BBC’s Plett Usher continues to promote her Israel narratives

In December 2017 the BBC News website published an article titled “Trumplomacy: Key takeaways from Jerusalem policy shift“. In March 2019 the BBC News website published an article titled “Trumplomacy on Golan Heights: What it all means”.  

The latest article in the ‘Trumplomacy’ genre by the BBC’s US State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher appeared on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on April 12th under the headline “Trumplomacy: Where are things at with the Mideast peace plan?”. [emphasis in bold added]

The main image illustrating the article is captioned “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) recently became the first high-ranking US official to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall last month”. In fact previous American visitors to the site have included the US President, Vice-President and former UN ambassador.

Although Israel’s president will only begin meeting with representatives of the lists which won seats in the Knesset in last week’s election on April 15th in order to hear their recommendations for the candidate who should be tasked with forming the next government and that person will then have 28 days in which to do so (with the possibility of a two-week extension), Plett Usher already ‘knows’ what sort of new government Israel will have:

“With a newly elected right-wing government taking shape in Israel this is a good time to check in on the status of the Trump administration’s peace plan.”

Under the sub-heading “How has the [US] policy changed?” Plett Usher instructs readers to:

“Remember that the formula for peace negotiations has been: two states based on the borders of Arab territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war, with mutually agreed land swaps; sufficient security arrangements; a just solution for Palestinian refugees; and negotiations to settle the fate of Jerusalem, the occupied eastern part of which Palestinians claim as their capital.”

While Plett Usher does not specify the source of her “the formula for peace negotiations”, her description is apparently based on non-binding UN General Assembly resolutions such as 3236 and/or the extinct 2003 Quartet road map.

Interestingly, Plett Usher does not bother to inform her readers that the Oslo Accords – the one agreement which resulted from actual negotiations between Israel and the PLO – did not specify the two-state solution as “the formula”.

Significantly, while portraying the “fate of Jerusalem” as the sole issue to be resolved in negotiations, Plett Usher fails to inform audiences that under the terms of the Oslo Accords, other topics she portrays as ‘givens’ – borders, refugees and settlements – are also to be resolved in permanent status negotiations.

Instead Plett Usher promotes the false notion of pre-1967 “borders”, failing to clarify that those were actually armistice lines which were specifically defined in the 1949 Armistice Agreement as not being borders. Equally revealing is Plett Usher’s description of land assigned by the League of Nations to the creation of a Jewish homeland which was belligerently occupied by Jordan and Egypt in 1948 as “Arab territory” and her prior reference to “the occupied Palestinian West Bank”.

In other words Barbara Plett Usher has unquestioningly adopted and promoted the PLO’s stance on that issue.  She goes on:

“But the White House has declared that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, cut funds to the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, and accepted Israel’s unilateral annexation of other occupied territory, the Golan Heights.”

A journalist with integrity would clarify that the US announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city specifically stated that – in contrast to the impression Plett Usher is trying to create – it had no bearing on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Today’s actions—recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing the relocation of our embassy—do not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. The United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.”

And if bringing up the topic of cuts in US funding to UNRWA, a journalist devoted to informing readers would also have explained the background to that decision, the controversies surrounding that UN agency and the broader issue of Palestinian refugees.

Going on to reference the anti-Israel BDS campaign, Plett Usher likewise fails to inform readers of that campaign’s aims, thereby denying them the ability to judge the statement she paraphrases.

“The state department’s new envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, has reinforced this Israeli narrative in US policy.

He told us that boycotting goods made in Jewish West Bank settlements was anti-Semitic, even though the settlements are illegal under international law and have expanded to such a degree many question whether a Palestinian state is still viable.”

Plett Usher then bolsters her article’s core messaging to readers with a quote sourced from an organisation she once again signposts as “liberal”.

“The administration’s embrace of the Israeli government’s right-wing positions has alarmed liberal American Jewish organizations.

“What they’ve done so far tells you what they intend to lay out,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami of the J Street lobby group. “They have no intention to lay out what could conceivably resolve the conflict. Instead they will tie American government positions to those of the farthest right of Israel’s political spectrum.””

In her final section – sub-headed “What about the Palestinian reaction?” – Plett Usher qualifies the description of people convicted of violent attacks against Israelis.

