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New Phase of Israeli-Palestinian Talks?/ The Media and Disinformation

Dec 13, 2013

New Phase of Israeli-Palestinian Talks?/ The Media and Disinformation

Update from AIJAC


December 13, 2013
Number 12/13 #03


Today’s Update deals with reports that, as US Secretary of State Kerry visits Israel yet again, the US is apparently preparing to change its currently low-key role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and present a “framework agreement” setting out the broad outlines of a peace deal. It also contains an important article on an increasing willingness by both some journalists and others to recognise propaganda outfits as legitimate media outlets.

First up is an analysis from the British organisation BICOM on the latest phase of the peace talks and the apparent new tack from the Americans. The backgrounder updates readers on the current, tense state of the negotiations and recent US-Israel discussions over security arrangements. It further analyses what the “framework agreement” that the Americans are proposing might look like and what sort of process might be involved in developing one. To read it all, CLICK HERE. More on the US-Israel security arrangements discussion comes from noted Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben Yishai.

Next up, noted Washington expert on Palestinian politics and society Jonathan Schanzer discusses one serious problem for peacemaking that the US mediators have been reluctant to confront in the past and seem to lack any remedy for today – endemic Palestinian corruption. He documents how corruption in the Palestinian Authority led to the election of Hamas in 2006 and its takeover of Gaza and how the problem has only worsened since. He notes that the only remedy so far proposed to this problem were the reforms introduced by former PA PM Salam Fayyad, but Fayyad is now out of power and there seems to be no “Plan B” to deal with the problem. For Schanzer’s full discussion of why the problem is a major but neglected barrier to building a legitimate, peaceful Palestinian state, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, an EU audit has noted that the EU has been paying thousands of Gaza civil servants not to work for years.

Finally, Cliff May, a former New York Times correspondent turned think-tank head at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, offers some valuable thoughts about how the current fragmented media landscape is offering an entry for Middle East propaganda outfits masquerading as news outlets. He notes the legitimacy that has been granted to employees of terrorist organisations masquerading as journalists, including those associated with Hezbollah’s al-Manar and Hamas’ al-Aqsa TV stations. He also offers a detailed discussion of the myth and realities about the media credentials of Qatar’s al-Jazeera stable of TV stations. It is worth reading in full, and to do so, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:


BICOM Analysis: US initiating new phase in Israeli-Palestinian talks


Key points

  • The US is getting more directly engaged in the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians. In statements at the Saban Forum on 7 December, both President Obama and Secretary Kerry indicated that their immediate goal is now a framework agreement, on which a comprehensive agreement will be based.
  • The US would reportedly like to lay down terms of reference for a framework agreement even before the next release of Palestinian prisoners, currently scheduled for late December. They will hope that as a result of agreeing a framework, they can establish a new timeline for a comprehensive agreement.
  • On 5 December, Secretary Kerry presented to Israel an in-depth US analysis of future security arrangements in the West Bank.
  • The US effort to refocus the talks comes after a month of high tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, sparked by Israeli settlement announcements, and the issue being sidelined by negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. Israel has its own frustrations over Palestinian incitement, and concerns over recent terror attacks.
  • Despite the difficulties, the resumption of direct talks in August has created the backdrop for improved cooperation between Israel and the PA. Israel, Jordan and the PA signed a major agreement on water cooperation projects on 9 December.

New target: a framework agreement

The US is becoming more directly engaged in the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians. In statements made at the Saban forum on 7 December, both President Obama and Secretary Kerry indicated that their immediate goal is a framework agreement, on which a comprehensive agreement will be based, as opposed to the complete agreement in nine months, which was their original goal. Kerry said the goal is, “A basic framework will have to address all the core issues – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and an end of claims. And it will have to establish agreed guidelines for subsequent negotiations that will fill out the details in a full-on peace treaty.”

Obama said, “I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognises better to move forward than move backwards.”  He added that with respect to implementing an agreement in the Gaza Strip, implementation would “happen in stages”.

Experienced observers had previously noted that a framework agreement – a short document setting out the basic parameters and trade-offs without resolving all the complex details – is a more realistic immediate goal than a comprehensive agreement.

The US is now believed to be working on establishing agreed terms for the framework agreement. It is hoped this will help direct the detailed negotiations on the comprehensive agreement being conducted by Tzipi Livni and Yithak Molcho on the Israel side, and Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians.

