Mahmoud Abbas, David Friedman, and the Power of Photos
If a picture is usually worth a thousand words, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a picture is worth a million.
Just as informative as a picture, however, is the context in which it is presented. An unfavorable caption or description can influence perception of a situation just as directly as the photo itself.
Take, for instance, the outcry relating to two recent photographs — one involving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the other involving US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
On Monday, President Abbas was photographed in the Itishari Arab Hospital in Ramallah, where he was being treated for pneumonia. In the photograph, Abbas is pictured sitting and reading al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official Palestinian Authority newspaper. The scene appears innocuous enough — until one notices a massive political cartoon on the back of the newspaper depicting an Israeli soldier poisoning a Palestinian baby.
The very next day, during a routine visit to Bnei Brak for an event conducted by Achiya — an Israeli non-profit charity organization — Ambassador Friedman appeared in a picture in front of an altered photo depicting the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in place of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Two incidents. Two controversies. And in the aftermath, two public relations teams frantically scrambling to repair the PR nightmare.
Only that isn’t what happened. While the Friedman gaffe made international headlines — with CNN and The Washington Post reporting on the story — the Palestinian cartoonist responsible for the caricature was tragically robbed of worldwide publicity and acclaim. Why? Because not a single media outlet outside of Israel elected to run the Abbas story.
Friedman’s team entered into full damage control mode. Even though Ambassador Friedman apparently didn’t know anything about the doctored photo, he was said to be “deeply disappointed” that the incident transpired. The State Department disavowed the photo and reaffirmed their commitment to religious egalitarianism on the Temple Mount. The organization behind the ill-fated event, Achiya, issued a mea culpa in the form of a public apology. The staff member of Achiya apologized.
As far as President Abbas’ incident, few even took notice. Among those that did, some accused him of deliberately selecting that newspaper to display the cartoon. Far more likely is that, in a characteristically self-aggrandizing move, Abbas grabbed the newspaper that his own government publishes for the photo.
Of course, the situation is just as alarming if Abbas exposed the inflammatory cartoon to the world simply by chance. Rather than demonstrating calculated incitement by Abbas, the photograph would illuminate the ubiquity of anti-Israel demonization in Palestinian media.
The great scandal at play is not that Abbas was photographed holding a newspaper with an inciting cartoon portraying Israeli soldiers as child murderers, echoing antisemitic tropes of centuries ago (cartoons of these kinds are hardly anomalous in the PA daily newspaper).
The scandal is that the cartoon appeared in the newspaper that Abbas, the man who has for over a decade had a monopoly on the Palestinians’ prospects for peace, ultimately has authority over. Peace-seeking Palestinians, of which there is a vast abundance, don’t stand a chance against provocateurs in the Palestinian government and press, fomenting hatred and whipping the small minority of radicals into a violent frenzy that the moderate majority has been unable to fully suppress.
According to a top Palestinian aide, Ambassador Friedman is a terrorist for his blighted photo-op; an Arab Israeli lawmaker called the ambassador a madman for the picture. Yet when the leader of almost three million Palestinians is photographed holding his own government’s newspaper exhibiting a cartoon demonizing the Israeli military as a bunch of rancorous baby killers, one can hear a pin drop.
Many may be quick to label the situation a double standard. The term double standard does not apply, however, because the term implies that two sides are held to different standards. Here, one side is held to virtually no standard at all. The international news media, NGOs, and governmental bodies all remain deathly silent on incitement, and will continue to do so long as false balance remains in fashion.