How did the BBC’s Yolande Knell frame Israeli visits to Gulf states?

Two very similar reports from BBC Jerusalem correspondent Yolande Knell have recently appeared on different platforms.

A written report titled “Israel-Arab ties warm up after long deep freeze” was published in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page on November 6th with a synopsis telling BBC audiences that:

“An Israeli charm offensive is making once unlikely friends in the Arab world, worrying Palestinians.”

On the same day listeners to two editions of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ heard an audio report from Knell – from 08:37 here and from 14:07 here. In both cases it was introduced (by presenters Razia Iqbal and Rebecca Kesby) thus: [emphasis in italics in the original]

“Israel leaders often describe their country as being in a tough neighbourhood but recently there have been some extraordinary signs of friendliness with Arab states. Israel’s prime minister was in Oman, two of his ministers then went to the United Arab Emirates and today another is back in Muscat. And that’s despite the fact that Oman and the UAE – like most Arab countries – have no official diplomatic relations with Israel. The Palestinians are worried about what these new alliances – bound up in common fears about Iran’s regional ambitions and backed by the White House – will mean for their nationalist cause. Our Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell reports.”

Knell’s framing of this story – which places the Palestinian reaction to events unrelated directly to them at the focus of her reports – is obviously noteworthy. Under the sub-heading “Palestinians wary” readers of the written report were told that:

“However, Palestinians are alarmed by the new alliances, developing as President Trump promises to present his “Deal of the Century” plan to end their conflict with Israel.

They fear his administration is looking to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to pressure them into accepting a peace agreement that does not meet their long-standing demands.

“This kind of attempt to normalise Israel within the region, without Israel normalising its relationship with Palestine and remaining as an occupying power, is counterproductive and dangerous,” says Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) official.

She suggests the latest developments threaten the legitimacy of the Arab Peace Initiative – which the 22 members of the Arab League signed up to in 2002.

It offers Israel normal diplomatic relations with Arab states only in exchange for its full withdrawal from Arab lands it captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.”

Knell made no effort to explain to her readers why an initiative launched over 16 years ago has to this day made no progress or why they should take Hanan Ashrawi’s word that it is at all relevant.

Ashrawi was also featured in Knell’s audio report, but with no mention of her PLO position.

Knell: “Here in the occupied West Bank Palestinian leaders are alarmed by this regional shift taking place as President Trump promises to present his ‘deal of the century’ to end their conflict with Israel. They cut off ties with the US last year, saying it wasn’t an honest peace broker and they fear the White House is looking to its powerful Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to pressure them into a peace agreement that falls well short of their long-standing demands. Hanan Ashrawi is a senior Palestinian official.”

Ashrawi: “I think this is part of an overall strategy by the Americans to try to get normalisation with the Arab world before Israel withdraws from the occupied territories: what we call the outside-in approach.”

Knell did not bother to inform listeners that under the terms of the Oslo Accords – signed by the body which Ashrawi represents – the issue of borders is supposed to be resolved in final status negotiations between the two parties.

Another aspect of Knell’s framing of this story is her promotion of a theory allegedly advanced by unidentified “analysts” which was portrayed in the written report as follows:

“Analysts suggest the pivotal role ascribed to Saudi Arabia in reviving the peace process has been thrown into doubt by the shocking murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

However, in another remarkable move, comments by Mr Netanyahu on Friday seemed to show tacit support for the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has been accused of having a role in Khashoggi’s death – something the kingdom has denied.

He said Mr Khashoggi’s killing was “horrendous” but should not be allowed to lead to upheaval in Saudi Arabia “because the larger problem is Iran.””

In the audio report listeners heard the following self-contradicting statements from Knell:

Knell: “But there’s been a set-back to the warming of Saudi and Israeli ties: the international outcry over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Turkey. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – known as MBS – has had his reputation badly damaged by the scandal, although he denies involvement. Remarkably, one international leader giving him tacit support is Mr Netanyahu.” [emphasis added]

Recording Netanyahu: “What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with. Yet at the same time I say that it’s very important for the stability of the world – of the region and of the world – that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”

Listeners were not informed that – despite Knell’s claim of “international outcry” – just one day before her report was aired, seventy-five country delegates to the UN Human Right Council had heaped praise on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

Another interesting aspect of Knell’s reporting is its downplaying of what some analysts see as the prime motivation behind improved relations between Israel and Gulf states. Readers of the written report found a tepid portrayal of Iranian regional actions and policies which, notably, whitewashed its financial support for Hamas from the picture.

“The main reason is a shared concern over Iran. Israel, like many Gulf Arab countries, worries about Iran’s ambitions and sees it as a destabilising force in the Middle East.

