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Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Wider Mideast focus puts Israel in perspective

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On the occasion of Israel’s 64th anniversary, let’s begin on an optimistic note: it’s worth pointing out that, as a result of other factors, recent coverage of the region has generally shown less negativity toward Israel.

First, for more than a year, the media have been far less fixated on Israel than at any time in recent memory. No doubt, important developments in the broader region, from Libya to Yemen – foremost the “Arab Spring” and its fallout – have seized the media’s attention. Indeed, this has been true to such a degree that many correspondents who are normally based in Israel have spent a large amount of time elsewhere, including Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and even Bahrain.

While very few journalists have been able to enter Syria to report on President Bashar Assad’s ongoing violence against his own people, they have done so from neighbouring countries, including Israel. Russian, Chinese, and Iranian support for a regime widely condemned in the West for its atrocities (which are continuing, even under the UN “peace plan”) has only added to the sustained media focus on Syria.

Second, regional upheavals have raised all sorts of questions that have invited much speculation but no definite answers. For instance, will the Arab Spring lead to real democracy? Or will Islamists, who have dominated election results, especially in Egypt, establish yet another form of patriarchal authoritarian rule? Or, as some analysts have predicted, will the Muslim Brotherhood “moderate” toward pragmatism and show tolerance for women and religious minorities?

Third, the apparent failure of American-led NATO forces in Afghanistan to stabilize that country against the Taliban, who continue to create havoc from bases in Pakistan, has added another dimension to regional media coverage. When Pakistan’s nuclear arms are taken into account, the high stakes of uncertainty in that turbulent theatre become impossible to ignore. 

Fourth, there’s Turkey’s rise as a dominant economic, military, and diplomatic force. In particular, it should not be missed that Turkey has broken with its former ally Syria and now maintains, at best, a highly ambivalent relationship with Iran (whose regional influence is being challenged and diminished).

Fifth, Iran’s continued defiance of the international community as it pursues an illicit nuclear program has dominated the media’s radar. It’s become clear to all in the region that Iran, having taken steps toward the development of a nuclear weapon, poses a threat not only to Israel, but also to various Arab states, foremost Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been urging strong U.S. action against Iran and are (reportedly) quietly looking to Israel to also take a lead in this effort. There’s no doubt, however, that the Saudis are playing an important behind-the-scenes role in what is developing into an unusual alliance.

The list could go on. The overall point of the issues mentioned above is that they have put an unprecedented burden on the media to cover and analyze. As many journalists and editors will tell you, this has in fact become an exhausting task, as ever-quickening developments sweep across the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. As a result, Israeli issues that, in the past would have seen critical focus have been largely passed over.

To be sure, there are still some who remain fixated upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the cause célèbre, the crux of the region’s problems, and Israel’s sole responsibility to solve. But they’re declining in number. There are also those who would depict Israel, stripped of all context, as the aggressor against Iran – but, again, they belong to a distinct minority. 

Today, with the camera’s lens opened onto the region as a whole, many journalists who comprehend the swirling forces of internal Muslim conflict (Islamists versus moderates, Sunni versus Shia, Hamas and Islamic Jihad versus nationalists, etc.) understand that the burden to resolve the Israel-Palestinian impasse cannot fall to Israel alone.

They also know that the rejectionism Israel has faced extends beyond the Palestinians, encompassing deeply held attitudes across the Middle East.

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

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