Those of us who write about Middle East politics sometimes joke that the mainstream press is desperately in need of an introductory course on the subject. And now, thanks to the latest effort by the Associated Press, we’re forced to ask: What happens when reporters take Middle East 101–and fail? The AP’s Middle East editor this week tackled the burning question: “Is Israel democratic?” If you know anything at all about the country, you know that this question requires a one-word answer: Yes. The AP, however, thought it was an essay test. And what a disaster it was.
The full headline to AP editor Dan Perry’s piece is “AP Analysis: Is Israel democratic? Not so clear.” Such baldly false smears are part and parcel of the debate, of course. For some reason it’s considered acceptable practice to merely make up stuff about Israel and pass lies off as truth. It comes with the territory of being the world’s one Jewish state. But the timing here is interesting. All that’s really changed regarding Israel is President Obama’s public attitude toward it, in which his hostility toward the country and its people are being broadcast instead of denied.
The Associated Press seems to be taking its cue from the president, “reassessing” its public posture toward Israel, and facilitating team Obama in their efforts to change the narrative. But it also does consumers of news on the Middle East a favor: anyone who doesn’t know Israel is clearly a democracy is obviously not a reliable source on the subject.
The AP also shows how much hedging and spinning needs to be done to even try to paint Israel as less than a democracy. Perry begins by calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “hardliner”–a common term employed by anti-Israel activists but one which has no basis in reality. Painting Netanyahu as a “hardliner” is especially useful if you’re trying to undercut his democratic credentials, however.
As Perry builds his argument, he is first forced to acknowledge that he has no case:
The displeasure felt in some quarters over his win has placed front and center the world community’s unwritten obligation to accept the results of a truly democratic vote. It is a basic tenet of the modern order which has survived the occasional awkward election result — as well as recent decades’ emergence of some less-than-pristine democracies around the globe.
For Israel, the argument is especially piquant, because its claim to be the only true democracy in the Middle East has been key to its branding and its vitally important claim on U.S. military, diplomatic and financial support. Israel’s elections, from campaign rules to vote counts, are indeed not suspect.
He then follows, of course, with “But.” It’s the “occupation,” as would be expected, but even here the AP can only build its case by making flatly false statements–and again we come back to Perry failing Middle East 101. He includes all of the West Bank and Gaza in his “analysis,” and stacks the deck thus:
Of the Arabs, only a third have voting rights. These are the “Israeli Arabs” who live in the areas that became Israel in the 1948-49 war, which established the country’s borders.
Does Perry believe Israel exists? It’s hard to tell, thanks to the scare quotes around “Israeli Arabs.” In fact, they are Israeli Arabs by definition–they are Arab citizens of Israel. Additionally, the Israeli war of independence did not establish “the country’s borders.” As the agreements and communiqués and subsequent negotiations made clear, no one considered the 1949 armistice lines to be permanent borders. This was not, by the way, an invention of Israelis who wanted to expand their territory at will; it was the position of the Arab states who wanted to regroup and then try again to eradicate the entire Jewish state.
And that’s the key fact that people who choose to fabricate Israel’s supposed nondemocratic nature must get around. Perry does so by calling the lines “borders,” which they manifestly are not and aren’t considered to be. But it’s important that they’re not borders, because once you acknowledge that fact you are describing not occupied territory but disputed territory, at least as far as international law is concerned. And it becomes even more difficult to tell Jews they can’t live there simply because they are Jews.
Such inconvenient facts appear throughout the piece. Perry paints Israel as the obstacle to peace; “The supposedly temporary arrangement shows no sign of a change — at least not one initiated by Israel,” we’re told. And yet a few paragraphs later we read:
Israel annexed East Jerusalem, and its approximately 200,000 Arabs can have voting rights if they choose. Most have rejected it–whether out of solidarity with the idea of Palestine or for fear of future retribution.
Retribution from whom? Not the Jewish state that offered those Arabs full voting rights. Retribution, instead, from the Palestinian government that continues to be opposed to peace and coexistence with the Jews. Perry then criticizes the security arrangement that currently prevails in the Palestinian territories, but also tells us that “The arrangement is a relic of the 1990s interim accords, which were meant to be succeeded by a final agreement by 1999.” In other words, they were agreed to by the Palestinians, and are being upheld by Israel.
No such article would be complete without some misleading scaremongering about settlements, such as: “Another four years of a Netanyahu government can be expected to add many thousands more settlers, complicating the prospects of a future pullout even more.”
As Evelyn Gordon explained two weeks ago, construction in the settlements has seen a steep drop. Additionally, she wrote, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics “settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors.” More importantly, the construction has tended to be “up, not out”–it’s in towns Israel would keep as part of any final-status agreement and not expanding the borders of those towns, and therefore would not “complicat[e] the prospects of a future pullout even more.”
In sum, Israel’s democracy is so strong that even attempts to challenge that status can’t avoid confirming it. The only thing we ended up learning was that Middle East 101 is far too advanced for the AP.