“Mr Abbas is very unpopular. But on a recent trip to Jerusalem I was told anecdotally that Palestinians have at least given him credit for standing firm on their three core issues: Jerusalem, refugees and maintaining funds to Palestinian prisoners – whom the Israelis regard as terrorists – despite financial pressure.”

Although the US administration’s proposal has yet to be revealed, the Palestinian Authority has already made its rejection of it amply clear. Nevertheless Barbara Plett Usher’s aim in this article is to convince BBC audiences that when it does appear, that plan is destined to fail because it ‘embraces’ the positions of “the farthest right of Israel’s political spectrum” rather than because the Palestinians have made it a non-starter.

While Plett Usher’s promotion of that narrative comes as no surprise, it is unfortunate that BBC audiences continue to be fed commentary which does little to enhance their understanding of this and additional topics from a person whose impartiality on issues relating to Israel has long been in plain sight.

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BBC WS ‘Newshour’ messaging reflects that of anti-Israel group

The April 1st edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ included a report by the BBC’s US State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher which was introduced by presenter Julian Marshall (from 45:11 here) as follows:

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Marshall: “The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in hotly contested elections next week, trying to win another term in office despite facing possible indictments on corruption charges. His election campaign has made much of his ability to deliver dividends from Israel’s relationship with America and has highlighted his friendship with President Trump but for some time his Right-wing policies have been chipping away at America’s strong bi-partisan support for the Israeli government and that fracture is becoming ever more public. Barbara Plett Usher takes a closer look.”

Listeners heard no justification for the use of the buzz words “Right-wing policies” and no explanation of what those policies supposedly involve. They were given no evidence to support the claim that American support is for “the Israeli government” rather than Israel as a whole. Neither was any evidence provided supporting the claim that such support has been diminished solely and exclusively because of the Israeli prime minister’s policies. Plett Usher’s report opened with a recording of the Israeli prime minister speaking.

Recording Netanyahu: “Thank you President Trump. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your friendship.”

Plett Usher: “Benjamin Netanyahu has always believed he’s best at reading the wind when it comes to Americans and he felt that wind at his back on a trip to Washington last week.”

Recording Trump: “Under my administration the unbreakable alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”

Barbara Plett Usher went on to repeat the buzz words heard in the introduction but while this time listeners learned that those policies supposedly relate to “the Palestinians and Iran”, they were not told what those policies are or in what way they are “Right-wing”.

Plett Usher: “President Trump has embraced him and his Right-wing policies on the Palestinians and Iran.”

As Jonathan Spyer recently pointed out, there is in fact “an almost complete consensus between a broad mass of the Israeli (Jewish) public” on the issue of Iranian threats against Israel and “a decline in the level of polarisation within the Jewish voting public over the last two decades” concerning “the security challenge of Hamas-controlled Gaza, and of the unresolved conflict with the Palestinian Arab national movement”.

“Regarding Iran, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White list, which forms the main challenger to the ruling Likud party in the 2019 campaign, has made clear that there are no disagreements between himself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the question of Iran and the threat it poses.

The consensus, however, goes beyond the rightist Likud and centrist Blue and White party. Labor and Meretz, representing the centre-Left and left-wing spots on the political map, are similarly supportive of the government’s stance on Iran.”

Quite how Plett Usher justifies her claim of “Right-wing policies on Iran” is therefore unclear.

On the subject of the conflict with the Palestinians, Spyer notes that:

“…this debate has lost much of its passion. On the Left, the belief that a partner for historic compromise had been found in the PLO lost many adherents after the collapse of the peace process and the commencement of Palestinian insurgency in late 2000. On the Right, the fervent and ideological commitment to avoidance of any land concessions west of the Jordan River also faded.

This has been reflected in the 2019 campaign. The main contenders – Likud and Blue and White, are clearly competing for the centre ground. “

Once again the justification for Plett Usher’s use of the slogan “Right-wing policies” is unclear.

She continued with a segment including unidentified interviewees at the recent AIPAC conference –using another label for which she did not bother to provide evidence.

Plett Usher: “But outside the White House the wind is shifting. [music] Not here. Support was rock solid at this conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee – or AIPAC. It has promoted Israel’s relationship with the US for decades in both political parties. But a few young, newly elected Democrats have been challenging that orthodoxy, triggering a controversy over charges of antisemitism and the level of bi-partisan support.”

Man 1: “The three vocal Democratic representatives are just vocal. They’re loud mouths. And I feel their uproar – people like uproar, they like a tumult, OK – and I think it’ll die down.”

