BBC on the new Israeli government

On March 14th an article on the subject of the new coalition government in Israel, by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell, appeared on the Middle East page of the BBC News website. 

Knell coalition

 

Apart from a couple of errors, Knell’s article is very reasonable. She writes:

 “Mr Netanyahu was forced to give up his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties: Shas and United Torah Judaism.” [emphasis added]

In the video appearing in the article – showing a similar report by Knell broadcast on BBC news – she says:

“Mr Netanyahu, the prime minister, has had to give up on what are seen as his natural allies – the ultra-orthodox parties – in forming this new government.” [emphasis added]

In fact, the possibility of a 55 seat coalition including the two Orthodox parties was very much still on the table according to local political analysts just hours before the final arrangements were agreed, and so Knell’s use of the word “forced” makes her description of events inaccurate.  

Knell also states in the video:

“It is a much more secular-looking government than we’ve seen before”

The time frame of “before” is not made clear, but as anyone with a reasonable memory span will remember, Ariel Sharon’s second term as prime minister saw him construct a coalition government at the end of February 2003 – together with Shinui, led by Yair Lapid’s father – which did not include the Orthodox parties. 

It is, of course, interesting to look back a few weeks at the BBC’s initial predictions surrounding the coalition talks. On February 2nd the BBC informed audiences that:

“Correspondents says (sic) Mr Netanyahu’s likeliest allies are other right-wing and religious groups, although he may also need the support of centrists.”

The fact that the two centrist parties HaTnua and Yesh Atid will make up a very significant portion of this government, holding over a quarter of the ministerial portfolios between them including the Justice Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Education, means that the BBC’s recurrent pre-election predictions of a country lurching to the Right were obviously based on nothing more than politically inspired guess-work. And what can be said about the prediction of a “very, very right-wing government” made by that old BBC favourite Abdel Bari Atwan back in January? 

Later in the day on March 14th, an additional article by Yolande Knell on exactly the same subject also appeared on the Middle East page of the BBC News website and on March 15th, yet another report on the same subject and containing the same information appeared in the same place. Again, both these articles are by and large reasonably factual and accurate, but in the former we find the insertion of a worn old BBC mantra: 

“While the Hatnua leader, Tzipi Livni, has been named as chief negotiator if talks with the Palestinians resume, her commitment to a two-state solution is not shared with other key coalition partners.

Indeed Naftali Bennett has dismissed that idea as “suicide” for Israel. His Jewish Home party includes Knesset members from Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians say are the main obstacle to peace.” [emphasis added]

Of course an entirely accurate representation of that last half sentence should make it clear that the existence of settlements has not prevented the Palestinian Authority from coming to the negotiating table in the past and that the Palestinian adoption of the notion of settlements as “the main obstacle to peace” only came into existence after rookie president Barack Obama pushed the PA up that particular tree – from which they now find it impossible or inconvenient to descend. 

This is far from the first time that the BBC has failed to engage in critical thinking before blindly repeating various bizarre Palestinian claims to its audiences. That habit does nothing to advance BBC audiences’ understanding of the real reasons for lack of progress in the peace process. 

BBC’s Kevin Connolly stereotypes Israeli Arabs

Last month the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly tried to persuade his audience that Israeli Arabs were likely to show a low turnout in the country’s elections. He was wrong: the average turnout in that sector was 56%, with some cities, towns and villages showing even more impressive rates. 

“Kafr Kasim, near Rosh Ha’ayin, led the Arab sector with close to 80% turnout, according to the Central Elections Committee.

Other major Arab population centers also had a high turnout: Jaljulya at 70%, Kafr Bara 59%, Taibe 60%, Tira 59%, Rahat 57%, Umm el-Fahm 57% and Sakhnin around 80%.”

But what was really interesting about Connolly’s article was the way in which it stereotypically herded over 20% of the population of Israel into one homogeneous lump. 

Connolly interviewed one Mohammed Darweshe in Nazareth. He did not reveal Mr Darweshe’s affiliations beyond the vague description of “community leader”, but his interviewee may perhaps be the co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives which has been involved in campaigning to encourage voters in the Arab sector to use their civil rights. Whether or not that is the case, it would certainly have been appropriate – in the interests of accuracy and impartiality – for Connolly to inform his readers about the variety of factors affecting electoral participation in the Israeli Arab sector, as outlined in some of that organisation’s literature, with one of those factors being the influence of groups such as  ‘Abnaa al-Balad’ and the Hamas-affiliated Northern Islamic Movement (headed by Raed Salah) which reject any participation in the electoral process in Israel.  

