BBC audiences get a blinkered look into Israeli politics

A particularly lively and fast-moving week in Israeli politics came to a head last weekend with the resignation of Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon – but that event is only one part of a much wider story.

Long-standing talks (mentored by foreign parties) aimed at bringing the Zionist Union party into the coalition government were still in progress on May 17th despite internal opposition in Yitzhak Herzog’s party.

“At the same time, Herzog excoriated former Labor head Shelly Yachimovich for trashing every effort to find common ground with Netanyahu and broaden the government, calling her the “radical left.” Indeed, many Labor legislators have been attacking Herzog lately, accusing him of “crawling” into the government without even waiting to see what policy modifications he could extract from Netanyahu. Then, in domino-like fashion, half of Herzog’s faction made clear that they would not go with him if he joined the government, making his unity bid even less attractive to others.”

Herzog’s decision to abort the talks on May 18th brought calls for his resignation from some of his party colleagues. The Jerusalem Post reported the subsequent events as follows:

“In a day of political upheavals, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went from a stalemate in coalition talks with Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog to reaching a preliminary deal with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in just 16 hours.

In a meeting that lasted less than an hour Wednesday afternoon, Liberman accepted Netanyahu’s offer of the defense and immigration and absorption portfolios and support for key Yisrael Beytenu- sponsored legislation. […]

Netanyahu updated Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon immediately after meeting with Liberman. While it was not final Wednesday night, a source close to Netanyahu said Ya’alon is likely to be compensated by becoming foreign minister, but Ya’alon’s office said he had not yet been offered the post. […]

Talks with Yisrael Beytenu began after negotiations with the Zionist Union failed to progress.

Netanyahu met with Herzog until 1 a.m. late Tuesday night but failed to reach agreements on diplomatic issues.

In a Tel Aviv press conference, Herzog blamed the failure to reach a deal on Netanyahu refusing to write down his commitments on diplomatic issues.

But Likud officials said Herzog had not succeeded in drafting the support of any MKs in his 24-MK faction …”

On May 20th Moshe Ya’alon announced his resignation from the government and the Knesset. Only then did the BBC begin to report the (still far from concluded) story with an article which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the headline “Israel politics: Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon resigns in protest“.Yaalon resignation

The original version of that article opened:

“Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has resigned, saying he lacked trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It comes amid moves by Mr Netanyahu to bring hardliner Avigdor Lieberman and his party into the ruling coalition, likely offering him the defence post.”

That introduction was subsequently amended to read:

“Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has resigned, warning that Israel has been taken over by “dangerous and extreme elements”.

It comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to bring hardliner Avigdor Lieberman into the coalition, possibly as defence minister.”

Readers are told that:

“The deal would shore up Mr Netanyahu’s one-seat majority in parliament. […]

If his [Liberman’s] six-seat Yisrael Beiteinu party joins the coalition, it will become the most right-wing in Israel’s history.”

In fact, the day before this article was published, Yisrael Beiteinu had already become a five-seat faction due to the resignation from the party (but not from the Knesset) of MK Orly Levy-Abekasis.

Remarkably, BBC audiences were not provided with the full information concerning the sequence of events which preceded Ya’alon’s resignation, the Zionist Union party’s internal turmoil or even the dabblings of John Kerry and Tony Blair in internal Israeli politics. The BBC did however find it essential to tell readers where Liberman was born and where he (but not any of the other politicians mentioned) resides.

“Moldovan-born Mr Lieberman, who lives in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, advocates a tough line towards dealing with the Palestinians, including the overthrow of Gaza’s Hamas rulers.”

In addition to the mention of “dangerous and extreme elements” in the article’s revised opening paragraph (but without clarifying Ya’alon’s reference to his party), the article made sure that readers went away with a very particular interpretation of the story.

“The two men had publicly disagreed after Mr Yaalon backed a senior military figure who had made controversial remarks about perceived extremist trends in Israeli society on Holocaust Day earlier this month.