The framework, in order to be accepted by Israel, will have to go some way to address Israel’s core demands, as articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent weeks. On security, Netanyahu demands that “the security border of the State of Israel will remain along the Jordan River,” and that Israel should not be reliant on any third party for its security. On legitimacy he demands that the Palestinians “recognise the national rights of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.” The framework will also have to address Israel’s demands that the agreement will explicitly mark an end of the conflict, with no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel.

The Palestinians will demand that any framework agreement acknowledge the pre-1967  armistice lines (the Green Line) as the basis for a territorial solution, and address their demands for a capital in East Jerusalem and the need to reach a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.

New US security proposals

On Thursday 5 December, John Kerry presented to Israel the results of an in-depth, analysis of future security arrangements in the West Bank, produced by a large US multi-agency team led by General John Allen. The central points were also shared with the PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The aim of the proposal was to suggest ways in which Israel’s demand for a long-term military presence on the Jordan River – which will be the future Eastern border of a Palestinian state – can be reconciled with Palestinian demands for full sovereignty. The Palestinians are willing to accept limitations on their own forces in the West Bank and a third-party international force but are opposed to an Israeli presence.

The details of the US proposal have not been made public but are believed to accept the Israeli demand for a long-term military presence, but to propose technological and other means to minimise its scope, including through arrangements on the Jordanian side of the border.

Need to break deadlock after recent tensions

The US effort to refocus the process  follows a hiatus in the talks between Israeli lead negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Talks were sidelined for a period of weeks following Israeli settlement announcements at the beginning of November, and the issue being overshadowed by negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, which exposed sharp differences between the US and Israel.

Whilst the Israeli government authorised the release of the second of four batches of Palestinian terrorists serving long sentences at the end of October, it simultaneously advanced planning and development for close to 5000 new homes in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocks. This caused an angry reaction from the PA and the US. The Palestinian negotiating team offered its resignation, though Saeb Erekat is now continuing in his role. A subsequent announcement by the Housing Ministry, led by pro-settlement Jewish Home minister Uri Ariel, to advance plans for 20,000 more West Bank homes, was quashed by Netanyahu. The two sets of negotiators have now resumed their meetings.

Israel did not commit to a settlement freeze when resuming talks, instead agreeing to release 104 prisoners serving long sentences for terror offences committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Some new settlement announcements were therefore expected, but not on the scale of those announced.

Israel has its own frustrations with the Palestinians over incitement. Prime Minister Netanyahu has presented examples of incitement in official Palestinian Authority media during meetings with Secretary Kerry. Issues of particular concern are the glorification of terrorists on PA television, and official support for ‘popular resistance’. Israel argues that incitement raises questions over the Palestinians real willingness to reach a peace agreement. There have been a series of murders of Israelis by individual West Bank Palestinians in recent months, and an attack on a nine year old girl. Israel does not accuse the PA of encouraging such attacks directly, but of creating and allowing an atmosphere conducive to such acts.

Israel also feels that while the PA is refraining from actively promoting delegitimisation of Israel, for example in the International Criminal Court, it is quietly encouraging others to do so, as well as promoting a boycott of settlement products.

Underlying these tensions is the considerable distrust between the two leaders. While most Israelis support the continuation of negotiations, support among the Palestinians is under 50%, which helps explain the lack of enthusiasm for the process on the part of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians have prepared further initiatives to seek recognition internationally if talks collapse.

What was achieved in the bilateral talks until now?

From August to October the negotiating teams met in private, sometimes several times a week, for several hours at a time, sometimes joined by US intermediary Martin Indyk. The content of the talks has largely been kept private, but it is understood that they set out general positions on security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem, with considerable gaps between the positions.

On the Western border, the Palestinians have insisted on the pre-1967 Green Line with adjustments of only 1.9 per cent – consistent with their position since the 2008 Annapolis talks. Israel has not proposed its own map but has conveyed that it does not intend a Palestinian state to be ‘Swiss cheese’ state of disjointed cantons, as Palestinian officials sometimes claim. A leaked Palestinian negotiating summary claimed Israel also agreed to the principle of territorial exchange, though not necessarily on the terms demanded by the Palestinian side.

Though not part of the final status negotiations, the resumption of talks has also created the basis for improved day to day economic cooperation. At the end of September, Israel announced measures to help the Palestinian economy, including: increased permits for Palestinians to work in Israel; extended opening hours for the West Bank-Jordan border crossing at the Allenby Bridge; allowing building materials and mobile phone equipment into Gaza; and the resumption of various joint committees on economic cooperation.

