Taking exception to making exceptions

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Jay of Just Journalism. It first appeared on CiF

No one would deny that the outcome of the recent election in Israel was far from ideal. Commentators have rightly emphasised its lack of conclusiveness and the uncertainty this brings. Not to mention that it looks increasingly likely that the person with the most votes won’t end up at the helm.

At the same time, by the way the results were reported in some sections of the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party came in first, rather than third, and that it garnered 90% of the Israeli public’s vote, rather than 12%. You could also be forgiven for thinking that the prospect of a Likud-led coalition ought to be as feared as the prospect of Armageddon. After all, Israel’s Likud party, combined with Yisrael Beiteinu, is surely a recipe for the most extreme political force ever to emerge in that liberal haven that is the Middle East.

In any case, the outcome got a unanimous thumbs-down, with the Guardian even claiming that it threatened to ruin Obama’s entire foreign policy in the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This caused me to cast my mind back to another election altogether – the Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006. Hamas won a decisive victory over Fatah in Gaza, leaving the international community to ponder how it was going to sit around the table with a party whose signature policy is indiscriminate suicide bombing in public places.

How did the media respond back then? Did editorials predict the end of all things good and bemoan the state of Palestinian politics? Not really. The Guardian, while somewhat apprehensive, said that the Hamas victory “may bring new opportunities to the immense task of building peace between two peoples who have been fighting for far too long in the same small country”. The Independent was adamant that “The democratic voice of the Palestinian people has been heard. And now we must deal with the new reality.” The Daily Telegraph’s editorial was titled, “The west and Hamas must talk to each other” and opined, “there is much to be said for engaging with Hamas.” Only the Times exhibited extreme caution, claiming that the outcome was, “a huge blow to the peace process”.

So, when radicals come third in Israel, it puts everything in jeopardy and Israeli society ‘has to take a hard look at itself” (Jonathan Freedland). But when extremists win by a landslide in Gaza, then there are still signs of hope; besides, the Palestinian people have spoken loud and clear and who are we in the west to question them?

I also noticed that journalists covering the Israeli election have seemed very concerned about Lieberman and his party being “fascist” and “racist”. But this is not terminology I recall them applying three years ago to Hamas, which, unquestionably, has its fair share of fascists and racists. A case of such a journalist in point is Ali Abunimah: in hisresponse to the Israeli election, he lambasted the “proto-fascist Yisrael Beiteinu” and its “racist” leader. And yet, if you scour his article from three years ago about Hamas’ electoral victory, you won’t find a single word critical of the group, let alone accusations of fascism or racism. The mainstream media followed a similar pattern, labelling Hamas merely as “hard line” (The Independent) and even “increasingly pragmatic” (Financial Times, January 27) in 2006.

This isn’t the first time the media have demonstrated a blind spot for the true nature of Hamas. Just Journalism’s report on coverage of the recent Gaza conflict shows that there is a disinclination to acknowledge Hamas’ fundamentally illiberal and terrorist profile. For example, we are constantly assured by commentators that Hamas’ Charter (stridently against peace, committed to Israel’s destruction and against sharing land) no longer holds the relevance it once did and should not be cited to justify Israel’s refusal to deal with the movement. However, after casting his vote in 2006, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar vowed publicly, “[Hamas] will not change a single word in its covenant”. And yet this choice quote did not find itself cherry-picked for the following day’s editorials to demonstrate Hamas’ blatant aversion to peace. Compare this with the dependable recounting of the Moldovan ex-bouncer‘s pledge to make life difficult for Israel’s Arab population by demanding a “loyalty oath“.

Even Peter Tatchell (hardly Israel’s biggest fan) in his recent post hereabout Hamas totalitarianism, points out that “while progressive opinion is justifiably quick to condemn Israel, it is oddly silent when Palestinians are being persecuted by fellow Palestinians. Why the double standards?” Why indeed.