Tuesday, March 17, 2009

‘Ultranationalists’ versus ‘terrorists’

News broke out on Tuesday that Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to strengthen the position of his minority Likud party in parliament, had brought into his “unity government” Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who, in Reuters’ words, is “a far-right politician whose policies have raised Arab ire and international concern.”

In its coverage, Agence France-Presse referred to the future Israeli foreign minister Lieberman — who among other things supports continued illegal settlements in the West Bank (he is himself a resident of one, Nokdim) as well as law that would force Arab Israelis to sign an oath of loyalty to Israel or lose their citizenship — as an “ultranationalist,” a “controversial firebrand” and, quoting his detractors, a “racist.” The Associated Press, for its part, also used the designation “ultranationalist” and “racism” in describing him, while the Guardian newspaper called him an “outspoken far-right Israeli politician” and “unashamed hardliner, adding that the former nightclub bouncer from Moldova had resigned from the government in protest at the resumption of peace talks with Palestinians.

The New York Times, meanwhile, referred to Lieberman as a “nationalist” and “often indelicate and outspoken politician whose threatening language aimed at Arabs arouses suspicion and some trepidation abroad.”

Five news organizations. One “ultranationalist” whose party — which would also handle the internal security, infrastructure, tourism and integration of new immigrants portfolios in the “unity government” — undeniably stands against peace. The question is, what kind of adjectives would the same five news organizations have used if the individual in question, rather than be an Israeli politician, had been a new member in the Palestinian Cabinet advocating the same policies? Would he have been an “unashamed hardliner,” an “ultranationalist,” a “firebrand” or a “racist”? Of course not. He would have been characterized as an “extremist” and “terrorist.”

This is not to say that the news organizations sampled above did not do a good job raising questions about Lieberman’s political stance (in fact, the Guardian did a pretty decent job). But they still couldn’t bring themselves to use language with the kind of even-handedness one would expect from professional and supposedly “impartial” media. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that had any one of those organizations catalogued Lieberman as an “extremist” or “terrorist,” the Anti-Defamation League and other Israeli lobby organizations would have screamed “anti-Semitism.”

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