Israel, Jordan and the PA have also reached an agreement on water cooperation including construction of a major desalination plant in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, with plans for a pipeline to carry water from the plant to the Dead Sea.

Meanwhile Quartet envoy Tony Blair has published a plan to upgrade the Palestinian economy with international private sector development. Work is underway to line up multinational corporations willing to partner with Israeli and Palestinian private sectors for new investments in the West Bank, which will be realised if a peace agreement is reached.

What is likely to happen going forward?

The Americans clearly have no intention of allowing the nine month clock – due to expire at the end of April – to run down without progress, and are now forcing the pace. Informed sources indicate that they would like to lay down their new terms of reference for a framework agreement even before the next prisoner release, which is scheduled for late December. They will hope as a result of agreeing a framework that they can establish a new and more realistic timeline for a comprehensive agreement. However, the critical decisions will remain with the key decision makers, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. They will have to decide whether to face the political risks of agreeing to terms of reference which will contain difficult concessions on both sides.

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We Really Need to Talk About Corruption


Jonathan Schanzer

The Tower, December 2013

The U.S. has made Israeli-Palestinian peace into a top priority. But how can you build a legitimate, peaceful state out of a kleptocratic regime?

If peace were suddenly to break out in the Middle East, John Kerry would undoubtedly assure his place in the Secretary of State Hall of Fame. Defiantly challenging a chorus of naysayers at home and around the world, Kerry launched a new round of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy on July 29, 2013, and believes he can conclude a deal between the two sides by the end of April 2014.

He has his work cut out for him, however. Extremely difficult, almost impossible issues remain to be resolved, such as the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugee claims, and final borders.

But one obstacle is almost never discussed in public, yet has the potential to make even the most successful negotiation end in a spectacular failure. The present efforts to create a Palestinian state are built entirely atop a Palestinian political system that has long suffered from endemic corruption, abuse of power, nepotism, and waste. This problem has dogged the Palestinians at least since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, radically undermining the most basic elements required for successful governance—including the faith of individual Palestinians in their leaders. This hinders the ability to administer international assistance, encourage investment, or build effective institutions.

Put simply, the current Palestinian regime, led first by Yasser Arafat and now by President Mahmoud Abbas, is ossified, brittle, and distrusted by the Palestinian street. The failure to address this problem would most likely lead to the birth of a failed state that crushes Palestinian freedom and economic growth, threatens Israel, and fosters radicalism—making American diplomatic efforts today seem, in retrospect, tragically flawed despite the huge investment of resources and political credibility.

Washington’s failure to address Palestinian corruption has already had catastrophic consequences. It had a decisive influence on the Palestinian elections of January 2006, in which the terrorist group Hamas and its allies defeated their secular rival Fatah, taking 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament and earning the legal right to form a government.

As a result, the U.S. Congress legislatively prohibited any taxpayer money from aiding a Palestinian government in which terrorists played a role. Observers lamented the Bush administration for ignoring klaxon-level warnings that forcing elections that included an armed terrorist group was a grievous error and would see the Palestinian people bring them to power. And while there is no doubt that Hamas’ grisly record of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets won over some of the Palestinian population, there was another explanation for its victory that many in the West preferred not to acknowledge: The Palestinians were looking for new leaders after years of living under a corrupt regime. Hamas ran for election under the banner of “change and reform,” and its message resonated.

There is no doubt that Fatah’s defeat was as long in coming as a victory for Hamas. As Zaki Chehab pointed out in his 2007 book Inside Hamas, Palestinians have increasingly come to view the group as not only a violent organization committed to confronting Israel, but also as an independent, less corrupt movement that refused to take part in a dysfunctional spoils system. Hamas was well aware of this, and worked hard to project the image of an organization impervious to the corruption that plagued the wealthy Fatah leaders who returned to the Palestinian territories after years of exile in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia.

In other words, the most obvious explanation for Hamas’ success at the polls was Fatah’s failure to gain the support of the Palestinian majority due to its ineptitude and corruption. But the West was not interested in this point of view. As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh noted,
For many years the foreign media did not pay enough attention to stories about corruption in the Palestinian areas or about abuse of human rights or indeed to what was really happening under the Palestinian Authority. They ignored the growing frustration on the Palestinian street as a result of mismanagement and abuse by the PLO of its monopoly on power.