Connolly’s next interviewee was Ibrahim Sarsour, who is not only the head of the United Arab List as described in the article, but also the leader of the Southern Islamic Movement which differs from its Northern counterpart in the fact that it does take part in the political process in Israel. Oddly, Connolly apparently did not think to ask Mr Sarsour if the fact that his party has never had a woman on its list might perhaps hinder its appeal to voters. 

Throughout his entire article, Connolly ignored the political concerns of Christian Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Bedouin and Druze, instead promoting the erroneous notion of a homogeneous Israeli Arab sector and disregarding the fact that for members of those groups – as well as many Muslim Israeli Arabs – priorities when deciding who to vote for might extend beyond the limited subject of “peace talks”.

“But it is obvious that Israeli-Arabs could wield a great deal more influence if they voted tactically and voted in larger numbers.

By voting for their own small parties they tend to ensure that in the kaleidoscope of Israeli politics they remain without real influence.

That influence would be felt very directly indeed if a very large number of Israeli Arabs were to vote for Meretz or any of the other parties that supports peace talks with the Palestinians.”

In stark contrast to Connolly’s article, however, the election results show the diversity of Israeli Arab opinion and perhaps also reflect the fact that in a 2012 poll, 52.8% of Israeli Arabs defined themselves as proud to be Israeli. 

In the Northern Islamic Movement’s bastion of Um el Fahm, for example, 105 people voted for the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas and nineteen for Torah Judaism. In Bir al Maksour  – a Bedouin district – 23% of the electorate voted for Tsipi Livni. The Labour party gained the majority of votes in the Druze town of Beit Jann, with Likud-Beiteinu coming second. In the Druze village of Julis, 11% of the voters gave their voice to the Jewish Home party and 14% to Shas, whilst Tsipi Livni won the most votes. In Nazareth 96 people voted for Shas, in Sakhnin, 22 people voted for the Torah Judaism party, whilst in the village of Nein near Afula, 63% of the electorate voted for Meretz.  In the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev, nineteen people voted for the Breslev Hassidim ‘Nach Nach’ party and 16 voted for the ‘Green Leaf’ party which runs on a platform for the legalization of cannabis. 

Israelis – whatever their ethnic or religious background – obviously cannot be pigeon-holed into stereotypical categories. It is a pity that Kevin Connolly denied his audiences any real insight into Israeli society by trying so hard in this article to do just that, in order to promote his own pre-decided narrative about Israel. 

One of Connolly’s opening ‘explanations’ for his predicted low voter turn-out was as follows:

“Things used to be very different.

In the first elections in Israeli history Arab parties ran as affiliates of the Mapai movement which was led by David Ben-Gurion, the architect of the state.

Parties like The Democratic List of Nazareth may not have been very big but they were included in governing coalitions and they reflected the impulse of the left-wing founders of the new state that the Arab minority had to be included in the political process.

Israel has changed a great deal since those days.

Its current leadership emphasises that it is a Jewish state; Benjamin Netanyahu would want the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognise it as such in any future negotiations. A law passed in the last parliament requires non-Jews who want to migrate here to swear an oath acknowledging its Jewish nature.

That kind of talk makes the 20 per cent or so of the population which is Arab feel uneasy, or even angry.”

Poor Ben Gurion must be spinning in his grave at the suggestion that the concept of Israel as a Jewish State is a product of the 21st century. After all, from its very first day, Israel was defined as such. 

“Accordingly we, the members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the united nations general assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the state of Israel.”

Beyond his obviously patchy knowledge of history, Connolly clearly has no understanding of the relevance of the insistence upon the recognition of Israel as the Jewish state by presumed peace partners who not infrequently tout the subject of the ‘right of return’ of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel – with the inevitable resulting demise of Jewish self-determination. 

But clearly, what Connolly was trying to do in this article was to suggest that since the decline of the old, socialist-ruled Israel (the one which European Left-wingers could stomach) and the subsequent development of a more varied political spectrum, Israel has become more discriminatory towards its minorities and that leads to low participation in the electoral process. 

