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May 23, 2017 11:24 am

The Guardian’s ‘Long Read’ on Israel Contains the Usual Errors and Misrepresentations

avatar by Hadar Sela

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The Guardian newspaper’s London offices. Photo: Derek Harper via Wikimedia Commons.

For some time, I have sensed a gradual shift from articles that were in large part composed of or promoted outright lies about Israel to a somewhat more muted, but nevertheless constantly critical, view of Israel in UK papers. I believe that active opposition in below-the-line comments by those of us that formed CiF Watch (which eventually broadened to become UK Media Watch) forced papers such as the Guardian to be more careful about who writes for them, and what they write about Israel.

While thinking over these matters, I encountered the recent Guardian “The Long Read” entry, which chose to highlight an excerpt from a new book by Nathan Thrall in an item titled “Israel-Palestine: the real reason there’s still no peace.”

The excerpt took me back in time to some of those earlier days, and awoke memories of articles now long forgotten — of the Guardian’s black hat/white hat approach to the conflict (with Israelis as the bad guys, and Palestinians as the good guys). The recent article was proof that the same prejudices that once were so prominently, frequently and obsessively on display during the reign of people like Alan Rusbridger and Georgina Henry live on at Guardian HQ under the leadership of Katherine Viner.

Quite simply, no matter what the Palestinians do, or what peace overtures Israel makes, Israel is always to blame for the lack of progress on peace.

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In “The Long Read,” Thrall makes some good points about the security concerns of Israelis, while inherently subscribing to the idea that the Palestinians are not equal actors in the failure to resolve the conflict.

He correctly, I believe, notes that many Israelis have come to believe that surrendering the West Bank to the Palestinians so that they can create a state may be a worse proposition than maintaining the status quo under current conditions. This view is founded in large part by the experience of the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, which created two terror statelets on Israel’s frontiers, and years of threats and actual bombardments of Israeli towns and villages from those areas. Both withdrawals also led to major wars.

Thrall notes this, yet — in general — appears to believe that Israel’s major concern in evacuating these areas isn’t Palestinian violence — but internal political upheaval and even violent rebellion by Israelis in the West Bank. He also seems to believe that by withdrawing from these areas, Israel would lose “extraction of the West Bank’s natural resources, including water”; this is a farcical claim. Israel would certainly not relinquish its operations in the Dead Sea, and — given the size of Israel’s economy –the loss of resources from the barren hills of the West Bank would be a minor matter and probably immaterial; Israel could simply import them as it does now.

Moreover, the casual claim that there would be a loss of water is totally false; Israel in fact exports water to the West Bank (and Jordan) thanks to its huge investment in desalination plants. These kinds of economic “alternative facts” are the common currency of Guardian writers, yet I was surprised to see them surface in the writing of such an experienced author.

Thrall’s deepest, and most fundamental, error lies in assuming that external actors — the great powers — can inflict enough pain on both sides to force them to come to an agreement. In particular, Thrall assumes that the most pressure can be brought to bear on Israel, apparently by boycotting everything that Israel exports — i.e., extending BDS and ending the “differentiation” between products from the West Bank settlements and those from Israel as a whole:

What supporters of differentiation commonly reject, however, is no less important. Not one of these groups or governments calls for penalising the Israeli financial institutions, real estate businesses, construction companies, communications firms, and, above all, government ministries that profit from operations in the occupied territories but are not headquartered in them. Sanctions on those institutions could change Israeli policy overnight. But the possibility of imposing them has been delayed if not thwarted by the fact that critics of occupation have instead advocated for a reasonable-sounding yet ineffective alternative.

Supporters of differentiation hold the view that while it may be justifiable to do more than label the products of West Bank settlements, it is inconceivable that sanctions might be imposed on the democratically elected government that established the settlements, legalised the outposts, confiscated Palestinian land, provided its citizens with financial incentives to move to the occupied territories, connected the illegally built houses to roads, water, electricity and sanitation, and provided settlers with heavy army protection. They have accepted the argument that to resolve the conflict more force is needed, but they cannot bring themselves to apply it to the state actually maintaining the regime of settlement, occupation and land expropriation that they oppose. [emphasis added]

A simple review of the large and growing trading figures between Israel and the great economies of world — the US, EU, China and India — reveals how silly, and doomed, this idea is.

