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Engineering Consent

How Australia Reported Arafat’s Death and Legacy

by ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN

Israel has a population of about five million Jews and nearly 1.3 million Arabs. There are around four million Palestinians registered as refugees by the United Nations. The death of Yasser Arafat will not, despite the rhetoric suggesting otherwise, inevitably lead to a more likely resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, although if one only read the Australian media after the PLO leader’s death, one could be forgiven for thinking that a road block to peace had been removed.

Yet many astute commentators suggest that Islamic fundamentalism may in fact rise in prevalence in the Palestinian territories. Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, wrote in Newsday on November 19:

"Arafat’s secular nationalism was supple enough to compromise with Israel and to imagine a two-state solution, if even the negotiations remained rocky Even if local Palestinian leaders remain strong enough to keep al-Qaeda out, the festering Israeli/Palestinian struggle remains among the best recruiting posters for al-Qaeda with young Muslim men. Resolving this conflict would be the most effective weapon the United States could deploy in its war on terror."

This kind of nuanced analysis was nowhere to be found in Australia. Instead, our mainstream media outlets seemed to take their cues from American and Israeli government sources, and, in a familiar pattern in the reporting of the conflict, dissenting voices were essentially ignored.

On November 12, the Canberra Time’s page one lead read, "Arafat’s death brings hope". On the same day, Murdoch’s Australian offered, "Death gives peace a chance". Its foreign Editor Greg Sheridan wrote that if the Palestinians behaved themselves and offered something acceptable to the Israelis (and therefore the Americans) they would get their own state. The paper editorialised on November 13 under the headline "Thirty years of death ­ and all for nothing". It is a viewpoint unlikely to be shared by many in the Arab world.

Despite Arafat’s corruption and other failures, of which they were many, he articulated a Palestinian nationalism that remains too confronting for many in the West. Afif Safieh is the Palestinian General Delegate to the UK and the Holy See. Writing in The Guardian on November 12, a clearer picture of Arafat’s legacy emerged:

"His message was: we the Palestinian are the victims of the victims of European history. We have become the Jews of the Jews. But we do not want to make them the Palestinians of the Palestinians…"

The Sydney Morning Herald’s page one headline on November 12 was "Palestinians mourn passing of an era". The paper’s coverage was the least unbalanced in the country, featuring a number of differing viewpoints on Arafat’s life and times, though remarkably for a leader so rooted in the Arab world, opinion pieces or comment from the region were absent. It was as if only Western commentators fully understood the seriousness of the developments.

The Age editorialised on November 13 with a screed on the newfound responsibilities for the Palestinians:

"If [they] truly want to honour the memory of Mr Arafat, then they must move beyond terrorism as a means to achieve an end."

No mention was made of Israel’s 37 year-old Occupation of West Bank and Gaza, the ever-expanding settlements, the military invasions into Palestinian territory and the ongoing Israeli policy of what some see as essentially ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians needed to reform, said The Age, and the Americans and Israelis will be watching and judging accordingly. There was no discussion of the reality that the number of Jewish settlers doubled during the Oslo "peace process" ­ the period Israel was supposedly preparing to withdraw from the territories.

The Independent’s journalist Robert Fisk wrote after Arafat’s death:

"That the final demise of the corrupt old guerrilla leader should be a sign of optimism demonstrates just how catastrophic the conflict in the Middle East has become. It’s a bit like Fallujah. The more we destroy it, the crueller we are, the brighter the chances of Iraqi democracy."

"It’s the same old agenda [in the Israel/Palestine conflict.] The Palestinians have to have a democracy. They have to prove themselves; they ­ not the Israelis ­ have to show that they are a worthy ‘negotiating partner’."

Even Murdoch’s Herald Sun tabloid entered the debate, publishing Colin Rubenstein, Executive Director of the Melbourne-based pro-Zionist group, AIJAC. "[Arafat] personified the destructive contradiction that was the heart of Palestinian nationalism,", he wrote.

Rubenstein’s offsider Ted Lapkin, associate editor of AIJAC’s Review magazine, expressed similar disadain in the Australian Financial Review on 15 November:

"The Palestinians are world class rememberers, to the point where they either do not recall things as they happened, or they recollect things that neve happened at all."

Every Australian paper editorialised on the importance of the Americans in the peace process and hoped that a re-elected George W. Bush would more fully ‘engage’ in resolving the crisis. The fact that the last four years of Bush’s presidency has seen a deterioration of the situation, due in no small part to his administration’s extreme closeness to Ariel Sharon’s positions, was not mentioned.

Equally off the agenda were the unpleasant truths surrounding the Israeli leader’s proposed Gaza pullout early in 2005, wholeheartedly endorsed by the Americans, Europeans and Australians. It is, simply put, a charade.