In order to further promote that idea, he stated that non-Jews wishing to “migrate” to Israel (i.e. receive Israeli citizenship) are required by law to “swear an oath acknowledging its Jewish nature” and that the law concerned was passed in the 18th Knesset.

 Connolly does not provide a source for that assertion, but if he can find that clause in the Law of Citizenship or on the list of laws passed by the 18th Knesset, his point is at least open to discussion. If he cannot, then not only must the BBC issue a prominent correction to this article, but a full apology is also in order. 

 

  

BBC can’t let go of ‘right-wing’ Israeli politics

Here is the BBC’s take on the subject of the talks which began on February 3rd, aimed at establishing a coalition government after the recent Israeli elections: 

“Correspondents says Mr Netanyahu’s likeliest allies are other right-wing and religious groups, although he may also need the support of centrists.”

coalition talks

That analysis from anonymous “correspondents” is of course rendered somewhat less credible by the fact that, in addition to commencing Likud-Beiteinu’s efforts to build a coalition by opening with talks with the centrist ‘Yesh Atid’ party, Mr Netanyahu has already defined that coalition’s agenda as including more than one item which could make alliances with some of the political parties which the BBC homogeneously describes as “religious groups” less likely to be on the menu.

“On Saturday night, Netanyahu said he would try to form as wide a coalition as possible while pledging to try to heal many of Israel’s internal divides — on equality of military service, on easing economic burdens, and on electoral reform — “without tearing the nation apart.”

Netanyahu also said neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat would be his government’s first task, and his government would work toward peace with the Palestinians.” 

Of course with another four weeks (and perhaps more) of coalition-forming discussions still to come, it is far too early to speculate how the eventual coalition government will look, but there can be no doubt that the BBC would be better able to report on this subject accurately and impartially were it able to ditch some of the preconceived ideas about Israeli politics to which it clings so determinedly.  

That same rule of thumb also applies of course to the BBC’s coverage of the peace process. Its audiences would be much better served by a news provider which did not shoe-horn in misleading statements based on an accepted narrative rather than on facts – such as the one below from the same article – at any and every opportunity:

“Peace talks have been stalled over construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.”

Kevin Connolly tweaks the Israeli political map

Apparently still unable to let go of the subject of the Israeli elections, the BBC featured another report on the subject by the Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly in its January 26th edition of ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ – broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. 

A podcast of the programme can be downloaded or heard here.  Connolly’s report begins at 01:26, but it is also worth listening to the introduction by the programme’s presenter Kate Adie from 00:39, in which she once more repeats the unquestioned mantra of “the deadlocked peace process” as one of the “pressing regional matters”. Alternatively, a fairly accurate transcript of Connolly’s radio report can be read in the magazine section of the BBC News website.

Moving on past the rather laboured introduction, we reach Connolly’s assessment of democracy in the Middle East; one which seems riskily hasty if one considers the track record of elected Islamist regimes in the region so far.  

“Israeli officials have long made the point that theirs is the only democracy in the Middle East – a claim that calls for a little tweaking or qualification in the light of Egypt’s elections last year.”

But the real intention of this report by Connolly seems to be to persuade audiences that the BBC’s pre-election analysis was not as far off the mark as they may think. 

You see, if you happened to think that the BBC’s energetic promotion of the notion that Israelis were about to elect a right-wing government was mistaken then, according to Connolly, it is you who are wrong. And in order to explain just how wrong you were, Connolly says:

“What is interesting about this election is that the dynamic new force in parliament comes not from the far-right of Israeli politics as many expected, but from the centre.

A new party called “There is a Future” is the second-largest force in the new Knesset.

It is led by a popular television personality called Yair Lapid. If you are British or American, you will have to imagine David Dimbleby or David Letterman stepping down from the screen to sort the country out.”

So far, so good. But Connolly then continues:

“Using the term “centrist” in the context of Israeli politics is not always helpful.

I suspect that to many Europeans, it conjures an image of a leader who would be much less tough in negotiations with the Palestinians than Mr Netanyahu would.

But Mr Lapid does not believe that Israel should have to divide Jerusalem with the Palestinians in a future peace deal – one of the core elements of the two-state solution that the wider world continues to believe in.

That Mr Lapid is labelled a centrist perhaps shows you where the centre of gravity of Israeli opinion on such matters lies these days.”