Although Thrall suggests that “pressure” be exerted on the Palestinians as well, he provides no example of how he would propose to do this — for example, economic pressure by cancelling aid from UNRWA and the various EU and Arab governments? Cutting off aid from private citizens that make payments to the Palestinians? That is unlikely to happen, though it is perhaps the one approach that could yield swift and positive results in future negotiations.

Thrall’s view that Israel must be forced to reach an agreement derives from his misrepresentation of the different roles of the two sides during the various peace talks, which he carefully lists — Madrid, Oslo, Camp David and Taba. He ignores the Olmert offer to Abbas, which would have given the Palestinians almost everything they have ever demanded. Instead, he says that in all cases, the terms offered by Israel were unacceptable to the Palestinians.  He does not accept that the Palestinians, not Israel, torpedoed the chance of an agreement because they would not anything less than 100 percent of their demands.

Any rational reading of the results of those negotiations — and especially the refusal by Abbas to even examine the map that Olmert offered him — forces one to accept the obvious conclusion that Palestinians leaders believe that the status quo serves them better than accepting slightly less than they demand.

The tendency to claim that it is only Israel’s obduracy that prevents peace is reinforced by the equally typical view that the Palestinians have no agency of their own. To Thrall, they are passive actors with no ability to make their own decisions, and Israel is solely to blame for the lack of a Palestinian state:

In fact, history suggests that a strategy of waiting would serve the country well: from the British government’s 1937 Peel Commission partition plan and the UN partition plan of 1947 to UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the Oslo accords, every formative initiative endorsed by the great powers has given more to the Jewish community in Palestine than the previous one.

Yet it is the Palestinians who have adopted a policy of refusal that represents a belief that just by waiting they will one day have Israel accede to all of their demands — or be forced to do so, as Thrall suggests should happen.

As a side note, a curious reference in Thrall’s article is a quote attributed to Moshe Dayan:

The former Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan once said: “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” Those words have become only more resonant in the decades since they were uttered.

Readers of UK Media Watch will know that we have often found similar remarks at the Guardian attributed to Israeli leaders — and that we’ve proven that these quotes are absolutely false, and part of the currency of antisemitic and anti-Israeli websites.

Looking for the source of the Dayan quote, I found that it is invariably sourced to Avi Shlaim’s book, The Iron Wall (page 316). As these things do, it spread through the internet until it achieved the status of hard fact on anti-Israeli websites.

I took down Shlaim’s book from my bookshelf to check his source for the comment, and found that Shlaim provides no attribution. This is odd, since he methodically references other quotations or reports throughout the book. Just above the Dayan quote is a reference to Sadat’s decision to go to war, and just below it is reference citing a comment by Gideon Rafael about Golda Meir. So where did Shlaim find the Dayan comment? All the searches that I ran simply returned me to page 316 of The Iron Wall.

In summary, the Thrall article correctly represents the view of many Israelis that the status quo is better than having a second Gaza or Southern Lebanon in the suburbs of Jerusalem. However, Thrall proposes a method of forcing an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that is fanciful, including a full boycott of Israel internationally.

Ironically, it appears the Arab states may be reaching the opposite conclusion: that it is the “Palestinian cause” that must be abandoned and that the Arab states’ future lies with a vibrant economic, technological and military regional powerhouse — Israel — rather than continuing to support a group that in fact appears to prefer the status quo over the option of accepting 95% of everything they ask for. Things are moving in the Middle East, and — once again — the Palestinians are missing their opportunity.

A version of this article was originally published by BBC Watch as a guest post by AKUS.

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  • Beer Baron

    Thrall fails to grasp that any “cost” Western powers might impose on Israel would pale in comparison to Israel agreeing to create yet another dangerous, antisemitic, religiously intolerant, homophobic, misogynistic country that is home to Islamist terror groups, just a stone’s throw away from Tel Aviv and Haifa.

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