Man 2: “I think that there’s enough love and support in the United States for Israel and an understanding of the importance of the alliance that it really will not affect the relationship.”

Referring to a small demonstration against AIPAC in March, Plett Usher went on to introduce a representative of a political group which, interestingly, she did not find it necessary to locate on the political spectrum.

[shouting: ‘Free Palestine, Free Gaza’]

Plett Usher: “Only a handful of demonstrators showed up but in fact opposition to Mr Netanyahu’s policies has been building for some time, especially when it comes to treatment of the Palestinians and especially in the younger generation. [shouting] That includes many American Jews who say Israel has lurched so far to the Right they no longer share its values. Ethan Miller belongs to a protest group called ‘If Not Now’.”

Miller: “You know, we’re a rising movement – a rising grassroots movement – of American Jews but I think we’re starting to see changes in Congress as well. We’re starting to see members of Congress both in the house and in the Senate actually start to speak up for Palestinian human rights in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time.”

The group ‘If Not Now’ claims to be “working to transform the American Jewish community’s support for occupation into a call for freedom and dignity for all”. Apparently Plett Usher would have her listeners believe that “the occupation” – which of course began as the result of a defensive war during the term of a Left-wing government when the current Israeli prime minister was still four months short of his eighteenth birthday – is one of “Mr Netanyahu’s policies”.

Plett Usher: “It’s a trend that’s never been so pronounced or contentious.”

Recording: “Breaking news coming out of the House of Representatives where a resolution has just passed condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.”

Plett Usher then presented a highly selective version of a story from February, failing to clarify that the congresswoman did in fact use an antisemitic trope.  

Plett Usher: “A Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, was accused of using antisemitic language. That broke open divisions within the party in a public and messy way. Still, there was an upside says Jeremy Ben Ami. He heads a liberal pro-Israel lobby called J Street that is challenging AIPAC and he organised a conference call on the controversy.”

Recording Ben Ami: “The space that we need to have is the space to discuss the occupation. I think that we are in a place now where those conversations can actually start to be had.”

Plett Usher did not bother to inform listeners that J Street – which some would dispute is “pro-Israel” – was founded in 2007 when the prime minister of Israel was Kadima’s Ehud Olmert or that, in contrast to AIPAC which does not donate to candidates or campaigns, J Street donated some $4 million to exclusively Democratic candidates in 2018. She went on:

Plett Usher: “Or maybe not.”

Recording Trump: “But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly I think they’re anti-Jewish.”

Plett Usher: “President Trump has seized the moment to go after the Democrats, even though he’s been accused of enabling antisemitism. Republicans are claiming to be better defenders of Israel and Democratic lawmaker Tom Malinowski says there’s now less space for conversation about Israel within the party – not more.”

Malinowski: “I am absolutely convinced it is possible to have a debate about our foreign policy towards Israel or any other country but when people start using blatantly antisemitic tropes in that debate, it actually makes it harder. It actually tends to shut down serious debate about foreign policy because everybody becomes defensive and angry rather that thoughtful about the choices that are before us.”

Plett Usher finished by building up what she apparently knows to be an imaginary story about a ‘boycott’ of the recent AIPAC conference.

Plett Usher: “The young and outspoken lawmakers have received an outsized amount of coverage but it is not just about them. Democrats who’ve announced they’re running for president include a mix of liberals and ethnic minorities who have also been more critical of Israeli policy.”

Recording Pence: “And as I stand before you, eight Democrat candidates for president are actually boycotting this very conference.”

Plett Usher: “The vice-president Mike Pence brought up the 2020 election at the AIPAC conference.”

Recording Pence: “It is wrong to boycott Israel and it is wrong to boycott AIPAC.”

Plett Usher: “In fact only one candidate – Bernie Sanders – explicitly said he was not attending because of policy differences. But it does look as if Israel will be an issue in America’s presidential campaign long after the Israeli prime minister has finished his.”

Plett Usher’s framing of this story is abundantly clear: ‘liberal’ Americans are, according to her, abandoning Israel solely because of its prime minister’s “Right-wing policies”. Unsurprisingly she ignored the relevant issue of the Democratic party’s leftward shift over the years in order to uncritically and unquestioningly promote a narrative advanced by the anti-Israel group showcased in her report.