So you see, the BBC was not wrong: Israelis did elect a far-right government after all, because Kevin Connolly has just ‘shown’ that in Israeli politics – which apparently should be defined in European terms and solely in relation to the ‘peace process’, ignoring aspects such as economic policy – even the Centre is Right. 

And how does he pull that off? By blinkering his audience into focusing on one single issue – the subject of the possible re-division of Israel’s capital city – which Connolly should know is just one of many issues defined in internationally recognized agreements as subjects for final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The fact that Yair Lapid – or any other Israeli – may consider the division of Jerusalem undesirable is not a rejection of negotiations with a Palestinian Authority genuinely interested in reaching a settlement. 

Of course Connolly’s convenient tweak of the Israeli political spectrum does nothing to explain why, in all its pre-election coverage of the Israeli Right (and only the right), did the Yesh Atid party barely get a mention. Rather embarrassingly, Connolly also seems to have forgotten that only three days previously he himself wrote the following words:

“But the sudden and decisive lurch to the right that many predicted hasn’t happened.

The results show that there’s plenty of life on the left and the centre of Israeli politics too.”

Unfortunately, this latest report by Connolly appears to indicate that not only is the BBC nowhere near engaging in the much-needed self-criticism shown to be so necessary by its coverage of the Israeli elections, but that it appears to be determined to avoid that introspection like the plague, even if it makes itself and its correspondents look very silly in the process. 

 

Obsession in numbers: comparing BBC coverage of elections in Israel and Jordan

The day after the elections in Israel on January 22nd 2013, a no less important (and some would say, much more consequential) election was held in the country next door – Jordan. Comparing the BBC’s coverage of the two elections we see some very interesting trends and phenomena. 

The Jordanian elections were the subject of a total of five reports on the BBC News website. Two of those articles were published the day before the election: a Q&A item and an article entitled “Jordan election: Risks of not changing“. On the day of the election itself – January 23rd – two items appeared on the BBC News website: one filmed report and one written item. The day after the election, one report was published. 

In none of those reports do any of the following words or phrases appear: Right-wing, far-right, ultra-nationalist, hardline. The main opposition movement in Jordan – the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Islamic Action Front’ – is described as having a “moderate tone”. One adjective used to describe some candidates in the election is “socially-conservative”. 

“As in previous elections, most of the 1,500 candidates are nominally independent but tend to be socially-conservative government loyalists. Their campaign material is long on family heritage – important in a traditional society like Jordan – and short on campaign pledges.”

By comparison, the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli elections began long before the day prior to the vote. In the days and weeks before the elections, the BBC News website published eight  articles – see herehere, here, here, here, here, here and here.  The BBC World programme ‘Hardtalk‘ also addressed the subject of the elections. 

The day before the Israeli elections, the BBC News website published six reports – see here, here, here, here, here and here

On the day of the elections themselves (January 22nd) six new articles appeared on the BBC News website – see here, here, here, here, here and here. One additional report by Jon Donnison was published and then later scrapped. The BBC also created and promoted a designated Twitter list of its correspondents Tweeting about the Israeli elections. 

The BBC News website produced 12 reports on the day after the election (January 23rd) – see here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

So – to compare the numbers – in the days and weeks before both elections, the BBC News website produced no articles on Jordan and nine on Israel. On the respective days prior to the elections, the BBC News website produced two articles about Jordan and six about Israel. On the respective days of elections themselves, the BBC News website produced two articles about Jordan and seven about Israel, with a designated Twitter list created only for the latter. On the respective days following the elections, the BBC News website produced one article about Jordan and twelve about Israel. 

The total number of articles about the Jordanian election was five, whilst the total number of articles about the Israeli election was thirty-four, along with a dedicated Twitter list. 

Can routine elections in a vibrant democracy really be said to justify seven times more coverage than elections held in a monarchy as part of efforts to contain local manifestations of a region-wide wave of public dissent?

 

Not Right: why did the BBC get the Israeli elections so wrong?

The day after the Israeli elections, with most of the real results in, some furious back-tracking was going on across the board of BBC reporting. All of a sudden, the obviously flawed predictions were attributed to an anonymous “many” in a revealingly titled article by Kevin Connolly:

“But the sudden and decisive lurch to the right that many predicted hasn’t happened.