Tehran has been directly involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and supports rebels fighting in Yemen and militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

In the audio report listeners were told that: [emphasis added]

Knell: “Meetings between Israeli and Gulf Arab officials have long taken place in secret but now they’re happening openly, despite a lack of progress on peace with the Palestinians. The main reason is the shared concern about Iran…”

Knell ended both her reports with more clear messaging to BBC audiences that a story concerning diplomatic relations between Israel and Gulf states is actually about Palestinians.

Written:

“All these signs of a regional shift are popular with ordinary Israelis and even Mr Netanyahu’s political rivals have praised his advances in the Gulf.

However, the Arab public – for whom the Palestinian issue remains very emotional – will be far harder to win over without a peace agreement.

So for now, Arab states are unlikely to fully embrace Israel. Instead we should expect more previously unthinkable invitations, gestures of recognition and warm handshakes.”

Audio:

“Such signs of new relations are very popular with ordinary Israelis although the Arab public – still very sensitive to the Palestinian issue – will be much harder to win over without a peace agreement.”

While BBC audiences obviously got a generous dose of PLO (and Hamas) messaging in both Knell’s reports, the question of how that contributes to their understanding of this story is clearly debatable.

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BBC’s ME editor advances his own partisan narrative in summing up of Trump visit

BBC News website coverage of the US president’s visit to Israel was rounded off with an article by Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen titled “Trump in Middle East: Symbols but little substance” which appeared in the ‘features’ section of the website’s Middle East page on May 23rd.

That article – written by the man whose job description is to “make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience” – includes a predictably airbrushed portrayal of the Camp David summit and the Palestinian decision to initiate the terror war known as the second Intifada.

“President Bill Clinton presided over the moment in 1993 at the White House when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin exchanged a historic handshake and signed the Oslo peace agreement. At the end of his presidency in 2000, a make or break summit failed and was followed by years of violence and unrest.”

Bowen also presents an airbrushed portrayal of the Arab peace initiative of 2002, failing to inform readers that it demands full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, “occupied territories” in south Lebanon, Judea & Samaria and the parts of Jerusalem previously occupied by Jordan – including the Old City – and that its proposals on the issue of refugees are vague. He of course refrains from stating that Hamas – along with Hizballah – has rejected that plan on numerous occasions.

“But the Saudis have had their own Arab peace plan on the table for the last 15 years, offering full peace and recognition of Israel in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the entire territory of the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem.”

In line with previously seen BBC editorial policy, Bowen portrays the Old City of Jerusalem – including the Western Wall – as “occupied land”.

“Mr Trump became the first serving American president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place where Jews can pray. That is being taken as support for Israel.

The wall is in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after it was captured 50 years ago and which most of the world outside Israel regards as occupied land.”

Bowen promotes false equivalence between Israel and Iran:

“In his final speech, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, President Trump also identified himself, his administration and the United States four-square with Israel.

He repeated, to lots of applause, that he would never let Iran have nuclear weapons. Israel has a substantial and officially undeclared nuclear arsenal.”

He similarly amplifies a notion of false equivalence between Israeli soldiers and convicted Palestinian terrorists:

“One pointer to a potential difference with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu came at the museum. In his opening remarks, Mr Netanyahu said that if the bomber in Manchester was Palestinian, and his victims were Israelis, the Palestinian Authority would be paying a stipend to his family.

He was referring to a Palestinian Martyrs’ fund. It pays pensions to people it regards as victims of the occupation, including the families of individuals who have been killed attacking Israelis. There is also a fund to support Palestinians who have been imprisoned by Israel. The Palestinians have compared the payments to the salaries Israel pays to soldiers.” [emphasis added]

Bowen then tells readers that:

“President Trump, in his speech, did not pick up the cue.

After making many warm remarks about Israel, which earned him standing ovations, he said he believed that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was serious about making peace.”

Bowen does not however tell BBC audiences that while the US president’s pre-written speech at the Israel Museum may indeed not have included mention of the PA’s payments to convicted terrorists and the families of dead terrorists, that issue had already been raised during the PA president’s Washington visit earlier in the month and his speech earlier the same day in Bethlehem did allude to that topic.

“Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded. We must be resolute in condemning such acts in a single, unified voice.”

Bowen goes on:

“Senior Israeli politicians and officials in the room disagree. Prime Minister Netanyahu said earlier this year that President Abbas lied to Donald Trump when they met in the White House.”

The BBC’s Middle East editor does not of course bother to inform the corporation’s audiences that Mahmoud Abbas did indeed lie when he stated during that Washington visit that:

“Mr. President, I affirm to you that we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace.”

Of course the BBC’s long-standing editorial policy of avoidance of meaningful reporting on the issue of the PA’s incitement and glorification of terrorism – including among children – means that audiences would be unable to fill in Bowen’s deliberate blanks.  

Yet again we see that rather than “make[ing] a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience”, Jeremy Bowen in fact does the exact opposite by exploiting his position to advance his chosen political narrative.