Media Microscope: Over the Balcony
Sep 7, 2017 | Allon Lee
Former Australian Middle East correspondent John Lyons’ often one-dimensional and factually-challenged memoir, Balcony over Jerusalem, detailing his six-year stint in Israel, generated considerable TV and print coverage.
Media interest homed in on the book’s wild accusations that Australian Jews, including AIJAC, campaigned against him and other journalists for merely reporting “the facts”.
In the Weekend Australian (July 22), Lyons wrote, “Why do the supporters of Israel want to prevent stories… from spreading overseas? When we arrived we did not realise the prize that many political factions in the country coveted: formalising the occupation of the West Bank into official annexation and achieving Greater Israel… So reports of brutality in the West Bank are minimised so that international opinion does not turn against it.”
Yet along with all mainstream Australian Jewish organisations and most Israeli political parties, AIJAC supports a two-state solution, not Greater Israel.
Nine days later in the Australian, Lyons wrote that his book tells how journalists “come under attack from pro-Israel groups if they report what they see in Israel and the West Bank,” citing AIJAC as an example.
In a published right of reply (Aug. 7), AIJAC National Chairman Mark Leibler responded that “in a healthy democracy, holding the media to account is arguably as important as holding politicians to account.”
Moreover, he ridiculed the book for “falsely portraying AIJAC as an extreme, hardline mouthpiece for the Israeli Right.” He noted that “AIJAC sponsors programs for prominent Israeli Labor leaders to visit Australia, as part of our efforts to expose people from both countries to counterparts from across the political and social spectrum.”
A Guardian Australia (July 29) report by Amanda Meade focused on the book’s claims about AIJAC’s critiques of Lyons and ABC journalists. A section from the book was quoted attacking AIJAC study tours to Israel and the Palestinian territories saying “they grotesquely distort the reality… they allow people with a very small amount of knowledge to pollute Australian public opinion.”
In response to that claim, Leibler had countered, “I’d encourage Lyons to take this up with respected journalists from diverse media organisations – including his own, who have participated in these visits and attest to their balance and educational value.”
Further, Meade said AIJAC had claimed ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill was “unsuitable” because “among other things” she “had said ‘one of the saddest things I’ve seen in my whole life is spending time filming in a children’s cancer ward in Gaza’.” While the article included a quote from AIJAC responding to a different question about McNeill, it omitted all of AIJAC’s explanation to Meade of why McNeill was viewed as unsuitable – namely she had “described herself and has been described by the ABC as an ‘activist’ filmmaker associated with the Palestinian cause, and who had spoken at an event promoting boycotts against Israel.”
Former Middle East correspondent David Leser’s book review was largely sympathetic but quibbled that it “is mostly devoid of sympathy for the multiple internal problems and frailties that Israelis face,” Weekend Australian (Aug. 5).
In contrast to the book’s sustained scapegoating of Israeli PM Netanyahu for the lack of a Palestinian state, on Sky News (Aug. 3) Lyons was atypically balanced, pointing out other obstacles. “Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is in the, sort of, 12th year of a three-year term… then you have Hamas added to that in Gaza.”
He also weirdly attacked gender-segregated swimming sessions in Jerusalem pools catering to Orthodox Jews as a relic from the 17th century without noting that Muslims also practice this both there and, indeed, in Australia.
On ABC Radio National “Breakfast” (Aug. 15), Lyons returned to blaming Israel. He said Shimon Peres confessed to him the territories conquered in 1967 should’ve immediately been returned but “we basically couldn’t resist taking control”. Israel did offer to immediately return most of them but, critically, only in exchange for peace – which the Arab states rebuffed.
Lyons said former US President Bill Clinton blamed Russian Israeli Jews for the lack of peace. Yet Clinton’s 2004 memoir condemned PLO chairman Yasser Arafat for rejecting Israeli PM Ehud Barak’s 2000-01 statehood offer “so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.”
Lyons also later claimed he’d asked Senator Nick Xenophon to launch his book, because “he is not identified with either side and is seen as genuinely open-minded.”
Xenophon has made numerous one-sided anti-Israel speeches and was keynote speaker at an Australian Friends of Palestine Association fundraiser, Australian (Aug. 15).