The results show that there’s plenty of life on the left and the centre of Israeli politics too.”

That same message was repeated in an additional article, in which (as well as in another report) it was also suddenly discovered that security was not the main issue worrying Israelis at all, as the BBC had previously claimed

“However, unlike in previous elections, the campaign focused largely on social and economic issues, rather than the prospects for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.”

On election day itself, the BBC was still promoting the notion of the “sleepiest election ever” – although it soon had to back-track on that theme too.

sleepiest elections

So why did the BBC – with its multitude of locally based reporters, analysts and ‘expert’ Middle East editors get it so wrong

The obvious answer to that lies in the BBC’s organizational culture. Existing collective assumptions about Israel – influenced by an unchallenged predominant political view – guided interpretation of facts and events and prevented BBC journalists from taking note of local outside analysts other than those which supported their own preconceived ideas. 

Collective perceptions of Israel and Israelis – perhaps coupled with over-confidence in their own expertise – meant that BBC reporters did not even try to find out which issues were important to the Israeli electorate: instead they produced material which supported their own preconceived ideas – beginning long before the election itself, with the promotion of the notion that Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ was part of the Likud election campaign. In addition, a marked lack of understanding of the inapplicability of their own Eurocentric interpretations of terms such as Left and Right or “nationalist” to the Israeli political scene was very evident – especially in relation to the subject of traditional support from specific socio-economic groups for certain parties.

Donnison Livni tweet

Tweet by Jon Donnison, 22/1/13

The term “nationalist” (and even “ultra-nationalist” – whatever that may be!) was, for example, employed exclusively – and with implied disapproval – as a description of parties considered by the BBC to be on the Right of the political map, such as Likud-Beiteinu and ‘Jewish Home’. What the BBC failed to grasp is that many of the other parties which it may have categorized as ‘Left’ or ‘Centre’ are no less committed to the principle of national independence and Zionism – the right of Jews to self-determination in their own nation-state.

Most blatantly obvious is the fact that the BBC’s insistence upon framing this election almost exclusively in terms of the potential effect of its results on ‘the peace process’ reflects its own institutional attitude towards that subject, both in terms of its perceived importance and in terms of the curious notion that only what Israel does has any effect upon that process’ chances. 

Broadly speaking – and we see this reflected time and time again in its reporting; not only in relation to the elections – the BBC absolves the Palestinian side of the equation of any responsibility for the progress of the peace process (or lack of it) and turns Palestinians into child-like creatures lacking all agency. That approach was reflected in a strange report which asked Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah “what the results [of elections in Israel] could mean for them”.

Twenty years of waiting for the Oslo Accords to produce positive results means that for many Israelis, the subject of ‘the peace process’ with the Palestinians is not the most burning issue on the agenda. According to the BBC’s accepted wisdom, however, that is the only subject of importance – and one which it frequently mistakenly describes as ‘Middle East peace’; as though the rest of the region were a bastion of tolerance and harmony.

There can be no doubt that the BBC’s organizational culture – molded by a largely homogeneous political approach to Israel and the Middle East – is what led it to make such dramatically mistaken assumptions which, in turn, produced seriously flawed interpretations which generated a volume of useless reporting and analysis. 

Such mistakes are, of course by no means the exclusive territory of the BBC, but they are also not confined to the subject of the Israeli elections. This blatantly obvious failure to meet its commitment to “explain the world” accurately and impartially to its licence fee-paying funders should, in theory at least, be the catalyst for some very serious introspection on the part of the BBC. 

 

Edited out: the election analysis the BBC scrapped

As described in a previous article, the BBC’s coverage of the 2013 Israeli election campaign up until the commencement of polling was a one-dimensional affair which focused upon creating an impression of a country veering to the political far-Right and turning its collective back on the ‘peace process’. 

Once voting began, Jon Donnison – brought in from Ramallah for the occasion – reported from one Jerusalem polling station on January 22nd in an article which appeared in the Middle East section of the BBC News website. 

Donnison 22 1Like all the previous BBC coverage, Donnison’s report focused on the Likud and ‘Jewish Home’ parties, once again tapping into the much-promoted theme whereby – bizarrely – ‘peace in the Middle East’ is not only defined solely in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also suggesting  that it depends entirely upon one factor in the equation:

“And as Israel goes to the polls, that does not bode well for those hoping for peace in the Middle East any time soon.”