In fact, allegations of corruption against the Palestinian Authority have been constant since its establishment. In 1997, for example, the Associated Press reported that a Palestinian administrative report found “$326 million of the Palestinian autonomy government’s $800 million annual budget had been squandered through corruption or mismanagement.” As scholar Nathan Brown observed in his book Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords, the PA’s corrupt practices included “personal use of ministry cards, unaccounted international long distance calls, [and] padded expense accounts. A few were more significant, such as use of border controls to divert business to relatives of senior officials.”

A Haaretz report further quoted a Fatah official as saying,

Every honcho got himself a fat slice of the imports into the Authority. One got the fuel, another got the cigarettes, yet another the lottery, and his crony the flour. Gravel is a monopoly belonging directly to the security apparatuses, and they earn a fortune from it that finances their operations.

The official called these crony capitalists a “mafia” that undermined the Palestinian government. Another Palestinian official added that, “Without the monopolies, the economy could be in much better shape.”

Despite the airing of these troubling reports, the problem did not get better. In fact, throughout the decade that most defined Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the native problems strangling Palestinian civil society in the grave worsened, while diplomats looked the other way. According to Bloomberg News, PA president Yasser Arafat “diverted $900 million of the authority’s tax and business income to personal bank accounts” between 1995 and 2000.  Another report from Bloomberg revealed that, between 1997 and 2000, the Palestinian leadership transferred $238 million to Switzerland without notifying its donors.

In September 2000, the peace negotiations collapsed, and after months of planning by Yasser Arafat, the PA launched the second intifada, destroying any prospects for peace that survived his refusal to accept Israel’s outreached hand and historic offers. Despite the violence, however, the Palestinians underwent a remarkable domestic awakening. Poll after poll revealed that a large majority was frustrated by the PA’s corruption, with the numbers peaking at an overwhelming 83 percent. Realizing that they had virtually nothing to show for seven years of state-building and a massive infusion of donor funds, many began to demand reform.

So even amidst the ongoing war with Israel, the Palestinians made an effort to clean house. After Arafat died in November 2004, the Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as their new president. The West billed Abbas as the anti-Arafat, and the PA’s new finance minister, Salam Fayyad, was hailed for his commitment to reform and institution building. He steadily gained the confidence of the West.

Ultimately, however, the Abbas regime could not change the PA’s negative image among its own people. In the run-up to the 2006 elections, the Voice of America quoted Bassem Eid, head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, saying “everybody knows that Hamas is just climbing on such corruption of the Palestinian Authority. … I think that Hamas is getting more and more supporters, while the Palestinians start in the street talking about the Palestinian corruption.”

Hamas knew that corruption was a winning issue, and ran as the party of clean governance. The Associated Press reported that the movement was running ads that accused Fatah of corruption, nepotism, bribery, and larceny. Members of the movement held dinners and other events at which they pledged to tackle these issues. Their top leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh and Sheikh Said Siyam, did the same.

The strategy was wildly successful. When the results were in, Fatah, which had dominated the Palestinian national movement for decades, managed to win just 45 seats out of 132, disadvantaged by a complex electoral math that combined both direct and proportional representation. The dismal showing sent a clear message. One Fatah activist, Nasser Abdel Hakim, put it into words: The electoral loss, he said, was caused by “mismanagement and the corruption by the mafia that came from Tunis” when the PA was formed.

Statistics appear to substantiate this claim. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Hamas’ anti-corruption message during the parliamentary election was apparently successful and many reports and exit polls cited anti-corruption as a motivation to vote for Hamas.”

Polling conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that “71 percent of those who considered corruption the most important consideration in voting voted for Hamas and only 19 percent for Fatah and 11 percent for the other lists.” Moreover, 25 percent of voters saw corruption as the number one issue in the election.

What followed was a stalemate. Israel and the U.S. both consider Hamas a terrorist group; as a result, they halted financial collaboration with the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government.  Tensions between Hamas and Fatah supporters in the Palestinian bureaucracy steadily increased.

Soon enough, violence between the two factions erupted, leading to a period of lawlessness in the both the Fatah-dominated West Bank and Hamas’ traditional stronghold of the Gaza Strip.

In early 2007, Hamas abducted a string of Fatah and PA figures. The victims were often beaten and tortured. According to a Palestinian rights group, “limbs were fired at to cause permanent physical disabilities” in certain cases. In addition, Hamas hijacked a convoy of PA trucks. The violence became so bad that one human rights activist said Gaza had “become worse than Somalia.” Yasser Abed Rabbo, an executive committee member of the PLO, described the situation as “anarchy.”

