BBC documentary ‘Israel: Facing The Future’ tries to break the mould

For those who have not yet had the chance to watch the BBC Two documentary “Israel: Facing The Future” with John Ware which was broadcast on April 17th, here it is.

Whilst the programme does have its inaccuracies, all in all it is clear that – for once – a genuine effort was made to present an objective, well-rounded picture of a complex subject and that a good deal of background research must have gone into making the documentary. Although the cameraman is not named on the relevant page of the BBC website, the film includes some stunning shots, often peppered with good humour.

A few of the more notable inaccuracies include the presentation of the anti-terrorist fence as a “concrete separation wall” – although to Ware’s credit he did at least explain why it was built in the first place. The claim that “Palestinians here [in Area C] are stateless” was not balanced by a clarification of the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians living in Judea & Samaria do so under Palestinian Authority rule. The description of Avrum Burg as “leader” of the Israeli peace movement was probably somewhat over the top: many Israelis – even those on the Left of the political map – would dispute that Burg’s ideas have anything to do with peace or that he leads any kind of mainstream ‘peacenik’ movement. And at its narrowest point, Israel is of course 9.3 miles wide – not twelve. 

The claim that since the idea of a two-state solution “was first discussed” (one presumes Ware means the Oslo accords), Israeli communities have “moved ever deeper into the territory” [Judea & Samaria] is in itself disputable and the assertion that this would make it “harder to dismantle settlements” is speculation which ignores the Israeli record of dismantling communities in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Ware states that “The West Bank has been under Israeli control since 1967 when Israel defeated Arab armies threatening to attack”. Of course that is a very superficial description of the Six Day War and one which ignores a whole host of factors sparking the conflict – for example the closure of the Straits of Tiran by Egypt and the expulsion of international observers from Sinai – as well as the fact that Arab armies did considerably more than “threaten”.  

That particular point was the subject of a complaint made by a reader to the BBC about Ware’s film. The surreal answer he received appears below.

Ware prog complaint reply

In addition, Ware states that “Israel was reluctant to part with the new territory” [acquired as a result of the Six Day War]. That very superficial representation airbrushes out of the picture the Israeli government’s hope of being able to broker peace deals with the surrounding countries after the war and the response of those countries in the form of the Khartoum Declaration

There are additional inaccuracies in the programme – some of which are addressed here – but overall it was refreshing to see an attempt to portray Israel beyond the usual jaded clichés. Two BBC-related (rather than Israel-related) points did strike this viewer though.

One came as a result of Ware’s statement that during Operation Cast Lead “what the world saw were pictures of dead Palestinians”. That, of course, is in no small part due to the mainstream media’s focus on such pictures according to the old adage ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The media in general – including the BBC – clearly needs to examine its own responsibility for the fact that world opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict has been shaped to no small degree by the stories it elects not to run (such as Israeli civilians in bomb shelters) as well as those it does highlight.

Another point for consideration comes from the sub-text of the documentary which implied that Israel’s standing in the world – and indeed the justification for its existence and its future – depends upon its being a peace-orientated secular democracy. It is telling to observe that neither the BBC nor the abstract phenomenon known as ‘world opinion’, which it helps shape, has revealed similar concerns in relation to other countries.

Nobody dreamed of suggesting that the existence of Egypt or Tunisia should be subject to discussion when religiously motivated governments came to power in those countries. In fact, the BBC in particular was notably enthusiastic about what it saw as the display of democracy at work during the ‘Arab Spring’. ‘World opinion’ (along with the BBC) is not dissuaded from supporting attempts to establish a Palestinian state either by the lack of a culture of peace or the existence of extremist religiously-inspired ideology within Palestinian society. Neither does the fact that the Palestinian people have not been able to exercise their democratic right to vote for their leaders for over seven years appear to prompt questions from their financial supporters – or BBC documentaries. 

Hence, the impartiality of the underlying suggestion of this film that Israel’s future is threatened by a “shrinking secular majority” must necessarily be examined for double standards within the broader framework of BBC approaches to the wider world. 

Predicting the future in Israel (and the Middle East in general) is a notoriously reckless business, as those of us who believed that events such as the signing of the Oslo Accords or the disengagement from the Gaza Strip hailed a brighter tomorrow well know. So whilst the underlying assumptions in Ware’s documentary may have limited value, it was nevertheless refreshing to see a BBC production which did try to go beyond that organisation’s standard approach. 

One to watch on BBC Two

Next Wednesday – April 17th 2013 – at 21:00 GMT a programme by John Ware entitled “Israel: Facing the Future” will be shown on BBC Two.

“John Ware journeys to Israel for a fresh look at how it has responded to the changes sweeping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. He meets Israelis from all walks of life to go beyond the news clichés and analyse what is next for the world’s only Jewish state as both the religious and the secular battle over its future.”

John Ware prog