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Israel story based on a fake narrative

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The Israel story is “malfunctioning or getting warped in translation”, says Canadian-born Israeli Matti Friedman, who is a senior journalist and author based in Jerusalem.
by PETA KROST MAUNDER | Dec 06, 2018

He would know, having been reporting on the Middle East from Israel for the past 23 years since he moved there as an Associated Press (AP) journalist.

“It is about how much is covered and the way it is covered that is so telling,” he told participants of the international Jewish Media Summit last week in Jerusalem.

“When I started here in 2006, there was a war between Israel and Hezbollah, and there were more than 40 fulltime staffers in Israel for AP,” he says. “Israel is a small country with a population of less than New York City. The number of journalists was dramatically more than those covering China, with 1.3 billion people, or even all the sub-Saharan African countries combined.”

He explained that the Israel story was seen as the most important news story in the world by virtue of the number of people sent to cover it. “If Africa was a priority, that is where you would put most of your people,” he says. “But instead, it is this small piece of the world with very little importance to the greater global picture.”

Today, the number of journalists in Israel has dropped a bit, but “only because the industry has largely collapsed”.

Foundation narrative

Israel is covered as an ongoing conflict story, which conjures up images of death and mayhem. However, in 2017, 27 people in Jerusalem were killed in a violent death out of 860 000 people in the city, according to Friedman. Those deaths were unlikely to have had anything to do with the conflict. In Indianapolis in the same period, 175 people died in violent deaths, he says, “but nobody would suggest you shouldn’t go there”.

He adds that in Syria there have been half a million fatalities over the past few years, yet nobody is suggesting that people boycott that country.

“The level of attention paid to this country is not because of the bloody level of the conflict,” Friedman says. He attributes this strange situation to the “foundation narrative of Israel”, which is that “the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was founded in 1967, and once peace is discussed, everything will be fine”.

This narrative is untrue because “Israel’s wars are not against Palestinians. Its biggest enemy is Iran. So, it is not just about Palestinians and Israel, it is much broader.”

To consider the full story, one has to understand the regime in Syria, the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, and the Russian relationships with Arab countries – and that is just the beginning. “Then you see that the problem is not easily solved, and it is all about how you frame the story.

“If you zoomed into one-fifth of the Arab world that is controlled by Israel, then nothing I do as an Israeli makes any sense. Israelis look at their conflict, and see it as a regional conflict. They see themselves as a small minority in an enclave in a big region. Palestinians are part of a minority of a huge Muslim world in this region, and Israelis are about six million Jews in a massive Arab world.”

And so, what is happening is that people conduct debates that are led by Israel’s enemies.

Small player in regional conflict

“If you look at it regionally, it is quite simple. Israel is one small player in a very big conflict in the region. If Israel signed a peace treaty, it would have a small impact on the Middle East. It is about dictators who have been oppressing people for decades. If you focus on the one piece of land, you won’t see it. Israel is an insignificant player, not a decisive player in the region.

“As for the belief that the conflict began in 1967, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It is not about the West Bank and Gaza, the conflict is far broader and older than that. The Palestine Liberation Organisation started in 1964. The occupation, which is an obsession of Western media is a symptom of the problem, not the cause, and withdrawal from the territories will not solve anything,” says Friedman. He is adamant that Israel cannot solve the problem to which the world believes it holds the key.

“Many people believe Israelis are bad people. Israel knows, though, that if the occupation ends, there will not be a solution. There is a belief around the world that if you do the right thing, things will get better, but events in the world do not bear out that way.

“When Israel moved out of occupied territories and south Lebanon, the vacuum was filled with Hezbollah. Then, it pulled out of Gaza, and its place was filled with Hamas. The idea is that if you dismantle the bad system, it will be great, but that doesn’t work.”

Friedman cites the example that people believed that if you got rid of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya would become a democracy, and everything would work out. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

“In Israel, we have no margin of error. Unlike in Iraq, there is not enough room to manoeuvre. Israel cannot create a Palestinian state, it can only pull back. But it can’t pull back and hope for the best. There is fear of what may happen, and it is justified in the Middle East.”

Fiction being used as a PR tool

Friedman says that fiction is being used as a public relations tool by Israel’s enemies. It is an easy story to report because as a journalist, Israel is a safe country to live in relative to any other in the region. “You are unlikely here to find yourself being beheaded on YouTube. You can go to the Gaza border, write your story on the conflict, and then in the evening, you can be drinking in a bar served by the sister of the guy you called a war criminal in your story,” he says.

He explains that in the world of news, Israel is a bestseller, partly because “the country is webbed into the international DNA of the West”.

“Few other stories make me angry. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem – these are emotive places.”

Then, it is a news story that doesn’t die down. “If you cover Yugoslavia. You cover it, it dies down, and you go home, but Israel keeps on being a story, and people respond to it. Putin can invade Ukraine, but nobody wants to boycott Russian products. It doesn’t illicit the same kind of anger. When Israel does something in Gaza, Jews have to increase security in shuls around the world.”

Jews illustrate what is wrong

Friedman believes that what lies behind the “Israel ogre” story is anti-Semitism. “Jews have always had a role in the universe – to illustrate what is wrong. Whatever the world doesn’t like, Jews are seen to represent it. Jews were called the killers of Christ.

“So, what don’t they like now? Israel and Jews are seen as an example of racism, or nationalism, or colonialism. In the United States, Israel is discussed as [an example of] white supremacy. Whatever you don’t like, you can connect with Jews. Jews are globalists, and they move money around in their own interests.

“It’s not a news story, but a morality story. Jews represent what the West hates about itself.”

Friedman believes that this story fits into a world of distortion and counter distortion, where one side supposedly has to be good, and the other evil.

He maintains that the only way to solve the problem of the media telling a fake news story using the same old narrative is to ensure that knowledgeable people report the story. “Most people who cover the Middle East don’t know what they are talking about,” he says. “Because of this, they allow the press to be an ideological battleground, and a tool in the hands of politicians.”

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