Why the Israeli hysteria over Kerry?

Is  this what is supposed to happen when someone parrots Israeli Labor Party policy toward the Palestinians? As I told host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago, I’ve seen terms on social media applying to John Kerry and Barack Obama that I can’t repeat on the radio and won’t quote here, either–all because Kerry made a case for a Palestinian state next to Israel in peace, in much the same way as Israeli moderates do, and polls continue to show that about half the Israeli people support.

All the reactions I’ve seen so far, except for the Canadian CIJA–both for and against–miss two main points that Kerry missed:

First of all, Israel offered the Palestinians a state exactly according to the outline he presented, in 2000 and 2008, and the Palestinians turned it down. Then Kerry himself made a similar offer within the last year, and the Palestinians turned it down again. That should have been part of the speech, evidence (as if we needed any) that there are two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not everything depends on what Israel does.

Second, settlements are not the most important issue in the conflict. The Palestinians have persuaded the world that the settlements are endangering the chances for a two-state solution. Nonsense. An aerial view of the West Bank shows that most of the settler population is close to the old cease-fire line that marks the edge of the West Bank, and the others, with a couple of notable exceptions, are just little dots on the map. Pulling out of Gaza in 2005 and dismantling its settlements there, Israel proved the obvious–once there’s a border, the settlement issue goes away automatically.

It’s not surprising that Obama and Kerry have bought into the settlement argument, since the US and most of the world have considered Israeli settlement in the West Bank illegal since it started in 1968, but now Israel’s own prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has reinforced that with his overblown hissy fit over the UN Security Council resolution, which will be just as ineffective as all the rest of the UN resolutions after approval of creation of the state of Israel in 1947. It does fit in with his use of settlement construction as some kind of “punishment” against the Palestinians and the world when he doesn’t like something, fueling contentions the isn’t serious about his acceptance of a two-state solution.

The sorry result of all this noise is that a peaceful solution is another step further away today. Netanyahu will use this to prove to his followers that Israel is under threat, it’s in grave danger, it must hunker down and be strong. That’s how he stays in power.

That might change if someone emerges among Israeli moderates who can articulate Labor Party policy half as effectively as Kerry did.

UN settlement resolution fizzles–one for Trump

It’s worthwhile looking past the immediate question of how and why Egypt pulled its resolution from the Security Council, demanding an end to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank; and east Jerusalem. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

What’s significant is that in coming US President Donald Trump is the one who pressed Egypt to withdraw the resolution, while President Obama was leaning toward abstaining in the vote and letting the resolution pass.

So we need to discuss, one more time, the bad rap that Obama has received from Israel and parts of the American Jewish community for supposedly being anti-Israel. What he’s been is anti-Bibi, a reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has stoked the animosity and pumped it up as part of his local politics, staying in power by scaring his voters and convincing him that the world is against Israel. That might have been true once, but it isn’t any more–but it’s still good politics over here.

How to stop the killing in Aleppo

There is just one way to stop the killing in Aleppo: An outright military victory by one side or the other. I discussed the issue a few minutes ago with host Bruce Sakalik on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Many people won’t like that, especially since in this case it means a victory by the forces of  the hated Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian sponsors. Many will take the opportunity to blame the West and especially their favorite target, US President Barack Obama, for letting this happen in the first place and then failing to stop it.

So let’s think this through for a moment. What could any outside power do to prevent the fighting in Aleppo? Send in armed forces. Occupy the city. And this, we suppose, would stop the massacres by Assad, al-Qaida and ISIS? How, exactly?

And likewise, how does an outside force stop the massacres once the fighting is underway? Send in armed forces?

What happened the last time the West sent large numbers of soldiers into the Mideast? That would be Iraq in 2004. About half a million people were killed. The entry of the foreign forces set off civil strife, and the exit of the forces arguably made it worse.

Then there’s the fact that we don’t even know what’s actually happening there. Only a few reporters dare to go into Syria in general and Aleppo in particular. We depend on activists to fill us in, and activists, by definition, have an agenda. We have made heroes of the White Helmets, supposedly neutral good guys rescuing people from the rubble. There’s evidence that the White Helmets are a branch of al-Qaida, and look at the photo–they’re not above “rescuing” the same girl three times for the sake of publicity, which, we, of course, swallow whole.fake-photo

Both sides are past masters of the “fake news” game. Here’s the Syrian ambassador to the UN showing a picture of his soldiers helping civilians…except that the photo is from Iraq.

It’s about time we realize that the world is no longer, if it ever was, the back yard of the West, and it’s up to the West to mow the grass and pull up the weeds. It’s not up to Obama. The Mideast is going through a cataclysmic realignment, and it will have to play out on its own terms. No amount of Western hand-wringing or silly, inappropriate and insulting comparisons to the Holocaust of World War II will make any difference.