Right-wing political figures have also criticised Mr Yaalon for backing a decision to charge an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian attacker in March, in a case which split opinion in Israel.

At a news conference on Friday, Mr Yaalon said: “I fought with all my might against manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its sturdiness and also trickling into the IDF [Israel Defence Forces], hurting it already,” Haaretz newspaper reports.”

The BBC did not find it necessary to quote additional parts of Ya’alon’s announcement.

“In general, Israeli society is a healthy society and its majority is sane and seeks a Jewish, democratic and liberal state. A state which accepts all kinds of people with no distinctions of religion, race, sex, ethnic origins or sexual orientation.” [translation: BBC Watch]

The article closes with a typically whitewashed portrayal of the termination of the last round of talks between Israel and the PLO.

“France recently announced it would host an international conference on 3 June to try to revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed amid acrimony in 2014.”

BBC audiences are not informed that Israel and the PLO are not among the twenty countries invited to participate in that conference. 

BBC mum on Zionist Union party’s shift on two state solution

BBC coverage of the March 2015 general election in Israel featured no small amount of messaging along the following lines:

“Voters know that the Zionist Union – the name chosen for the alliance between Yitzhak Herzog’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s movement Hatnuah – would approach the prospect of talking to the Palestinians about a “land-for-peace” deal with more enthusiasm than Mr Netanyahu.” (source report discussed here)

“Everyone knows, of course, that the Israeli right, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is at best sceptical about the prospect of a peace deal with the Palestinians, while the left under Yitzhak Herzog is much keener on the kind of constructive engagement that would keep the White House and the State Department happy.”

“A Herzog-led government might have been a more comfortable partner for the US State Department and for European governments interested in reviving talks.”

“Mr Netanyahu had vowed not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, while Zionist Union expressed support for a two-state solution and promised to repair relations with Palestinians and the international community.” (source reports discussed here)

Given that portrayal of Yitzhak Herzog and his party as ‘the peace option’ less than a year ago, one might have thought that Herzog’s recent statements concerning the prospects of a two state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would have been of interest to the BBC.Herzog  

“Issac Herzog, leader of the opposition and chairman of the center-left Zionist Union party, said Wednesday that the two-state solution is not a realistic option in the near future.

“I don’t see a possibility at the moment of implementing the two-state solution,” he told Army Radio. “I want to yearn for it, I want to move toward it, I want negotiations, I sign on to it and I am obligated to it, but I don’t see the possibility of doing it right now.” […]

In a move that many considered a sharp turn to the right for the leader of the Zionist Union — a party comprising the stalwart center-left Labor and Tzipi Livni’s dovish Hatnua — Herzog said he saw the need “to complete the security barrier around all of the settlement blocs.””

Herzog’s party has since endorsed his views but to date BBC audiences have yet to be informed of this significant change of approach from the Israeli centre-Left and why it came about.  

Related Articles:

Elections 2015 – a postscript on BBC framing of Israeli elections over 23 years

Elections 2015: was the BBC’s coverage impartial?

 

BBC’s Sackur touts ‘racist’ Israel in Hardtalk interview with Herzog

The April 21st/ 22nd edition of ‘Hardtalk’ featured an interview with the leader of the Israeli Labour party, Yitzhak (Isaac) Herzog. Readers in the UK can find the programme on BBC iPlayer here and a podcast of the programme is available here.Herzog on Hardtalk

As is not infrequently the case, viewers and listeners heard presenter Stephen Sackur promoting his own ideas about Israel in the form of ‘questions’ and even some belated election campaign advice to Herzog.

10:42: “I tell you what you could have done – and you talk about fear – what maybe you could have done to the Israeli people is say that if we do not negotiate a two state solution with the Palestinians, then there’s only one other realistic alternative: that is we have a bi-national state – a unitary state – which includes all of the Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Israel proper and the result of that will be in the long run, we Jewish Israelis will be in a minority. So then we either accept that in a democracy or we run an apartheid state. But you never outlined the choice in those terms.”