On June 7, 2007, Hamas launched a brutal military coup to wrest the Gaza Strip out of the hands of the PA, which under power-sharing agreements maintained control of the official security forces in both territories. The battle didn’t last long. By June 13, Hamas forces controlled the streets and government buildings, including Abbas’ presidential and security compounds. By the following day, all of Gaza was under Hamas control.

The West, particularly the United States, went into panic mode after the coup, fearing that a similar takeover of the West Bank was imminent. Washington rushed to support Abbas with arms, cash, and intelligence. The message to the Palestinian leader was a simple one: Do not lose power in the West Bank.

It was at this point that Abbas likely realized there was little or no chance that the West would ever challenge his rule over the West Bank, and that weakness was his greatest strength. Thanks to the Hamas record of suicide bombings and rocket attacks, Fatah’s chronic mismanagement of funds seemed to mean very little. The West Bank Palestinian leadership concluded, quite correctly, that the West would turn a blind eye to its abuses of power, let alone its continued incitement against Israel.

And that is precisely what happened. While Abbas’ patrons remained silent, PA corruption continued apace. In August 2007, just weeks after the Gaza takeover, a Palestinian news agency reported on “financial and administrative corruption in the Palestinian power company in Gaza.” The following year, the Jerusalem Post noted additional reports of problematic financial dealings. The Palestinian Authority also came under fire for stifling freedom of the press in the areas under its control. By September 2008, the Post quoted Husam Khader, a young Fatah leader, warning that former loyalists were leaving the party “because of the corruption and the traditional mentality of the Fatah leaders and because they ignore democratic aspects and democratic needs to heal Fatah as we wish.”

Since then, there has been little if any significant improvement in the situation. Abbas pushed Salaam Fayyad out of his position as Prime Minister in early 2013, eliminating the West’s trusted man and bringing Fayyad’s efforts to build accountable institutions and the foundation of a future Palestinian state to an untimely end. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership continued to stifle dissent at home by, for example, banning criticism of Abbas on Facebook. At the same time, it reportedly continued to squander international aid. A European Union audit concluded in October 2013 that the PA may have “misspent” $3.13 billion in financial aid in the previous four years alone. While some have cast doubts on the report’s veracity, the PA itself has acknowledged that corruption complaints in the West Bank quadrupled during 2013.

It seems clear that, despite being rejected by both the ballot and the gun, Abbas has failed to learn his lesson. He has failed to reform the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, and does not show any signs of attempting to do so in the near future.  And the West, addicted to top-down peacemaking, shows little interest in genuinely helping the Palestinian people attain a government dedicated to coexistence with Israel, nor one built on the open, fair and transparent civil society and legal system required to build a successful state.

Abbas, it should be noted, is not going anywhere. Four years past the end of his presidential term, with no elections in sight, despite regular tantrums in which he declares his departure is imminent, Abbas appears determined to continue in office until he is no longer physically able to govern. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Abbas has no heir apparent and, according to Palestinian law, his designated successor is a Hamas member who became speaker of the Palestinian parliament following the 2006 elections.

Washington appears distinctly unconcerned by all this. Indeed, Kerry’s new peace initiative is marked by a strong willingness to throw money at the PA without a plan to bolster its ability to govern or end decades of financial mismanagement. In fact, the cash is already on the proverbial table: In May 2013, Kerry announced that the PA will be rewarded for reaching a peace agreement with $4 billion in aid. More recently, the White House’s Middle East Coordinator Phil Gordon stated that “stabilizing the Palestinian Authority’s finances” was an urgent goal for the administration, while also noting that the U.S. has already contributed $348 million to the PA this year.

Sadly, this means that the administration is now unlearning what past administrations took years to understand: Ignoring the issue of Palestinian governance is a mistake. Ambassador Dennis Ross, for example, who spearheaded the Clinton administration’s peace efforts, has said that “We should have been focused on the state-building enterprise. … We didn’t really focus on that until, in effect, after the collapse of Oslo.”

Aaron David Miller, who worked closely on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for over two decades, has said that Washington often turned a blind eye to the PA’s abuses of power, so long as the Palestinians maintained a public commitment to peacemaking diplomacy. “State security courts and human rights abuses?” he said. “Terrible. But you’ve got to keep the peace process alive. Corruption? Terrible. But you’ve got to keep the peace process alive.” Miller has expressed regret that Washington’s approach was transactional rather than transformational.