What will make a difference will be aid to the survivors and the refugees. Within two hours this weekend, Israeli demonstrators and their backers contributed $100,000 to that cause. Imagine what governments could contribute if they started thinking primarily in humanitarian terms and not military terms.

Is democracy under siege?

Democracy is about to fail. Only journalism can save it.

But today’s journalism is far from what it needs to be to carry out this vital mission. It’s caught up in anti-social media’s clicks and trends. Yet without restoring the profession to its actual role, we are doomed. That’s not “click bait.” That’s reality.

I just returned home to Israel from a viscerally upsetting trip to the United States. I arrived there on election day, the culmination of a bitter presidential campaign that left people on all sides with a bad taste in their mouths.

As in the recent past, this campaign was fought over personalities, not issues. Unlike in the recent past—or perhaps as an extension of it—this campaign was fought with false reporting, commonly known as “fake news.”

Fake news is nothing new. What’s new is that it’s being taken seriously and believed by millions, swaying their political decisions. It fits into the pattern of anti-social media—click bait, clicks, malicious Twitter gibberish, trending, and all the rest. This anti-social media is especially anti-journalism, yet our profession has embraced it, opting to play in a game it can’t possibly win. The other team, unconcerned with accuracy or truth, will always beat us to the punch, get to the finish line first, thrill the fans—whatever sports analogy you want to plug in here.

By now you’ve spotted the headline on this article as click bait. It’s easy to write and easy to identify—a click-bait headline typically asks a yes-or-no question.

So here’s what you do with it from now on. Answer “no” and go on to something serious, if you can find something serious. And if you’re a journalist—never, never go down this path. It leads to pointless speculation about an unpredictable future. To our indelible shame, that describes most of the “reporting” that has followed the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Even so, I’ll make a prediction: All this will be followed, probably sooner than later, by two developments—first, millions of Trump voters will become disillusioned by the fact that their candidate will not be able to carry out any of his main pledges; and second, the pendulum will swing from believing everything on the Internet as long as it supports a preconceived set of beliefs—to believing nothing. The two developments may well be linked and might even appear together.

That is the moment where journalism must be prepared to step in and provide the information and analysis that define its role in a democracy. Journalism must get off the field of that game it cannot win.

If there is anyone who doubts where journalism has gone, who prefers instead to point out the real coverage and outstanding news and analysis that still appears here and there in what’s called the mainstream media, that’s fine—but don’t delude yourselves.

My personal experience in recent years includes these realities:

  • A senior editor always had Yahoo open to check what was on top of its news feed and guide our coverage accordingly.
  • A several-times-a-day conference call around the world began with an editor in New York telling us all what’s “trending on Yahoo.”
  • An outstanding reporter was called on the carpet for not getting enough clicks on her reports, though they were characterized by “scoops” and unusually adept analysis.
  • I had to get a headline on the wire immediately every time a loud noise was heard in Gaza, before knowing whether it was a bomb, an airstrike or (most likely) just a sonic boom, because we were being timed against the competition and would be ordered to make excuses and explanations if we “lost.”
  • Over the span of two decades, journalists transformed from reporters and analysts to advocates, openly discussing their political beliefs and shaping their coverage in keeping with them.

Unbelievable as this might sound in this new reality—I actually made a successful career as a North American network radio reporter in the Mideast with the slogan, “I might not be first, but I’ll be right.” In the last century, my networks were willing to wait until I read the whole report, for example, instead of just the table of contents, before going on the air. That protected me, and my networks, from any number of gross reporting errors made by my competitors.

Working according to that slogan is impossible today. Even print reporters are required to tweet out their stories before they’re finished reporting them. There are two assumptions here. The important one in the eyes of the home office is that whoever gets out there first with the story “owns” it and will get the following, the clicks, as it develops.

The second is that even if the original tweet is wrong, well, we’ll fix it later, no harm, no foul. Anyone who has studied half an hour of psychology and knows the power of first impressions would recognize the absurdity of that reasoning, but no matter—clicks override all.

So how do we fix this?

There is, of course, no going back to a “golden era of journalism” that never existed. We must move forward into a new era.

My favorite journalism professor liked to say, “Only three things matter in this profession: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” That wasn’t true in 1966, either, but the underlying concept is still worth considering.

Our job was never to advocate for a political view, to take the side of the underdog, to speculate without foundation. It always was, and is, to present the facts and add impartial analysis, background, and context to allow citizens to make up their minds on vital issues.

That’s to say—we must leave our political views at the newsroom door. We must regain the trust of readers and viewers who believe, often correctly, that we are “liberals” (when did that become a curse word?) who are slanting the news toward our beliefs.

