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The Columbus Free Press

Netanyahu Benefits from Chronic Media Bias

by Norman Solomon, Feb. 14, 1997

When Israel's prime minister arrived in Washington on Feb. 12, he stepped into friendly media territory.

In recent weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu has won accolades for finally agreeing to an Israeli pullback from the West Bank city of Hebron. Even former detractors offered praise. "We have been wrong about him," concluded Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who applauded "a commitment from Netanyahu to the peace process."

And so it goes. With feeble critics easily assuaged in the U.S. press corps, Netanyahu can proceed with a "peace process" that has little to do with justice.

Although news coverage may get a bit cool when Netanyahu displeases American policy-makers, there's scant danger that Israel will fall from media grace in the United States. Any problems with public relations are apt to be brief.

Netanyahu, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, knows the lay of the media land in this country. For several years during the 1980s, he served as the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. His TV skills were honed on programs like ABC's "Nightline."

These days, many news stories are casting Netanyahu as a potential hero of the "peace process." The grim details of his partnership with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, don't seem to matter much. In effect, the two leaders share the task of suppressing Palestinians who oppose their pact.

Five years ago, in east Jerusalem, I visited editors of a Palestinian newspaper going through the daily ordeal of submitting page proofs to Israeli censors. Lately, the censorship chores have fallen to Arafat's henchmen.

Palestinians are also suffering more extreme measures. Investigators for Human Rights Watch report "recurrent" Israeli practices "such as torture, arbitrary and prolonged detention without charge or trial, and wholesale restrictions on movement of people amounting to collective punishment." Meanwhile, Arafat's police are torturing and sometimes murdering prisoners.

But U.S. media attention to these human rights abuses is minimal and fleeting. American news outlets -- long accustomed to giving the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt -- now tacitly assume that Arafat is engaged in worthy endeavors when he serves the interests of Israel and the U.S. government.

We're so familiar with pro-Israel media bias that it may seem natural. But far more evenhanded coverage is possible, as regular monitoring of Britain's BBC Radio confirms. The contrast with our National Public Radio is striking.

America's routine news accounts don't shed light on the extensive control that Israel retains over the land it has occupied since the 1967 war. Palestinian "autonomy" exists in 5 percent of the West Bank. The isolated Palestinian enclaves resemble apartheid-era "bantustans" in South Africa.

Even further Israeli withdrawals won't change the fact that Israel's soldiers can restrict travel and commerce between the scattered Palestinian towns. At the same time, essential resources like water go primarily to Israeli settlements, which continue to expand.

Like any other nation, Israel should be held to high standards of human rights. And Americans have a special reason for concern: The U.S. government is sending more than $3 billion of annual aid to Israel.

One of the trusty arguments used by Israel's boosters is that it's anti-Semitic to criticize the Jewish state. That's nonsense.

Anti-Jewish bigotry can be found among Israel's foes -- and backers. For instance, as Oval Office tapes attest, Richard Nixon was prone to anti-Semitism even while he strongly supported Israel and expressed admiration for its military prowess.

In the United States, mainline Jewish organizations claim to speak for virtually all Jews. The rhetoric was typical a few days ago when a full-page New York Times ad, placed by the United Jewish Appeal, proclaimed: "The seeds of Jewish life and Jewish communities everywhere begin in Israel."

But Israel's fervent enthusiasts drown out the voices of the sizable minority of American Jews who are appalled by the repressive character of modern Israel. As for Arab Americans, their outlooks have little media standing here.

So, Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't have to worry about journalism in the United States. Despite occasional sniping, he can count on America's big media guns to back up Israel, right or wrong.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist and co-author (with Jeff Cohen) of Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News.

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