On September 14th the BBC World Service’s Twitter account came up with the following question for its 64,000 followers:
The programme being promoted in that Tweet is the BBC World Service’s ‘The Fifth Floor’ which is described on its webpage as follows:
“David Amanor presents The Fifth Floor, a new weekly programme that revels in the variety and range of stories produced by the BBC World Service’s 27 language sections.
In any given week the language services across the BBC World Service are producing hours of radio and television and streams of web output: a truly global picture of the world.
And now there is a place where you can tap into that talent.
The Fifth Floor brings you an authentic perspective on the week’s global news.
From Russia to Rwanda and Burma to Brazil, Presenter David Amanor takes a sometimes playful look at the big issues and surprising stories that emerge in a week of global news.
This is an insider’s view on the heart of the World Service looking at how pieces are made, and the stories that enrich and add colour to our understanding of world reporting.”
The episode in question was originally titled “Historic Handshakes” but that title was later revised to “Historic Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses”.
At 12:30 in this recording, presenter David Amanor says:
“Now we’re going to talk about historic handshakes because on this date twenty years ago Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat – leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [sic] – shook hands on the White House lawn in Washington. It was meant to symbolize the beginning of the peace process. Issam Ikirmawi was a young journalist watching from the Middle East at the time and now he works for BBC Arabic, so let’s head over there now. A famous handshake: the most famous – or what?”
Issam Ikirmawi: “I would say infamous.”
II: “Yes. You had two people who were enemies and they were brought together under the spotlight and they had to shake hands.”
DA: “And this was at the White House..”
II: “And this was at the White House lawn with President Clinton playing the peacemaker, so he brought them together. He could see that Rabin was reluctant to extend his hand so there was a gentle nudge by Clinton on the shoulder while Arafat was over-enthusiastic. But also – if you look at the body language – both men were trying to appear as the one in charge of it.”
DA: “You’re Palestinian yourself. Where were you at the time?”
II: “I was in Jerusalem and I was watching on television at home. I can’t think of anyone who’d missed that occasion.”
So BBC audiences are being steered towards a version of events in which the handshake took place between a “reluctant” Rabin and an “over-enthusiastic” Arafat. Why Rabin might be reluctant to shake the hand of the man (wearing military fatigues at a ceremony to mark the signing of a peace agreement) who headed a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of so many Israelis is not made clear to audiences. Why Arafat might be perceived to be “over-enthusiastic” is not explained in the context of the fact that at the very time that the Oslo Accords were being signed, a pre-recorded speech by Arafat to the Palestinian people was being broadcast on Jordanian television.
“From the very outset of the Oslo process, Arafat and his lieutenants viewed the agreements as an implementation of this strategy, not as its abandonment. Arafat said just that as early as September 13, 1993, when he addressed the Palestinians in a pre-recorded Arabic-language message broadcast by Jordanian television, even as he shook Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn. He informed the Palestinians that the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles (DOP) was merely the implementation of the PLO’s “phased strategy.” “O my beloved ones,” he explained,
Do not forget that our Palestine National Council accepted the decision in 1974. It called for the establishment of a national authority on any part of Palestinian land that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdrew. This is the fruit of your struggle, your sacrifices, and your jihad … This is the moment of return, the moment of gaining a foothold on the first liberated Palestinian land … Long live Palestine, liberated and Arab.”
But with no context whatsoever provided by either Amanor or Ikirmawi, the impression audiences receive is one of the Israeli leader being “reluctant” to make peace whilst his Palestinian counterpart was just the opposite. As for the “gentle nudge by Clinton on the shoulder [of Rabin]” which Ikirmawi recounts, photographs of the event show Clinton’s arms extended towards the backs of both Arafat and Rabin. A Reuters photographer present at the event recently recalled that:
“The documents were signed. Everyone stood up and all I remember was a pause – a pause that seemed like and [sic] eternity when Arafat and Rabin didn’t exactly know what to do next. With what seemed like a small little nudge from President Clinton’s outstretched arms, PLO Chairman Arafat reached first in the direction of Prime Minister Rabin who sported what seemed like a little puzzled look before he himself put his hand firmly into Arafat’s.”
At 17:02 in the recording above Amanor returns to the subject of that handshake:
“Well a handshake is just one type of embrace – of symbolic embrace – and of course it’s culturally specific. There are many other types in the world and we live in a big, round world here on the Fifth Floor. Back to Issam. Issam; back to that scene with Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Rabin. [laughs] Now Yasser Arafat usually kissed, didn’t he?”
Issam Ikirmawi: “Yes. There was a big rumour at the time that Arafat was told by American officials that under no circumstances should he attempt to kiss Rabin or kiss anyone.”
DA: “What was the protocol – the reasoning behind that protocol though – that American officials would say that?”
II: “But I mean in the West it’s not customary for men to kiss when they meet each other, while in the Middle East they do, and Arafat was renowned for his fondness of kissing people when he meets them.”
Of course Ikirmawi’s suggestion that American officials sought to protect Rabin’s ‘Western’ sensibilities from Arafat’s ‘Middle Eastern’ customs conceals the fact that Jerusalem-born Rabin was no less Middle Eastern than Cairo-born Arafat. But it also plays into pernicious stereotypes of ‘authentic’ Palestinians and ‘foreign’ Israelis.
Whether the content of this section of the programme is intended to give BBC audiences the “insider’s view” of a reporter who watched the event thousands of miles away on his television just like the rest of us, or whether the promotion of a selective version of events is meant to be “playful” is unclear. But what is certain is that nothing which could be construed as contributing to the acquisition by BBC audiences of an “authentic perspective” on the signing of the Oslo Accords has been contributed by this item.