make the concessions that would open the way for a viable Palestinian state.

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