Donnison’s report also included an interview with the Jerusalem Post’s chief political correspondent Gil Hoffman. Or at least, parts of an interview. For – as Hoffman later explained on Twitter – it seems that some things said in that interview just did not fit in with the BBC agenda. 

Tweet Gil Hoffman

For those interested in what Gil Hoffman might have had to say – given the chance – here is a recent article in which he explains the myth of the rightward shift. 

But then, a very curious thing happened. Some hours later, Donnison’s report disappeared and – on the same URL and with the same title and synopsis  – a completely different one by Wyre Davies appeared.

version 2 'Netanyahu seeks re-election'

 Hmm…

Roundup of BBC coverage of the Israeli elections

חיילי גילני מצביעים 21 1

IDF soldiers stationed on Mount Hermon cast their votes on January 21st.

An overview of the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli elections up until the commencement of polling by 5,656,705 eligible voters at 10,132 polling stations on the morning of Tuesday, January 22nd 2013 shows some interesting trends. 

The vast majority of the thirty two contending parties have been totally ignored in all BBC coverage since the elections were announced.

Politicians who did get the BBC’s attention are mostly located on the right of the political map. Avigdor Lieberman was the subject of an item by Kevin Connolly broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 7th. Naftali Bennett of ‘Jewish Home’ was the subject of another radio item by Connolly (note the description of Machane Yehuda market as being in “West Jerusalem”) and an article by Wyre Davies. An article on Binyamin Netanyahu focused on the subject of his approach to the subject of settlements. 

More general articles on the subject of the elections also largely ignored the centrist and Left-wing parties. Tsipi Livni’s party got a mention in a December 20th 2012 article by Kevin Connolly, but only in the context of her ability to challenge Netanyahu: readers learned nothing about the policies or personalities of ‘HaTnua’. 

In his January 16th ‘roadtrip’ article, Yuval Ben Ami spent the first third of the piece claiming that a lot of people were going to vote for the Orthodox Shas party and the second part focusing on a perceived ominous rise of the right – with particular focus on Bennett and including a very thinly-veiled analogy between him and the European far-Right of the 1930s. Centrist parties get a mention in name alone. 

Under the decidedly dubious headline “Migrant politics”, the BBC informed us that Russian-born Israelis (most of whom have been in the country for at least 20 years) will be voting for the Right.

'Migrant politics'

Contrary to the picture presented in readily-available opinion polls, Wyre Davies was keen to persuade BBC audiences that the main issue in these elections is security. Kevin Connolly produced a superficial article on the subject of the low turn-out to the polls in the Arab sector which, inter alia, completely ignored the influence of the Northern Islamic Movement.

The BBC’s Q&A on the subject of the Israeli elections gets the number of parties contending wrong, inaccurately describes ‘Jewish Home’ as being one of several “new parties” (it was founded in 2008 and held 3 seats in the 18th Knesset) and provides no information about the policies of Centrist or Left parties. 

“There are 34 parties contesting the polls (14 parties are represented in the current Knesset). They range from extreme left to extreme right, and from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and there are Arab as well as Jewish parties. New parties have emerged since the last elections, most notably the ultra-nationalist religious Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, led by Naftali Bennett, a high-tech millionaire and former adviser to Mr Netanyahu.”

Articles relating to the voters themselves included a ‘man in the street’ item which focused mainly on the Jerusalem area and Yuval Ben Ami’s bizarre piece about a fringe movement of Israeli voters donating their votes to Palestinians. 

A last minute article published hours before the polling stations opened, by Kevin Connolly, focused once more upon Netanyahu’s Likud and Bennett’s ‘Jewish Home’ parties, stating that:

“It is very hard to imagine a government led by Mr Netanyahu and with Mr Bennett somewhere in its ranks negotiating seriously about a two-state solution – something that will anger Palestinians and frustrate American and European leaders.”

That theme was again repeated in an article published just as Israelis began to vote.

The BBC’s overall coverage of this election has presented a picture which disproportionately focuses on one side of the Israeli political map.  Audiences will not only have been unable to learn anything about the policies of Centrist and Leftist parties, but will also know nothing about the people leading them. Subjects such as the involvement of Arab women in the political process – which would likely interest readers and viewers in this ‘Arab Spring’ era – have been completely ignored. 