Elliott Abrams, who served as an advisor to George W. Bush, has also acknowledged that the problem of PA mismanagement and poor governance was well known to the administration, but “on corruption, we never had a program. We did not have a five-point plan.”

Indeed, for a time, the only plan the U.S.—and the West in general—had was to bet on Salam Fayyad and his efforts to clean up the PA. But now that Fayyad has been pushed out, there appears to be no plan at all.

Theoretically, the United States could steer the Palestinians back to the Fayyad model, since it doesn’t really matter whether the effort is led by Fayyad himself, or by another competent leader with a commitment to reform and institution building. Unfortunately, this seems very unlikely to happen.

Today, American diplomats are falling all over themselves to placate the wrong Palestinian leaders. Washington’s goal is to reach a peace deal, pure and simple, even as the Palestinian government suffers from the same endemic corruption and abuse of power it always has. The failure to address these issues will inevitably give rise to the same wave of frustration that elected Hamas, an outcome that would threaten the very peace deal Washington hopes to foster.  Furthermore, the best possible way to encourage the civil society needed for a stable state, let alone a durable peace, may be better achieved from the bottom up, rather than simply hoping that corrupt leaders will make it happen from the top down against the interests of their profitable patronage networks and their own continued enrichment.

In other words, administration officials continue to ignore the Palestinian struggle for good governance, despite the lessons learned from the election of Hamas and the Arab Spring movements that have recently toppled multiple Arab regimes similar to the PA.

Seemingly desperate for a peace deal and disinclined to challenge the Fatah leadership, Washington now appears only too willing to enter into yet another transactional relationship at the expense of a transformational one, and at the expense of a sustainable two-state solution.

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer is the author of the new book State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State. His previous book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, is still the only book on the market that chronicles the Palestinian civil war. He is currently vice-president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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The Disinformation Age

Clifford May

Israel Hayom, Dec. 12, 2013

Walter Cronkite, the great CBS anchorman from 1962 to 1981, was called “the most trusted man in America,” and polling supported that claim. He would conclude his evening news broadcasts with the phrase: “And that’s the way it is.” And it was, too. More precisely, Uncle Walter defined for most Americans what was news — what was important and why.

How different is the world today? Polls now show the media’s credibility sinking to historic lows, with only 23 percent of Americans expressing confidence in television news and newspapers.

At the same time, there are more media outlets than ever — print, broadcast, online, social media. New York Times columnist Bill Keller enthuses that “for the curious reader with a sense of direction, this is a time of unprecedented bounty.” His habit, he noted in a column last month, is to follow the news in the Guardian, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Al-Jazeera English and many other outlets.

Most news consumers, however curious they may be, are unlikely to have Keller’s “sense of direction,” his ability to separate fact from opinion, to recognize misrepresentations, propaganda and blatant lies. Nor can most readers spend as much time as does a professional newsman gathering information from a long and diverse menu.

I’m writing here for an elite and highly educated audience. But how many of you, I wonder, could speak with authority about the credibility of Ozy Media, Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker, Reddit and UpWorthy?

A former senior federal law enforcement official recently emailed me and others an article from a publication called Diversity Chronicle about an 18-year-old West German woman who was attacked while sunbathing and subsequently found guilty of “raping” eight Muslim men “in the first case of its kind in Europe.” The story was a hoax — but it was slick enough to fool this sophisticated individual and perhaps others on his list.

Now imagine a troubled high-school student who finds his way to the glossy online magazine Inspire. How would he know that its publishers, editors and writers are all members of al-Qaida? What might it motivate him to do? Actually, no need to imagine: Authorities believe Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used information published in Inspire to make the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaida’s leader, said in 2005: “More than half of this war is taking place on the battlefield of the media.” More recently, Omar al-Hammami, a member of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, said: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalms and knives.” Do America’s leaders understand the challenge implicit in those words?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism according to the U.S. government. Its media voices include the Fars News Agency and the oddly named Press TV. Does anyone believe that they operate according to the ethics taught in Reporting and Writing 101 at the Columbia School of Journalism?

Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s broadcast media outlet, was formally placed on the government’s terrorist exclusion list in 2004. Two years later, after much work — not least by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank where I hang my hat — it was added to the Specially Designated Global Terrorism List.

Al-Aqsa TV is Hamas’ media outlet. It was designated in 2010 by the Obama administration. FDD played an important role in facilitating that designation as well.

