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Thursday, November 19, 2009

A case study in news media incompetence

A couple of days ago, an internal Jerusalem planning committee approved, as a preliminary first step, plans to build some 900 housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

The news media altogether has blown this story way out of proportion, and world leaders have dutifully followed suit, roundly condemning Israel for "settlement construction." Reading the news stories about this would make it appear like this is the end of the world or that construction is imminent, when in fact no Israeli leader from the left or the right would ever abandon the Gilo neighborhood in any final status agreement, it is already a Jewish neighborhood, and it does not (to my knowledge) expand the boundaries of Gilo. It is a pure pressure campaign against Israel about something that does not affect the lives of any Palestinian Arab now or in the future, except as possible employees in the construction.

Fox News' Major Barrett asked President Obama about the story:
The Israelis have announced intentions to put more settlements in Gilo, I believe is the name of the city, how helpful or hurtful to the process it that and do you consider it a rebuke of your efforts to stop those settlements?
Gilo is a city? If it is a city, how can one build "settlements" inside it? The question betrays an incredible ignorance about the topic because the news media misrepresents and oversimplifies the truth, and even a senior correspondent doesn't understand the basics about the facts on the ground and what exactly happened.

President Obama answered more generally about "settlements," not Gilo, and made this response (from the original transcript:)
Well there is no doubt that I haven't been able to stop the settlements; and, there is also no doubt from my perspective that it’s in, not only the US interests but actually Israeli interests to not build settlements.

Look, the situation in the Middle East is very difficult, and I’ve said repeatedly and I’ll say again, Israel’s security is a vital national interest to the United States, and we will make sure they are secure.

I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel’s security, I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbors, I think it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous, and it makes, makes it hard to re-launch any kind of serious talks about how you achieve a two state solution.
Note the highlighted phrase. Obama is saying that building over the Green Line makes Palestinian Arabs angry and could prompt them towards violence. This is accurate. Many things prompt Arabs to violence; that does not make those things inherently bad but it is admittedly a factor in making decisions and it is a major way that Arabs and Muslims historically have tried to manipulate the West to do their will, often successfully. I have called this "the diplomacy of fear" and Muslims have been doing it as a matter of course for over a century.

The danger that Obama is highlighting is not that the settlements are dangerous in and of themselves, but that Palestinian Arab reaction could be dangerous to Israel. This is, of course, a calculus that Israel should be making, not the US.

Incredibly, and incompetently, Fox News mischaracterizes Obama's statement in its own article about the interview:
Obama Calls Israeli Settlement Building in East Jerusalem 'Dangerous'

President Obama on Wednesday called it "dangerous" that Israel plans to add 900 new apartments to an existing Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem -- an area Palestinians hope to claim as their capital absent a peace agreement with Israel.
From here, the media plays the old children's game of "telephone" and compounds the mistake, as AFP reported:
Israel’s decision to press ahead with the construction of new settlements in occupied east Jerusalem could be “very dangerous,” US President Barack Obama said Wednesday in an interview with Fox News.
No, the decision wasn't "very dangerous," the potential reaction is what is dangerous. Adding houses to existing Jewish neighborhoods is not the danger - the Arab reaction could be.

Just like publishing a cartoon about Mohammed isn't "dangerous" but the potential backlash by thin-skinned and insecure Muslims is.