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 WS radio framing of Israeli PM’s Oman visit

On October 26th Israelis discovered that their prime minister (along with his wife and senior officials) had just returned from a secret visit to Oman.

photo credit: PMO

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret visit to the Gulf nation of Oman on Friday — the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades, and a sign of warming ties between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arab world.

On Friday afternoon, his office surprisingly announced that Netanyahu and his wife Sara had just returned from an “official diplomatic visit” to Muscat, during which they met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. […]

The Netanyahus were invited to Oman by the sultan, who has been ruling the Gulf state since 1970, “after lengthy contacts between the two countries,” the statement said.

A joint statement issued by Jerusalem and Muscat said the two leaders discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East as well as several matters of joint interest regarding the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu and his wife were accompanied to Muscat by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem, the head of the Prime Minister’s staff, Yigal Horowitz, and the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary, Brig.-Gen. Avi Bluth.”

While that news did not receive any coverage whatsoever on the BBC’s English language website, it was reported in Arabic.

The evening edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ on October 26th included a five-minute account of the story in which listeners heard a trip which had not been public knowledge until a few hours beforehand described as a “high-profile, very public visit by Netanyahu to Oman”.

Presenter Jon Donnison introduced the item (from 14:06 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Donnison: “The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously likes to say he grew up in a tough neighbourhood, his country surrounded – as he would see it – by Arab enemies.”

Despite having done a stint in the Middle East Donnison is apparently unaware of the fact that five Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state seventeen months before Netanyahu was born and tried to repeat the exercise twice before his 24th birthday.

Donnison went on:

Donnison: “These days though he boasts that never before has Israel had such good relations with the Arab world. One country not visited by an Israeli prime minister for more than 20 years is the Gulf state of Oman. But Mr Netanyahu has just changed that, having held talks with Sultan Qaboos of Oman in the Omani capital Muscat. So what’s the significance of this visit? Ian Black is a veteran Middle East watcher and currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.”

Unsurprisingly to those familiar with Ian Black’s record as former Middle East editor for the Guardian, the sole commentary heard by English-speaking BBC audiences dwelt on one side of this story, encouraging listeners to view it in terms of “narrative”.

Black: “It’s important to understand that the background to this is that Israel only has normal diplomatic relations with two Arab countries. It’s had them with Egypt since 1979 and with Jordan since 1994: two of its immediate neighbours. But there’s always been a strand in Israeli policy to try to reach out to other Arab countries and in recent years that has really accelerated, particularly with the Gulf States. So the trip to Oman that Netanyahu has just returned from is not the first time there’s been such a trip: the first one happened back in the 1990s and that was then Yitzhak Rabin the Labour prime minister. But there’s a sort of Israeli narrative that – particularly pushed by Netanyahu – that says Israel is really doing well with the neighbourhood, particularly the Gulf States. We hear more about relations with the United Arab Emirates and with Saudi Arabia actually. But the Oman trip fits very much into that pattern and he will indeed be boasting about it as a sign of increasingly good ties with the Arab world.”

Donnison: “And is this about lining up opposition to Iran? You’ve got of course countries like Saudi Arabia, hostile with Iran. What’s Oman’s position?”

Black: “Well actually it’s interesting because the Omanis have quite good relations with Iran; they’re just across the Gulf – they certainly have a far better and more pragmatic relationship than any of their other Gulf neighbours – but Iran is part of it. But I think also it’s this idea that Netanyahu has that Israel can build on relations with Arab states and therefore increase pressure on – or indeed marginalise – the Palestinians. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process: no such thing has existed now for over four years. There’s been all sorts of talk about Donald Trump and his deal of the century to resolve that oldest of conflicts in the region [sic] but nothing’s happened. So Netanyahu is pushing this narrative of we can build good relations with our Arab neighbours and that’s good for Israel in the Middle East. He emphasises a lot of things like technology, cyber security are important things. He focuses on what Israel can give those countries beyond the toxic issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which, by and large, he wants to try to ignore and put to one side. So…”

Donnison: “I mean that was high issue wasn’t it?  That Oman withdrew its diplomatic mission along with other Arab countries.”

Black: “There was a previous period when in 1993 Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed the famous Oslo Agreement and that was the very, very historic moment. Now it never worked out and it ended badly but in the years after that there was a flowering, if you like, of Israel’s relations with the wider Arab world. It included Oman and Qatarand further afield countries like Morocco and Tunisia and even Mauritania. So those relationships happened at the time but they came to an end because the Palestinian conflict never went away and those diplomatic missions were closed down. So this high-profile, very public visit by Netanyahu to Oman signals that maybe things are in business again, despite having got no closer to resolving the Palestinian question.”

Donnison: “And one slightly separate issue: what’s Prime Minister Netanyahu been saying about Saudi Arabia this past few weeks when there’s been all this criticism of course over the Jamal Khashoggi affair? Has Israel been speaking out on that?”

Black: “That’s a very good question and the answer is that as far as I’m aware there’ve been no official comments whatsoever. There’s been plenty of media commentary, if you like, on the lack of any kind of official comment and the analysis – I think correctly – is that Israel sees Saudi Arabia as an important country, particularly over the confrontation with Iran, particularly over its close relations with the United States but of course it can hardly speak out and praise what’s been happening in Riyadh when there’s such a global outrage over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Israelis don’t like the Turks either. Their interests lie more closely essentially with Arab autocracies than with more popular Islamist regimes, whether it’s Turkey or Qatar. And like the Saudis and the other Gulf allies they really don’t like political Islamists. They have their own enemy close to home in Palestine with Hamas, the Islamist movement there. So the Israelis I think have been keeping pretty quiet about this as most of the rest of the world has expressed outrage – even from Washington – at what happened in Istanbul the other week.”

Apparently Ian Black would have BBC audiences believe that Qatar is not an Arab autocracy and the BBC has forgotten that its own style guide advises against the use of the term ‘Palestine’ to describe what it calls “an aspiration”.

Donnison: “That was the journalist and veteran Middle East watcher Ian Black.”

As we see BBC audiences heard nothing whatsoever about Oman’s interests in inviting the Israeli prime minister for an official visit. Neither were they informed of additional developments in relations between Israel and Gulf states.

Rather, BBC audiences were encouraged to view this story as part of a “narrative” promoted by Netanyahu in order to “marginalise the Palestinians”. Clearly that framing does not contribute to meeting the BBC’s remit of helping people fully understand this story.