But in May this year, the Newseum, a prestigious Washington institution, announced that it was honoring two al-Aqsa employees by adding them to the Journalism Memorial Wall, which features Daniel Pearl and other “reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died reporting the news.” Near the wall is a quote from Hillary Clinton: “The men and women of this memorial are truly democracy’s heroes.”

I was among those who protested. Just minutes before the ceremony honoring the al-Aqsa employees, the Newseum issued an “update” saying that “serious questions” had been raised about the individuals and that, in response, it had “decided to re-evaluate … pending further investigation.”

As far as we know that investigation is ongoing. Requests for information regarding who is conducting the inquiry and according to what criteria have gone unanswered.

Around the time the Newseum announced it would put members of a designated terrorist organization on the Journalism Memorial Wall, we learned that Ahmed Haidar, an employee of al-Manar, was already there. It’s unclear when he was so honored. What is clear is that the Newseum knows al-Manar is owned by Hezbollah — and that both are designated terrorist entities.

As with the al-Aqsa employees, it is not certain that Haidar ever actually contributed to any journalistic products whatsoever. In its designation of al-Manar, the U.S. Treasury Department noted that some of those on the organization’s payroll are “engaged in pre-operational surveillance for Hezballah operations under cover of employment by al-Manar.”

In other words, “just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist.”

That’s a quote from Richard Engel, the veteran NBC foreign correspondent who was the keynote speaker at the Newseum ceremony that stopped just short of honoring the al-Aqsa operatives.

I’m afraid there’s more: Al-Dunya Television, closely tied to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has been designated by both the U.S. government and the European Union. According to the U.S. Treasury Department:

“Correspondents of Al-Dunya and official Syrian television allegedly conducted interviews that were not broadcast, but were delivered to Syrian intelligence personnel who used them to arrest interviewees … After ransacking and storming farms in Harasta, Syria, Syrian government forces planted weapons and ammunition and brought in an Al-Dunya crew to falsely portray the location as a weapons depot. Correspondents from Al-Dunya and Syrian television accompanied Syrian military intelligence units to interview detainees. The detainees were interviewed after being tortured and threatened with death to force them to say what the Government of Syria wanted.”

Yet one of Al-Dunya’s operatives — killed during the fighting in Aleppo last January — is being considered for the next round of “journalists” to be honored by the Newseum.

Should the Newseum’s executives and its eminent Board of Trustees not be concerned that by making no distinctions between journalists and propagandists — and in some cases, intelligence agents masquerading as journalists — they are doing serious damage to the cause the Newseum was founded to champion? Again, I and members of my staff have asked Newseum spokesmen to discuss this, to provide their perspectives, and they have declined — a peculiar posture for an organization dedicated to the public’s right to know.

Al-Jazeera, founded in 1996, funded and controlled by the fabulously wealthy royal family of Qatar, is not terrorist media. But Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, has noted that in its early years, it gave “voice to Osama bin Laden, as its audiences expected.”

In 2001, following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the scholarFouad Ajami, winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, wrote about Al-Jazeera for the New York Times magazine. He found himself agreeing with the station’s defenders that it marks an enormous change from the “pompous, sycophantic press in Arab countries — whose main function has been to report the comings and goings and utterances of the ruler of the land.”

Ajami added, however, that, “Al-Jazeera’s virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues. It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force. And it should be treated as such by Washington.” He added: “Although Al-Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous, Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al-Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”

It soon became adamantly pro-Saddam Hussein. Robert Reilly, who served as a senior adviser to the Iraqi Information Ministry in 2003, has written that, when Saddam’s statue was pulled down, Al Jazeera was the one international news source that neglected to report it.

More recently, the station has been staunchly pro-Muslim Brotherhood; so much so that, last July, more than 20 of its staffers in Egypt resigned over what they said was the management’s persistently “biased” coverage. Haggag Salama accused his ex-employers of “airing lies.” Qatar also is a generous funder of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — a fact not generally disclosed when Al-Jazeera reports on the ongoing conflict between Gaza’s rulers and Israelis.

Three years ago, based on Wikileak disclosures, the Guardian reported on U.S. embassy cables alleging that Qatar was using Al-Jazeera “as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations by adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions.”

