One can argue over these points endlessly, and dwelling on them to the exclusion of all other considerations is a recipe for helping the powerful in their struggle to ensure that the status quo – the occupation – is maintained.
The primary goals of international law are twofold: to safeguard the dignity of human beings; and to ensure their right to self-determination. In my view, those aims cannot be realised in a two-state solution, given both the realities on the ground and the conditions on Palestinian sovereignty being demanded by Israel and the international community.
Instead we should look to international law to provide a frame of reference for finding a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it should not tie our hands. The objective is to find a practical and creative political arrangement that has legitimacy in the eyes of both parties and can ensure that Israelis and Palestinians lead happy, secure lives. The goal here is not a technical solution; it is an enduring peace.
NLP: British media coverage of the conflict is typically more sympathetic towards Israel than towards Palestinians and generally fails to give proper historical background to the conflict. Why do you believe the British media behaves in this way regarding the conflict?
JC: There are various reasons that are sometimes difficult to disentangle. For the sake of simplicity, I will separate them into three categories: practical issues facing journalists covering the conflict; expectations imposed by the supposed “professionalism” of journalism; and ideological and structural constraints that reflect the fact that the dominant journalism practised today is a journalism cowed by corporate interests.
Of the practical issues, one of the most important – though least spoken of, for obvious reasons – is the fact that foreign desks prefer to appoint Jewish reporters to cover the conflict. In part the preference for Jewish reporters reflects an assessment, and probably a correct one, by editors that Israel, not the Palestinians, makes the news and that Jewish reporters will fare better as they negotiate the corridors of power in a self-declared Jewish state. Faced with candidates for the job, a foreign editor will often take the easy choice of a Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew, has family here who will provide ready-made contacts, and has some sort of commitment to living here and gaining a deeper understanding of (Israeli) life. Of course, those are precisely the reasons why an editor ought to judge the reporter unsuitable, but in practice it does not work that way.
I know from my own experiences that most Israeli officials try to find out whether you are Jewish before they will build any kind of intimacy with you as a reporter. That works to the advantage of Jewish reporters when a job comes up in Jerusalem.
I should add that the historical tendency of the British media to appoint Jewish reporters has diminished in recent years, possibly because the desks have become more self-conscious about it. But it is still very strong among the American media, and it is the American media that set the news agenda on the conflict. The NYT’s Ethan Bronner is fairly typical on that score and the paper’s indulgent decision to allow him to continue in his posting after revelations of a clear conflict of interest – that his son has joined the Israeli army – simply highlights the point.
A second practical issue is the location of British bureaus: in Jewish West Jerusalem. That results in a natural identification with Israeli concerns. It would be just as easy, and cheaper, to locate journalists a short distance away in Ramallah, or even in a Palestinian neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, but few if any do so.
Then there are the local sources of information that a reporter relies on. He or she reads the Israeli media, most of which have English editions, and comes to understand the conflict through the analyses and commentaries of Israeli journalists. This is even more true for those reporters who read Hebrew. Are there any British journalists reading the Palestinian media in Arabic? I doubt it.
Similarly, Israeli spokespeople are much more likely to be sources of information: they usually speak English; they are accessible, especially if you are Jewish and seen as “sympathetic” to Israel; and they are authoritative from the point of view of the correspondents. By contrast, the Palestinians are in a much weaker position. Who counts as a Palestinian spokesperson? Usually reporters turn to the Palestinian Authority for comments, even though the PA’s agenda is severely compromised and Palestinian opinion is deeply divided. In addition, official Palestinian spokespeople are often hamstrung by a rigid bureaucracy, lack of accountability, problems of language, and little knowledge of the decisions being taken in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem that shape their lives.
Issues deriving from journalism’s so-called “professionalism” must be factored in too. The professional training of journalists encourages them to believe that there are objective criteria that define what counts as news. A consequence is that professional journalists are expected to follow similar lines of inquiry and turn to the same groups of “neutral” contacts. This justifies both the hunting-in-packs philosophy that underpins most mainstream journalism and the reliance on establishment sources whom journalists use to interpret the news story.
In the case of Israel-Palestine, we end up with very similar looking accounts of the conflict that are usually filtered through the perspectives of a narrow elite of politicians, academics and diplomats who share in the main fanciful assumptions about the conflict: that there is a meaningful peace process; that Israeli leaders are acting in good faith; that the occupation is unpleasant but temporary; that the Palestinians are their own worst enemies or genetically prone to terrorism; that the occupation in Gaza has ended; that the Americans are a neutral broker in the conflict; and so on.
“Balance” is also seen as an essential quality in any professional news report. Balance of the “Israel said-the Palestinians said” variety encourages a view that the two sides in the conflict are equal. It favours the status quo, which favours Israel because it is the dominant party.