“My generation sees the occupation and what’s happening in Israel-Palestine as a crisis the same way we do climate change,” said Simone Zimmerman, 28, a co-founder of a progressive group, IfNotNow, that opposes what it calls Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Ms. Zimmerman scorned what she called “the Trump-Netanyahu” alliance and said “too many in the American Jewish establishment and the Democratic establishment have let them off the hook.”

So much for the BBC’s obligation to provide its funding public with “accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming” intended to “build people’s understanding of…the wider world”. 

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BBC omits key context in account of potential US embassy move

On December 16th an article appeared on the BBC News website’s US & Canada and Middle East pages under the headline “Trump’s new US envoy to Israel seeks Jerusalem base”. The article was subsequently amended several times and is currently titled “Trump chooses pro-settlement hardliner as Israel envoy“.us-envoy-art

In the latest version, BBC audiences are informed that:

“US President-elect Donald Trump has chosen right-winger David Friedman as America’s next ambassador to Israel.

The 57-year-old lawyer is strongly critical of the long-held US goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He also supports Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. […]

Mr Friedman said earlier he looked forward to working “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”.”

An insert of ‘analysis’ from Yolande Knell tells readers that:

“He’s [Friedman] also indicated that he’ll help fulfil Mr Trump’s promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite international objections.”

Readers of the three previous versions of the report were told that:

“…the US embassy has been located in Tel Aviv for decades.

But Mr Trump had promised during the presidential campaign to move it to Jerusalem, one of several overtures he made to Israel.”

However, the report refrains from informing BBC audiences that previous US presidential candidates – both Republican and Democrat – pledged to do the same during their election campaigns.

“Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both promised during their presidential campaigns to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Both later backed away from those promises, convinced by Middle East experts that doing so would prejudge negotiations for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Neither are readers informed of the existence of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act and the related bi-annual presidential wavers.

“Every president since the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 was passed by Congress has signed the waiver every six months, determining the delay is necessary “to protect the national security interests of the United States.””

Whether or not the US embassy in Israel will be moved to Jerusalem under the Trump administration remains to be seen, but obviously the president elect’s statement on the topic is in no way as novel as this report implies. BBC audiences have clearly not been provided with the full range of information which would enable the proper understanding of this story.

Why is a BBC correspondent speaking at the J Street conference?

“It is essential that BBC staff, BBC correspondents on non staff contracts and freelances known to the public primarily as presenters or reporters on BBC news or current affairs programmes do not undertake any off-air activities which could undermine the BBC’s reputation for impartiality. Nothing they do or say should bring the BBC into disrepute. No off-air activity, including writing for newspapers, magazines or websites, writing books, giving interviews, making speeches or chairing conferences should lead to any doubt about the objectivity or integrity of their work for the BBC. If BBC journalists, presenters or reporters publicly express personal views off-air on controversial issues, then their editorial or on-air role may be severely compromised.”

The above words appear in the guidance document titled “Conflicts of Interest – Off Air Activities”, complimentary to the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and – under the sub-heading “Public Speaking and Other Public Appearances” – the document goes on to state:

“BBC staff and BBC Correspondents on non-staff contracts should get written permission from their Head of Department before undertaking any outside public appearances including speaking at conferences. They must not make any appearances which are promotional for a commercial concern and nothing they do or say should undermine the integrity or impartiality of the BBC. They should not allow the use of the BBC’s name or brands in connection with advertising for a public appearance unless this has been expressly approved by the BBC. Care should be taken with appearances related to charities, particularly if they are campaigning organisations, and no impression should be given of BBC endorsement of one charity over another.”

J Street is a political campaigning organization which has branches with differing not-for profit designations:

“The J Street family of organizations is comprised of:

J Street: a 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation and registered lobby.

JStreetPAC: a political action committee endorsing federal candidates.

J Street Education Fund, Inc: a legally independent 501(c)(3) non-profit.”

We must therefore conclude that written permission from the head of the relevant BBC department was obtained in advance of the advertisement of the BBC Washington correspondent Kim Ghattas’ upcoming appearance as a speaker at J Street’s 5th conference and that the use of her BBC title in that advertising has been “expressly approved” by the BBC.

J Street conf 1

J Street conf 2

The approval of Ghattas’ appearance as a speaker at J Street’s conference clearly indicates that the BBC is under the impression that it does not undermine the corporation’s impartiality. That impression is of course grossly mistaken.

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