Al-Jazeera continues to feature Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the fiery tele-sheikh, whom columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has called “an extremist’s extremist.” Qaradawi endorses female genital mutilation; has called for punishing gays; has defended the death penalty for Muslims who leave Islam; has had kind words to say about Hitler’s Final Solution; and has praised Imad Mughniyah, the terrorist mastermind behind the 1983 suicide bombings that slaughtered hundreds of American and French servicemen in Beirut. Qaradawi favors the “spread of Islam until it conquers the entire world and includes both the East and West [marking] the beginning of the return of the Islamic Caliphate.”

Earlier this month on Al-Jazeera, a former Brotherhood official calmly explained to millions of viewers that Egypt’s current strongman, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was actually Jewish and “implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.” The interviewer seemed to find this both compelling and convincing.

In November 2006, Al-Jazeera English launched — with more restrained broadcasts. Dave Marash, a veteran correspondent for ABC’s Nightline, was signed as an anchor. Two years later, under the headline “Why I Quit,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review that he viewed the station’s reporting on the United States as biased — “a serious exception” to the “standards that were set almost everywhere else by Al-Jazeera English’s very fine reporting.”

Not everyone would put such a positive spin on AJE’s reporting outside the U.S. In August, Abdallah Schleifer, Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, wrote a piece headlined, “How Al-Jazeera Skews Its Coverage of Egypt.” He found the English-language station little better than the Arabic. And an ambassador from an Asian country with whom I spoke recently expressed strong concerns about the contribution being made by both Al-Jazeera English and Al-Jazeera Arabic to the radicalization of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The newest addition to the family, launched in January of this year, is Al-Jazeera America which, perhaps coincidentally, has its Washington studio in the Newseum. Most media commentators and critics have accepted at face value the claim that it is entirely separate from and independent of the other Al-Jazeera stations, and have posed few questions about how that jibes with management saying, proudly, that all Al-Jazeera stations have a “shared vision.”

Nor has there been any serious scrutiny of the claim that AJAM’s mission is to “air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news” with “less opinion.” An article in USA Today, typical of coverage about the station to date, told readers: “The new cable entry rests entirely on a bet that there is a good-size audience hungry for the straight down the middle, ‘serious and in-depth’ journalism that its management boldly promises.”

Among the exceptions to such journalism so far: Al-Jazeera America, English and Arabic all aggressively promoted the theory that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was assassinated with polonium in 2004. French and Russian studies have found no evidence to support that theory.

Nor are many in the media asking why the rulers of a small country that Freedom House rates as “not free” — noting in particular that its press is “not free” — would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to enlarge the free press in the United States. The Al-Jazeera stations are not profit-making enterprises — and may never be.

Qatar and Al-Jazeera also are reaching out to America’s young people: In March, Al-Jazeera and Northwestern University signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to facilitate collaboration and knowledge transfer.” Northwestern has a campus in Qatar where students can earn degrees in journalism and communications and, according to a press release from Northwestern, “are uniquely positioned to gain experience with the news organization.” Does this represent Qatari altruism or might there be an ulterior motive? Is it out-of-line for journalists to ask such questions? If so, why?

One more issue I want to put on the table is the state of Western foreign correspondence. In 1978, I was assigned to Northern Ireland to cover “the Troubles,” the sectarian civil conflict that broke out in the 1960s and ended, for the most part, in 1998.

In 1979, I was sent to Iran to cover the revolution being led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In both countries, I interviewed some very hard and violent men. But in those days, reporters were seen as neutrals. Everyone wanted to talk to us, to tell us their stories and argue, through us to the public, for the justice of their causes.

At some point, over the years that followed there was a change: Those who kidnapped Daniel Pearl decided they could express themselves most eloquently not by letting him fill his notebook, but by beheading him, and posting the video on the Internet.

I spent some time also covering the Soviet Union and various African countries. The authorities in these places could be difficult and they found creative ways to exert pressure on foreign journalists. Never, however, did I think they would kill me or even jail me for a significant length of time.

Today, by contrast, I fear it has become impossible for a journalist to visit a country such as Iran and do hard-hitting reporting in relative safety. Some lines cannot be crossed. But how many of the reporters who spend time in Iran — courageous though they are — will acknowledge that? How many of their editors will say it publicly? Is an honest discussion of this dilemma not long overdue?

A final word about Walter Cronkite: He didn’t always end his broadcasts with “… and that’s the way it is.” On those evenings when he delivered an opinion piece or commentary he would drop the phrase. It was his way of maintaining the standards of objective journalism. I ask again: How different is the world today? Is it not possible that we’re living in what might be called the Disinformation Age — and don’t even know it?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.

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