abbas fatah convention 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there, does it make a sound? That childhood philosophy question comes to mind when considering the lack of American media coverage of the recent Fatah congress. It was the first such gathering in 20 years, the first in a city controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and Fatah delegates from dozens of countries were among the 2,000 attendees. Ironically, several hundred Fatah members residing in Gaza were prohibited by Hamas, not Israel, from traveling to Bethlehem.
Opportunity for positive change infused preparations for this historic Fatah leadership assembly, five years after Yasser Arafat's death. There was opportunity to reform Fatah, to make it more attractive to Palestinians than Hamas, and to present a platform advancing peace.
Given the tendency of news organizations to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, one would have expected the media to devote at least as much space and time to what's typically allotted to covering Israel's political conventions, let alone elections. Instead, an observer of the Fatah assembly was reduced to scouring the US media forest to find scant coverage that, in terms of substance and analysis, produced barely a thud of elucidation.
DURING THE eight-day Fatah conference, extended from the originally planned three days, The New York Times ran three stories and The Los Angeles Times two. Both papers maintain full-time bureaus in Jerusalem, a short drive from both Bethlehem and Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority. The Washington Post published one news article, by National Public Radio correspondent Linda Gradstein. The Washington Times Jerusalem correspondent, Joshua Mitnick, who also writes for the Christian Science Monitor, filed a single story for each. Much of the reporting was left to wire services Associated Press and Reuters. The Wall Street Journal relied exclusively on the wires, and the Times filled in its limited coverage with Reuters pieces. On the airwaves, NPR devoted one segment.
Overall, American media focused on the fact that the meeting took place and the reelection of PA President Mahmoud Abbas as Fatah leader, even though he ran unopposed. In fact, Los Angeles Times Jerusalem bureau chief Richard Boudreaux devoted the second of his two articles exclusively to Abbas's reelection, without mentioning any of the confrontational positions Fatah adopted regarding Israel.
Three months earlier, on May 21, New York Times bureau chief Ethan Bronner wrote a long story on the ideological and structural challenges that might inhibit Fatah reform. But this kind of assessment did not materialize again in the Times's coverage of the gathering in Bethlehem.
While all media reported Abbas's opening speech to the Fatah congress on August 4, in which he reaffirmed the Palestinian right to resistance, Reuters went the furthest in clarifying this long-standing ambiguous language. "Although peace is our choice, we reserve the right to resistance, legitimate under international law," the Western-backed Abbas said in a policy speech using a term that encompasses armed confrontation as well as nonviolent protests," Reuters stated.
Missing from US media was mention of the resolutions Fatah adopted that collectively broadcast the Fatah leadership's destiny, by choice, to remain mired in the rhetoric and practices of the past. In addition to supporting armed resistance in all its forms, implying support for terrorism, Fatah declared opposition to peace talks until Israel stops settlement construction and agrees in advance to relinquish Jerusalem. Nowhere was there any action, or even indication, that the Palestinian leadership is prepared now to take concrete steps to inculcate a culture of peace.
"Fatah's sixth General Assembly has shown that the 44-year-old faction is still not ready to transform itself from a revolutionary movement into a governing body - one that cares about establishing institutions and infrastructure for the future Palestinian state," Khaled Abu Toameh, the widely-respected Palestinian correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, concluded in a piercing news analysis in which he stated that Fatah has evolved into the Palestinian Ba'ath Party.
No American paper wrote an editorial on the Fatah meeting. In contrast, The New York Times, for one, has not held back in publishing editorials criticizing Israel, asserting that settlement policy is the main obstacle to peace. What the Fatah gathering proved, unfortunately, is that the Arab refusal to recognize Israel's legitimacy actually is the main obstacle to peace.
"Despite the fact that rejecting peace will hurt their people more than those of Israel, on every issue where it had to choose between peace-oriented flexibility and intransigence, the Fatah leadership chose the latter," wrote noted Middle East scholar Barry Rubin in The Jerusalem Post. "For example, Fatah has now officially adopted the Aksa Brigades as its armed wing. The next time that group commits a terror attack, Fatah is going to have to take responsibility for it."
For American reporters based in Jerusalem, and their US-based editors, it appears judgments were made that the Fatah gathering was not worth expending resources to cover, that it would be just more of the same rhetoric and paralytic infighting that has become the accepted norm of Palestinian politics. If so, then the US press gave Abbas's Fatah a free pass by failing to fulfill its professional duty to inform and educate about the meaning and long-term implications of the discussions and outcome of the first Fatah congress in a generation.
A fuller understanding of what transpired in Bethlehem, and how that affects peacemaking, is necessary to set the context for when Palestinian and Israeli leaders resume direct talks. When they do, the media will have another opportunity to recall that Fatah's failure to confront its own inherent impediments to change obstructs efforts to achieve peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.
The writer is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.