Upon Arafat’s death, world leaders offered the usual platitudes, with notable exceptions, including Nelson Mandela, who called the PLO leader "one of the outstanding freedom fighters of his generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people".

Aside from the comments of Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid ­ "Without Arafat there could have already been peace in the region and a Palestinian state…the Government of Israel will continue with its efforts to reach peace", Prime Minister John Howard was the only world leader who condemned the Palestinian leader. "I think history will judge him very harshly," Howard said, "for not having seized the opportunity in the year 2000 to embrace the offer that was very courageously made by the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, that involved the Israeli agreeing to about 90 per cent of what the Palestinians wanted." (Robert Fisk seeks to debunk these ‘facts’ in Death, Delusion and Democracy

The Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister, Nabil Shaath, condemned Howard for his lack of "empathy". "I mean, he is probably the only leader in the world who actually demonised President Arafat after his death," Shaath said, "something that not even the Israelis have done, or the Americans".

The Wall Street Journal in Europe praised Howard’s comments:

"Lionising a leader who espoused violence does the Middle East a great disservice. If only more Asian regional leaders could have grasped this in the way of some of their more forthright counterparts Down Under."

But most commentators thought it unseemly, a complete misunderstanding of the importance of Arafat to Palestinian self-determination and counterproductive in bringing the many sides back to the table.

Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, was more conciliatory:

"Yasser Arafat was a passionate, controversial leader of the Palestinian people. Whatever people thought of Arafat, there was wide consensus that he was a symbol for a secular Palestinian state."

Indeed, when the Senate returned to business on November 18, Greens senator Kerry Nettle moved a resolution noting the PLO leader’s death and extending condolences to the Palestinian people:

"Many Palestinians were offended by the Prime Minister’s uncharitable attack on the recently deceased Palestinian leader. This motion was in part intended to show that most Australians are capable of expressing appropriate condolences."

In Israel itself, life-long peace activist Uri Avnery spoke of the "37 years of occupiers [that] have bestialised our society and left it bereft even on common decency".

"Minister and fishmongers, TV icons and university professors, "leftists" and outright fascists tried to outdo each other in utter vulgarity…No Arab leader ­ and very few world leaders ­ evoke such profound love and admiration among their people as this man, whom Israelis consider a veritable monster in human form. The Palestinians trusted him, relied on him, let him make all the big decisions that demanded courage, derived from him the strength to defy the intolerable conditions under a brutal occupation.

"Ariel Sharon has absolutely no interest in sitting opposite a democratically elected leadership enjoying international legitimacy and respect, perhaps even weakening his control over President Bush and obstructing his plan for the annexation of most of the West Bank. He will do everything to prevent elections, and of course, blame the Palestinians."

While John Howard has always been a strong supporter of Israel’s position in the conflict, his position has hardened in the last years. At a press conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on May 2, 2000, a journalist asked Howard for his opinion of Arafat:

"Very interesting. A man who’s gone through an enormous amount. A man who is searching for peace. Who is conscious of the extremist elements that seek to undermine and overthrow him. I found him a fascinating person to meet and it has been quite an experience to taste the new approach here and that is true in relation to the Israelis as well."

Howard’s praise of Arafat began at another press conference the day before, May 1, 2000:

"…The people who Mr Arafat leads and the people of Israel are keen and passionate about achieving peace. They want to put the past behind them and if Australia can make a small contribution, given its history in this part of the world and the special significance it has to millions of Australians then we ought to do so in a very positive frame of mind without debating particular stances in the past."

Yet during an address at the American Jewish Committee in New York in January 2002, Howard then laid the blame for the failure of a Palestinian state firmly at the feet of Arafat:

"…Until stronger and more effective efforts are taken by the Palestinian Council, by Yasser Arafat and others, we can only continue to condemn them for what they have done and for what they have failed to do in relation to restraint, necessary restraint being imposed on the random acts of terror which are so frequently visited upon the people of Israel."

Howard’s shift in attitude can be traced to similar overtures by the Bush administration, and then their shutting out, with Israeli support and advice, of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Mike Clear of Penrith, NSW wrote a letter to the Canberra Times on November 13 on this shift:

"I think we reveal a vulgar national character when we can join a pre-emptive war and occupation against people in the Arab world and then, at the death of one its much-loved leaders, not have the PM or a senior minister represent us at the funeral. If President Arafat’s death represents an opportunity for some renewal of the peace process, as our Foreign Minister rather fatuously likes to tell us, then surely it also represents an opportunity for the most aggressive protagonists of war to identify with the pain of the Palestinian people and their abject oppression from decades of hostile occupation. John Howard and Mr Downer should understand that this failure to regard the pain of others is a significant aspect of the cycle of suffering and violence that racks the globe."