The trend is in the opposite direction. The newspaper that bragged, “All the news that’s fit to print” now prints an opinion column on the front page of its international edition. The one above is typical Trump-bashing that breaks no new ground but recasts all the bitterness in pseudo-humorous form, aimed at the “true believers.”

So here’s a recommendation to start with: Not only must we restore the wall between the news pages and the editorial pages; but also, we must do away with editorials altogether. Op-ed pages are fine and necessary, but the time has passed when owners of newspapers, radio stations and TV stations get to expound on their political views just because they own the building.

That includes endorsing candidates. Today, nothing trashes credibility more than telling readers, listeners and viewers where we stand politically. A century or two ago, perhaps voters needed the guidance of their local newspaper. Today they don’t need it, don’t want it, and draw damaging conclusions from it.

That’s a step toward doing what we do best—dispassionately reporting and analyzing the news. That’s the game we can win. I’m proud of the fact that a friend who has been reading my articles for years observed that he doesn’t know whether I’m on the right or the left.

I’m aware that it’s difficult to come up with a business model that would make this kind of journalism profitable. Yet it must be done, profit or no profit, whatever it takes.

Here’s what’s at stake.

In past decades, we agreed on the facts but disagreed over what to do with them. That’s a legitimate matter of ideological differences. Today we do not agree on the facts. Fake news, ideological reporting and tendentious editing have all contributed to this dangerous situation.

Make no mistake, as a certain outgoing president likes to say. If we do not agree on the facts, we cannot have a meaningful debate over issues. If we do not have a meaningful debate over issues, we cannot have democracy. Instead, we get campaigns based on bogus charges, character assassination, and made-up “truths.”

It’s up to us in journalism to be ready to provide real news, the basic nourishment of democracy, when the people realize they need it.

And they will.

___   ___   ___

Foreign correspondent MARK LAVIE has been covering the Middle East since 1972. His book, Broken Spring, explains the failure of the Arab revolution.

Who bombed the Coptic Christian church in Cairo?

A suicide bomber killed 24 Coptic Christians at the main Coptic cathedral on Sunday. That much we know. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has identified the bomer as a 22-year-old Muslim,. and el-Sisi’s government says he was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. I discussed the attack a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

This raises some questions. First–the bomber blew up the women’s section of the chapel, and that fueled original reports that the bomber was a woman. Second, el-Sisi has another serious enemy, ISIS. It’s not at all clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind  this. Egypt’s government has every reason to blame the Brotherhood, as it has been at war with the Brotherhood since el-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013.

But the ISIS conflict has been more serious recently, and the prospect that ISIS is expanding its attacks from the remote Sinai Desert to the middle of Cairo is a threat to Egypt’s stability. Rl-Sisi has every reason not to point in that direction.

All we can do at this point is to keep an eye on developments in Egypt on the one hand, and on the Mideast in general, where Christians are under siege and suffering from persecution all over. It’s another aspect of the region-wide turmoil.

Why is Egypt rearming?

Egypt’s new arms program is huge and expensive, and it raises many questions, starting with why? I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

Egypt is spending billions of dollars and euros on its new weapons systems, at a time when its economy is in crisis, people are hungry and unemployment is high. it’s clear that Russian MiG-19 fighters and French naval vessels will do nothing to help solve Egypt’s chronic economic problems, but from the point of view of its president. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the  huge arms deals have some benefits.

First, it sends a message to the United States, which cut off military aid to Egypt after Sisi overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. The aid and acquisition programs have since been restored, but the message is clear–the US legal obligation, self-imposed, banning aid to governments that took power in a coup has backfired, and badly.

The main reason, though, can be found as part of the realignment of the Middle East that’s been in progress since Arab Spring in 2011.  Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have been propping up the Egyptian economy with billions in aid–and Egypt’s re-emergence as a regional military power is linked to that. The Sunni Arab states around the Gulf are in a power struggle with Shiite Iran, and they want the Mideast’s largest army to be ready to take part if necessary, even as a potential player. That’s Egypt’s, of course, and as a military man, Sisi is more than happy to play the role.

The U.S. has since restored all of Egypt’s weapons acquisition programs it suspended in 2013, but that won’t change the new Mideast picture. The region is turning inward, setting up its own alliances, instead of choosing superpower backers as in the old days of the Cold War. It’s time for the US and the rest of the West to get with the program.

This is probably to place to say that Israel has nothing to do with this. That’s pretty much the case with the whole regional realignment. Developments here are taking place despite the never-ending Israel-Palestinian conflict. What’s different now is that it’s become obvious that the little conflict in a corner of the region does not drive Mideast politics. It never did, but for decades it was a good excuse for no one to do anything. That’s no longer the case, and that’s something else for the West to begin to understand. The UN would be a good place to start, as its obsession with Israel has made it all but irrelevant.