Obama relays condolences to Netanyahu, pledges support


President Obama conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his condolences over recent terrorist attacks and reaffirmed “unwavering” commitment to Israel’s security.

“President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today to convey his condolences over the terrorist attack in Jerusalem yesterday, which killed one person and wounded many others, and to express his concern about the recent rocket and mortar attacks against Israel from Gaza,” a White House statement said on Thursday. “The President reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

The statement said Netanyahu “appreciated” the call and that the leaders “agreed to remain in close touch on a range of regional security issues.”

Israel has been seeking American reassurances in the wake of a wave of uprisings in the Arab world.

Robert Gates, the defense secretary, on Thursday met with Ehud Barak, his Israeli counterpart, and said advancing peace talks with the Palestinians was more critical than ever because of regional turmoil.

“The Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that’s sweeping the region,” Reuters quoted a senior U.S. defense official as saying.

The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy


Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Israel Lays Plans for Post-Arafat Era


As Israel looks ahead to the post-Arafat era, the government is considering a series of policy options: in the short term, easing conditions in the Palestinian territories to help a new leadership consolidate power and in the longer term, restarting peace talks based on the “road map” plan.

However, there also are contingency plans for a far more pessimistic scenario: The possibility that the new Palestinian leaders may fail to assert their authority, and that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could degenerate into chaos and internecine violence.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon laid down the general outlines of the new policy in a string of meetings last week with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz; Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff; and other senior defense establishment officials.

Sharon made two key decisions. Israel will do whatever it can from a distance to help Mahmoud Abbas, who seems to be emerging as the dominant figure in the new Palestinian leadership, to establish his position, but at the same time it will prepare for chaos if the broad coalition Abbas is forming falls apart.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom highlighted the delicate nature of Israel’s position with regard to the new Palestinian leaders.

“Any name we mention,” he said, “will be stigmatized as a collaborator. But we expect whatever leadership that emerges to be more moderate and more responsible.”

For the time being, Israeli hopes rest on Abbas. He has come out strongly against Palestinian terrorism and in favor of the political, economic and security reforms the Palestinians committed to under the internationally backed road map to peace.

Position papers produced by the Foreign Ministry and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) suggest Israel made two cardinal errors the last time Abbas held a share of power, when he served as Palestinian Authority prime minister between late April and early September 2003: It embraced him too tightly while failing to make some concessions, like large-scale prisoner releases, that Palestinians expected Abbas to achieve. These are mistakes the Israeli establishment says it does not intend to repeat.

Proposed moves to help the new Palestinian leadership win popular backing can be divided into two areas — military and civilian. A Foreign Ministry paper urges the IDF to go into “defensive mode” and not launch preemptive strikes against terrorist organizations, and the defense establishment seems to be adopting the advice.

The IDF plans to cut offensive “seek-and-destroy” operations to a minimum and to focus on intercepting terrorists on their way to attacks. The hope is that if Palestinian factions also display moderation, it could reduce the level of violence in the territories, improve the quality of Palestinian life and enhance Palestinian support for the new leadership.

Other planned moves are aimed directly at improving civilian life: for example, further easing restrictions on Palestinian movement and encouraging economic activity.

Another goodwill gesture will be to allow Yasser Arafat to be buried in pomp and circumstance, with a full complement of foreign dignitaries in attendance. A special air corridor will be opened to allow Arab leaders technically at war with Israel, such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, to fly directly to the funeral without passing through Israeli border controls.

However, there could be a serious confrontation over where Arafat will be buried. Sharon is adamant that the Palestinian Authority president not be interred in Jerusalem, and Palestinian officials in recent days have spoken of burying Arafat in Ramallah instead. If the Palestinians insist on Jerusalem, it could cause serious tension.

Abbas has been trying to establish a broad coalition of all Palestinian factions, including the radical fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The key question is whether the radicals will agree to a cease-fire with Israel, or whether the coalition will break up over this or other conciliatory moves. Israel is taking into account the possibility of open warfare between Palestinian factions and might even target the radicals if that occurs.

If, however, Abbas is able to establish his position and makes progress toward a general cease-fire and reforms, Israel will consider reciprocal steps such as releasing prisoners. There also would be an Israeli effort to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, as outlined in Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, with the new Palestinian leadership.

If all goes smoothly, the next move would be to restart political negotiations based on the road map. This would jibe with European efforts to jump-start stalled peace talks and get the new U.S. administration to join in playing a more active role.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is said to be working on a “street map” that would lead the parties to the road map, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is planning to invite all the relevant parties to an international conference in London to get a peace process restarted.

“We may be starting to get out of the nightmare,” one upbeat Foreign Ministry official, who insisted on anonymity, told JTA. “We have a historic [disengagement] plan in place, a new American administration and Arafat out of the picture. There is a huge opportunity here.”

But some Israeli analysts who know the Palestinian scene well suggest that the government is being far too optimistic, and that Abbas won’t have the clout to make the compromises necessary for peace.

Menachem Klein, a specialist in Palestinian studies at Bar Ilan University, maintains that a relatively weak Abbas leadership would prove to be only a transitional episode, and that Israel soon would have to deal with a new generation of local Palestinian leaders who have far more grass-roots support — people like Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who currently is in an Israeli jail on terrorism charges.

“They are the people who led the previous intifada in the late 1980s, and they are behind the Tanzim today,” he said, referring to the mainstream Fatah movement’s terrorist militia. “They are not a bunch of collaborators.”

In Klein’s view, the young lions would make peace with Israel only on terms similar to those acceptable to Arafat. Though Arafat never spelled out his conditions for peace, they are believed to include Arab control over eastern Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, conditions no Israeli leader would accept.

“Otherwise they will say, ‘We will fight on,'” Klein warned.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.