The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt parroted the government’s line on November 19: "There is a sickness in Palestinian culture ­ and an anarchy in its government ­ that makes talk of peace with its people seem as grounded as the sweet dreams of a sleepwalker in a crowded minefield."

Neither the Bolts of this world, nor the Australian government, appear capable of seeing past Arafat’s corruption and frequent duplicity. Writing in bitterlemons on November 13, Yossi Alpher explained the duality of the PLO leader’s legacy:

"Israelis will not mourn Yasser Arafat. But they should take the time now to reflect on how, under his leadership, the Palestinians got where they are ­ to world recognition, national pride and the brink of statehood, but also to the depths of the present brutal conflict, with its accompanying humiliation and impoverishment."

Where to from here? For the last three years of his life, Israel isolated Arafat in his Ramallah compound, publicly arguing that he was the main obstacle to peace and therefore should be sidelined. America agreed and although British Prime Minister Tony Blair talks constantly about a Middle East peace settlement, he has made little progress with Washington.

It’s clear that the Palestinian leadership must be allowed time and space to conduct free and fair elections. Whether the Americans and Israelis like the Palestinian peoples’ choice is another matter. The situation could prove remarkably similar to that in Iraq, where elections, if they occur at all, may favour Islamic leaders with close ties to Iran, something that the Bush administration will find less than acceptable.

Aside from the death of Arafat, the world has been transfixed in the last months on Ariel Sharon’s proposed "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Although most of the "quality" media has praised Sharon’s apparent about face (father of the settlements turns his back on his legacy, being a familiar refrain), the actual details of the plan expose something else. Human Rights Watch stated in a November report that even after the supposed pull-out, "Israeli forces will continue to surround Gaza on land, patrol its coastline and its skies. That military cordon will allow Israel to continue to control the flow of all goods and people into and out of the territory. Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for water, sewerage, electricity, telephone access, trade and currency, which will remain the Israeli shekel."

Yet much of the Western media and its leaders appear to have been hoodwinked. Closer examination of Sharon’s plan reveals a devious definition of Israeli "disengagement". Israeli academic Tanya Reinhart has examined the plans and concludes that it is yet far from clear whether the pullout will occur and under what terms:

"Throughout the Western world, Sharon is now depicted as a messenger of peace, because he has declared that he is willing to evacuate some of the territories. All of a sudden, Sharon is viewed as a sane centre of Israel, withstanding right-wing pressure [but] the Israeli army terrorises the Gaza strip, dozens of Palestinians are being killed, including children on their way to school, houses are demolished and agricultural land destroyed."

Finally, two sobering accounts of the current political environment in Israel put paid to the myth that Arafat was the only stumbling block to peace. Reports have recently surfaced of Israeli soldiers using dead bodies of Palestinians, whom they thought were innocent, as trophies to take pictures with. Echoes of Abu Ghraib abound. Many Israelis are outraged by the discoveries. Daily paper Yedioth Ahronot reports that the practice has become widespread in the Israeli army. Israeli academic Idan Landau writes of the affair:

"Hundreds of reports during the Intifada on the horrors committed by the IDF against live Palestinians haven’t managed to scratch our collective elephant hide. They did not move the very people who are now so outraged by what uniform wearing animals committed upon dead Palestinians. Senior politicians, IDF commanders and newspaper columnists maintained a thundering silence while watching the wholesale killing of innocent unfortunate Palestinians who somehow end up in a forbidden zone or in the path of a straying shell. But the moment the media gets hold of a photo or two of exposed Palestinian flesh, the same people beat their chest in disgust ("we’ve turned into animals") and turn their heads in revulsion. Demolishing occupied people’s houses, killing children on their way to school ­ that’s OK. But if a Zionist soldier places a dead Palestinian’s head on a pole ­ then our world collapses upon us."

A close friend and colleague of Sharon, Dov Weissglas, gave an interview recently to Haaretz newspaper on what he said were the true aims of Sharon’s "disengagement" plan, quoted in The New York Times Review of Books, Weissglas explained that the plan pushed through by Sharon, President Bush and both houses of Congress, was in fact designed to prevent a peace process, ditch the much-discussed "Road Map to Peace" and preclude the emergence of a Palestinian state:

"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.

"And all this…with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress."

He explained that the "disengagement" was "actually formaldehyde":

"It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

Ephraim Sneh, a Labor member of the Knesset, replied: "Formaldehyde, it should be noted, is the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved."

Reading the Australian media after Arafat’s death, these truths were not spoken.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN writes the Sydney Morning Herald Webdiary’s Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.
He can be reached at: aloewenstein@fairfaxdigital.com.au