Overall, the BBC’s selective coverage of the elections has had one very specific agenda: to present Israel as a country lurching rightwards and to depict that perceived shift as the exclusive reason for the predicted failure to make progress on the subject of the peace process.

Neither of those assumptions is anchored in reality, but the BBC continues to selectively tailor the news in order to influence audience perceptions. 

BBC’s Wyre Davies on the Israeli elections

On January 16th 2013 a filmed report by Wyre Davies for the BBC World News’ GMT programme was also featured in the Middle East section of the BBC News website. The two and a half-minute report – entitled “Israel elections: Security fears top political agenda” – is described in its synopsis as follows:

“Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new government next week.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the overwhelming favourite to be returned as Prime Minister at the head of a right-wing coalition government.

Despite widespread concerns about jobs and the high cost of living, the issue of security dominates the political agenda.

Wyre Davies gauges the mood of the electorate.”

Davies elections 16 1

However, despite its supposed subject matter, the first 27 seconds of this report – almost 20% of the whole item – features footage from the Gaza Strip filmed during Operation Pillar of Cloud, during which Davies reports that “more than 150 Gazans and six Israelis were killed” without pointing out that the majority of those killed in Gaza were terrorists.

Next, Davies’ report moves on to show pastoral scenes of fields, tractors and cow sheds in a kibbutz near the border with the Gaza Strip – images which contrast sharply with the footage of explosions in Gaza immediately preceding them.

Davies says:

“Yochi Koffler’s kibbutz is right on the Gaza border. For now, he can again look after his livestock without fear of rockets being fired from Gaza. Dozens have landed here over the years.”

Davies does not name the kibbutz in which his interviewee lives, but Israel is a small and still quite intimate country, so BBC Watch gave Mr Koffler (Kopler) a call. In actual fact,  Davies’ interviewee will not “again look after his livestock” because he is not a dairy farmer at all, but the head of the Field Crops branch of Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha. It really should not have been too difficult for the BBC to get that fact right.

Almost five years ago to the day of Davies’ visit, a volunteer from Ecuador, Carlos Andrés Mosquera Chávez, was killed by a Hamas sniper from the Gaza Strip who shot him whilst he was working in Ein HaShlosha’s fields together with Mr Kopler. The kibbutz’s farmers have experienced many other similar incidents over the years, but Davies elected not to expand on that subject.   

Two days before Wyre Davies’ visit to Ein HaShlosha – and less than seven kilometers away – a large tunnel was discovered near Nir Oz, originating in Gaza and apparently designed to facilitate a terror attack. 

“The tunnel was “large enough to carry people and is the same kind of tunnel used in 2006 to ambush IDF soldiers and kidnap Gilad Shalit,” the army said via Twitter.”

That discovery was not reported by the BBC. 

Whilst the BBC frequently fails to report security-related incidents in Israel, in this particular report Wyre Davies nevertheless choses to frame the current Israeli election campaign as being all about security. In the introduction to his report, against the background of images from Gaza, Davies says:

“War is always a prominent feature of the Israeli election cycle – dominating the political agenda.”

Later on, in a sequence filmed in the also unnamed location of Ashkelon, Davies claims that:

“With similar socio-economic problems to the rest of the world, some people had hoped that this campaign would be different – focusing on other issues – but by and large Israeli parties, politicians and voters are still defined by their approach to one single issue: security.” 

But whilst Davies’ assessment conveniently allows him to adhere to the BBC’s theme of presenting a picture of a country about to elect a hard-line, right-wing government – does it actually reflect reality? 

One recent survey asked Israeli voters which subject was the most relevant to them in the upcoming elections. The majority of responders (39.5%) said that the cost of living was the most important issue to them. After that, the most important issues cited were peace negotiations (16.3%), education (15.4%), the Iranian threat (10.5%), violence and crime (4.6%), foreign illegal migrants (3.3%) and 10.4% did not reply. 

Elections

 Wyre Davies, however, did not bother to interview any Israeli voters on subjects other than security in this report – thus reinforcing his own prior assumptions. That suggests that  he was significantly less interested in gauging “the mood of the electorate” as claimed, than in steering his audiences towards a specific image of Israel and its next government. 

