Analysis: Stay in the ring with Al-Jazeera

Two opposing viewpoints on Israel's decision to boycott the station.

al jazeera 88 (photo credit:)
al jazeera 88
(photo credit: )
The following analysis is divided into two sections outlining the issues both for and against Israel's decision to boycott Al-Jazeera. For boycotting According to some Israeli experts who watch Al-Jazeera regularly, the image of the station as the CNN of the Arab world is not only misleading, it is dangerously wrong. Al-Jazeera is the media arm of an enemy state working on behalf of other enemy states, some Israeli observers of Arab media say. Experts of this persuasion argue that the very fact that Israeli officials allow the channel to operate freely here and interview on its shows is a problem, and, according to this view, their news crews should be expelled and their press licenses revoked. Does Israel allow the Syrian (SANA) news agency or the Iranian (IRNA) news agency to operate freely in the country? No. Many in Israel and the West don't really know the true nature and form of what is being reported on the Arabic Al-Jazeera because of the language barrier. It is totally different in tone and style from the English version. The English version is closer to the style and tone of the BBC, whereas the original Arabic version, what millions of Arabs across the world see, is much less moderate in its tone. Al-Jazeera is not an independent news satellite TV station; it is tightly controlled by the Qatari royal family. Despite the presence of an Israeli economic interest office in Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate works against Israel in all major international diplomatic forums: • Qatar represented Hizbullah, Syria and Iran in negotiations over Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. • Qatar worked to stop sanctions against Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and vetoed the establishment of a tribunal to investigate the assassination. • Qatar broke the Gulf and Saudi effort to keep Iran out of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The concept that Israel gains legitimacy in the Arab world through the appearance of its spokespeople on Al-Jazeera, or through its economic interest office in Qatar, is not grounded in reality. Observers say Al-Jazeera works to decrease Israel's legitimacy in the Arab world. Against boycotting If Israel institutes a boycott, nothing will happen. Al-Jazeera will continue being the biggest Arabic media outlet in the world, and Israel will have lost even the smallest chance of influencing the channel's coverage. If you're not in the ring, you've given up the fight, as former ambassador to Egypt and Sweden Zvi Mazel likes to say. Al-Jazeera is a large media organization, viewed by some 40-50 million people, that is also open to criticism of the establishment in the Arab world. It cannot be ignored. It regularly hosts debates and gives platforms to voices that are critical of Arab regimes and of Islamic fundamentalists. If Israeli faces and voices totally disappear from its screen, it is Israel that will lose, not the Arab world. The Arab and Muslim world is not monolithic: It has many shades and colors and opinions that influence opinion-makers as well as the masses. It would not be wise to withdraw the Israeli narrative from arguably the major source of news and opinion in this region. If Israel boycotts Al-Jazeera, it is signaling that it cannot deal effectively with this media organization and is giving up on its public diplomacy on this channel. What happens if the Foreign Ministry decides that the other Arab satellite channels are not worthy of an Israeli presence, either? The Israeli viewpoint won't be heard in the Middle East at all. Al-Arabiya's station chief in Israel is begging Israel not to boycott Al-Jazeera, saying it would only strengthen his biggest competitor's standing in the Arab world. While most Israeli observers would say Al-Jazeera is anti-Israel, it is also very open to voicing the Israeli narrative and welcomes Israeli spokespeople. It is also campaigning for change in the Arab world through self-examination. Iranian and Syrian news agencies don't want any mention of the Israeli narrative to intrude on their constructs and don't invite Israeli spokespeople. Israel should not abandon the Al-Jazeera screens entirely to its detractors, but should send the right people to be interviewed: eloquent, assertive speakers who could also attack the channel's coverage on the air. Israel could fight against Al-Jazeera more proactively by watching it closely and highlighting instances where its broadcasts co-opt and serve the interests of extremists. This could be done day in, day out, and brought to the attention of the channel's viewers. If Al-Jazeera refuses to allow Israeli spokespeople to make these points on air, Israel could use that against the channel. Despite Qatar's diplomatic activity against Israel, it has allowed an Israeli economic interest office, mediates between Israel and Arab states, and provides Israelis with a small indication - a promise, perhaps - of normalization in the region. Either way, time to decide An Israeli official closely involved in dealing with the Arab media says Israel needs to take a decision regarding Al-Jazeera either way, and go with it all the way. "If we think that Al-Jazeera is inciting against Israel; if we see that their video clips are no different than the clips shown on Hamas TV; if they put the word 'Israel' inside quote signs [to delegitimize it] - then we can say that they are no different from Iranian TV in Arabic and Hamas TV, and there is no reason why we shouldn't take away their press passes," the official says. One thing is certain: From the time Deputy Foreign Minister Majallie Whbee announced in the morning that it would impose sanctions on the influential Arab satellite network, until the backtrack in the afternoon in which the Foreign Ministry said it would "downgrade" its relationship with Al-Jazeera, the Foreign Ministry has shown once again that it has no long-term strategic public diplomacy plan and is constantly shooting from the hip. If there was serious thinking about what to do with Al-Jazeera, it certainly wasn't evident in Wednesday's zigzag. Israel needs to formulate a position and stick to it: either to ban Al-Jazeera outright, including legal steps; or not to ban them, and decide to fight the channel on the battlefield of ideas. The current position, or non-position, allows Al-Jazeera to continue in its damaging ways while using the odd Israeli viewpoint as a fig leaf of journalistic objectivity. For more of Amir's articles and entries, see his personal blog Forecast Highs