04:39: “Are you telling me today that you believe Binyamin Netanyahu is in essence a racist?”

06:08: “What does it say about today’s Israel that the argument that you’ve just outlined – that Netanyahu used close to polling day – was so successful? What does that tell us about Israel today?”

21:00: “Before we end, let’s just address a bigger picture thought. Not so long ago the president of Israel, who is no peacenik – he’s a former…he is a Likudnik – Reuven Rivlin, he said Israel right now is a sick society. He was talking about the signs of a new racism and discrimination amongst some elements in Israeli Jewish society. And not so long ago the great writer Amos Oz – he said there is a real danger of Israel becoming an isolated ghetto. When you hear the words of Oz and Rivlin – the worries about where Israel is today – do you share them?”

One particular section of the interview was also promoted by the BBC on social media under the title “Isaac Herzog: Time to amend the nuclear deal with Iran” and with the following synopsis.Herzog on Hardtalk clip

“Isaac Herzog is chairman of the Labour party in Israel. His party has just lost in an election to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

He tells Stephen Sackur that there are no differences between Netanyahu and himself on the crux of the Iranian challenge to Israel.

Now is the time to amend the Iranian nuclear interim deal, Mr Herzog argues.”

In that clip Herzog says:

“On the crux of the challenge of the Iranian nuclear programme there is no difference [between Labour and Likud]. And I made it clear throughout the elections that there is no difference here: there is no coalition and opposition here. This is a matter of huge impact on the world peace, on Europe, on Britain too by the way and of course on the Middle East and the moderate forces in the Middle East and the security of Israel.”

Whilst Herzog’s stance on the P5+1’s framework agreement with Iran will not come as a revelation to those with a realistic understanding of the Israeli political scene, it does shine a spotlight on the framing chosen by the BBC in its presentation of the issue in recent weeks. That choice of framing has led to a failure to clarify to BBC audiences that concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear programme straddle the Israeli political spectrum and are not – as BBC audiences have been led to believe – the exclusive concern of the Israeli prime minister.

“Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly warned a deal with Iran could threaten Israel’s security.” (21/1/15 – link to source)

“Administration officials have been hitting back at Mr Netanyahu’s aggressive opposition to the nuclear deal they’re negotiating with Iran…”  (26/2/15)

“That issue – Iran and the Bomb – is one of the defining themes of Mr Netanyahu’s career …” (26/2/15)

“To his supporters Mr Netanyahu is something of a visionary on the topic, who has devoted much of his career to warning that the revolutionary regime in Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.” (2/3/15)

“Mr Netanyahu says the deal would be inadequate to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.” (2/3/15)  [links to sources of all of the above]

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that the framework deal poses a grave danger to the region.” (30/3/15 – link to source)

“When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vociferous sceptics, recently addressed the US Congress. he invoked the history of World War One [sic], and actions of wartime leaders which tragically paved the way to the Holocaust.” (30/3/15 – link to source)

“There was anger though from Israel, whose leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Iran and told President Obama the deal threatened the survival of Israel.” (3/4/15 – link to source)

“Mr Obama said he recognised the concerns raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of the deal…” (7/4/15 – link to source)

As readers are well aware, the BBC has consistently failed to provide its audiences with the background information necessary for them to understand why leaders from across the Israeli political scene (among many others) are concerned by the P5+1’s framework agreement with Iran. Herzog went on to say:

“And we presented – I presented – a full-fledged plan on how to deal with the agreement that’s supposed to be agreed upon by the end of June. Right now is the time to amend whatever needs to be amended and correct and upgrade and improve a lot of issues which are open and disturbing.”

Stephen Sackur, however, was too focused on the niche topic of coalition building to take the opportunity presented by Herzog’s words to contribute to the BBC’s public purpose remit by clarifying to audiences worldwide exactly why two Israeli leaders with such different views on so many other issues see the same pitfalls in the framework agreement.