Elections in Israel and the BBC

With a week to go until the Israeli elections on January 22nd 2013, the BBC’s coverage of the subject has so far been extremely sparse. The Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly has produced a few items, including a December 20th article focusing mainly upon Binyamin Netanyahu’s chances of re-election and an item on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme of January 7th about the Israeli politician Western journalists love to hate – Avigdor Lieberman.  

Apart from that, BBC audiences will so far have scant idea of the characteristics of the thirty-odd parties standing for election, their political leanings or their manifestos. They will know little about the women heading some of those parties such as Sheli Yechimovitch, Tsipi Livni, Zahava Galon or Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka. They will not know, for example, that in addition to the usual Arab parties, a new one named “The Hope for Change” is running this year on a very different platform than that usually offered to Arab voters or that there are two parties running which aim to represent Israel’s Ethiopian community. 

Instead, like much of the Western media, the BBC so far seems intent upon portraying these elections in terms of an ominous shift to the right by the Israeli electorate and revolving solely around the issue of peace with the Palestinians. 

The kind of interpretation of the Israeli political scene which appears to be prevalent at the BBC is represented in this blog post from Robin Lustig, who recently stepped down from his BBC posts after 23 years of presenting. As a now private citizen, Mr Lustig is of course entitled to write whatever he likes, but for those of us trying to make sense of the BBC’s coverage of Israel, he provides some valuable insights into the prevailing accepted wisdom in its corridors.   

“Two-state solution? Forget it – even if President Obama really tries to push for a settlement (and let’s be honest, there’s been no sign so far that he intends to), Mr Netanyahu will simply say sorry, no can do, the Knesset won’t wear it.

Here’s the situation: Israelis have discovered they can live with the status quo. With the exception of those periods when Palestinian fighters fire rockets into Israel from Gaza, spreading real fear but causing mercifully few casualties, the vast majority of Israelis can get on with their daily lives without thinking about Palestinians at all.

So why even talk to them? Most Israelis still say they believe in a two-state solution, but it’s the sort of thing you can say without having to think too much about it. After all, anyone who looks at a map of where the Israelis have already built in the West Bank, which they’ve occupied now for more than 45 years – and where they intend to build – can see the reality: there’s no room left for anything that would remotely resemble a viable Palestinian state. […]

So, to many Israelis, it may look as if what they have now is sustainable, that somehow the Palestinians in the West Bank will eventually forget that they ever wanted a state of their own or the opportunity to decide their own futures — and that Palestinians in Gaza will no longer mind living in what they have long called the world’s biggest open-air prison.

In my view, this is a profound, and potentially disastrous, mistake. Israelis need only look to their neighbours in Egypt and Syria to see what happens when prolonged injustice is allowed to fester. But for now, what many Israelis see is a region mired in uncertainty and instability, and growing Islamist power which looks deeply alarming.

That, I suspect, is why they’re turning to leaders who speak the language of strength and resistance to compromise. What matters to them is not whether they’re liked, or even whether they’re approved of. What matters is that they’re feared. “

Beyond his disturbingly ill-informed and superficial sound-bites (for a more nuanced view, Mr Lustig  – and the recipients of his newsletter which recently included this blog-post – might like to read this recent article by Daniel Gordis), Robin Lustig provides an excellent example of the widely popular ‘doom and gloom’ approach to anticipated results of the democratic process in Israel. 

And of course what is really interesting about that approach – characterized as it is by the frequent use of adjectives such as ‘hardline’, ‘right-wing’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘hawkish’ – is the glaring contrast with the way in which the BBC approached the elections in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. 

Tunisia’s winning party Ennahda was repeatedly described as “moderate Islamist” by the BBC and one will certainly not find any of those above adjectives used to describe Mohamed Morsi, who – the BBC was very keen to inform audiences on multiple occasions – is “quietly” or “softly spoken”.  In fact, as long as the ‘Arab Spring’ elections could be described as free and democratic, the BBC seemed to be perfectly willing to enthusiastically embrace the people’s choice, no matter what the ideology of those elected.  

Any rightward shift which may or may not take place in next week’s vote in Israel will be the result of free and democratic elections. It is a pity that the BBC seems too often to be unable to appreciate that the Arab-Israeli conflict is just one of many issues facing those going to the polls or to respect the right of Israeli voters to make their own choices – even if those choices do not square up to the BBC world view.