Al-Jazeera's Gaza 'reality show' and Bolton's uncut remarks

Between the Lines: Much of the military echelon doesn't get that you also have to spin wars to win them.

bolton 224.88 (photo credit: Yotam Fromm / Courtesy Herzliya Conference)
bolton 224.88
(photo credit: Yotam Fromm / Courtesy Herzliya Conference)
On Monday I received a call from the Jerusalem bureau of Al-Jazeera English, asking if I would agree to appear that morning to analyze Israel's strategy in limiting fuel supplies to Gaza. Though, like many others, I share serious reservations about the role the Arab satellite news network plays in the region, I readily agreed, as I have in the past, believing it an opportunity for viewers to get a perspective they would not normally be exposed to. I felt less good about the decision (though still would have done it) the following day, when I heard Israeli hasbara officials who normally cooperate with Al-Jazeera on a daily business speak very harshly about its coverage of the Gaza situation. They said it certainly appeared that the network had early warning that Hamas was planning to cut the electricity on Sunday night, and had in fact coordinated its coverage with Hamas to create the impression of a "crisis" situation that didn't exist. This included delaying the shut-off of the current until prime-time viewing hours (although winter darkness falls a couple of hours earlier); having prestaged tableaux - such as Gazan children sitting in the dark holding candles - set up for their cameras; and being ready with immediate commentary by the likes of Azmi Bishara to condemn Israeli actions, while not featuring an Israeli reaction (on the Arabic channel) that in other situations Al-Jazeera sometimes provides. When I put these charges to local bureau chief Walied al-Omary, he strongly denied them. "Absolutely false," he said. "We are on the scene in Gaza, and all we are doing is reporting the reality as it happens. We have Israeli officials on all the time, despite the criticism we receive for it from other Arabs. But if the politicians don't like the reality they see on their television screens, be it here in Israel or in the Arab states, then they blame Al-Jazeera." Be that as it may, there's no question Hamas basically staged a propaganda show in Gaza this week, and Al-Jazeera's coverage was an important element in helping it whip up Arab public opinion to achieve its goal of gaining control over the Gaza-Egypt border. It is episodes such as this that have sometimes led the West, and pro-Western elements in the region, to question whether their cooperation with the network is worth the benefits derived from also using it as a platform for progressive, moderate and pro-democracy views in the Arabic-speaking world (a role that Al-Jazeera's Qatari proprietors claim they fully support). It should be noted here, for example, that Al-Jazeera's coverage of Iraq has been so controversial the government there actually ordered the Baghdad bureau shut down for a month last summer. NATURALLY, AS a journalist, I abhor all censorship and welcome any free exchange of views, even those as false and inflammatory as sometimes find expression on Al-Jazeera. There's also no doubt that the Israeli government cannot afford not to take advantage of the platform that Al-Jazeera sometimes provides for it to present its views in Arab media markets which otherwise would not permit any Israeli representation at all. Though I have worked with Al-Jazeera (and would gladly do so again), I fully acknowledge the legitimacy of those who feel differently. But let's leave the last word on the subject here to Judea Pearl, who last summer wrote an opinion piece on Al-Jazeera for The New York Times. After noting that the network gives airtime to radical sheikhs who preach the jihadist ideology that directly led to the murder of his journalist son, Daniel Pearl, nevertheless concluded: "It is important to extend a hand to the network because it can become a force for good; but it is as important for our news organizations to scrutinize its content and let its viewers know when anti-Western wishes are subverting objective truth. As Al-Jazeera on the whole feels the heat of world media attention, we can hope that it will learn to harness its popularity in the service of humanity, progress and moderation." SOMETIMES IT is particularly useful to get an outside perspective on a situation - and that was certainly the case when John Bolton addressed Israeli censorship laws at this week's Herzliya Conference. Bolton, the outspoken former US ambassador to the UN, was speaking on a panel dealing with growing nuclear threats in the region, when the subject turned to the still heavily censored air force strike last September on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility being built with North Korean assistance. Said Bolton: "The general public still doesn't know the relationship between North Korea and Syria and whether it was a joint effort, a trade of supplies or something else. Our governments, however, do know the details and I wonder if that censorship and classification of information is necessary. "I, for one, am not bound by any of the Israeli laws of censorship while the American First Amendment stays with me. I don't understand the reason for strong Israeli censorship in the news. The Syrian and North Korea governments know the whole truth, and the USA and Israeli governments know part of the truth. It's the citizens of all four countries who don't. Due to its government censorship the people of Israel can know what it feels like to be a citizen of North Korea." He even went on to compare Israeli journalists to "mushrooms, because they are living in darkness." Now I don't particularly appreciate being compared to a fungus, and the North Korean analogy is, like many of Bolton's comments, somewhat over the top. But definitely I take his point here, and agree. Some of the security officials present in Herzliya were heard grumbling afterward in private that Bolton wasn't fully aware just how dire the situation had been here in the days following the Syria operation, how close Israel had been to a state of war and how necessary it had been to keep a lid on the situation. Perhaps, but that only justifies the censorship in the immediate aftermath of the event, and not the continuing local blackout on virtually every aspect of it. Of course, some form of censorship is still needed here regarding sensitive security issues; but Bolton's comments just crystallized my own views that the security establishment has also gotten way too comfortable with the censorship laws as simply the most convenient, least troublesome, way to avoid having to develop an effective communications strategy when it comes to operations like the Syrian strike. Or for that matter, the current situation in Gaza, when the IDF and Defense Ministry failed to properly coordinate, let alone plan for, an adequate response to the Hamas propaganda ploys when Israel started cutting back on fuel supplies to Gaza last weekend. It's an attitude best summed up by a quote from a senior military figure during the Second Lebanon War, when he was urged to do more in the realm of strategic communications: "We have to win the war, not spin the war." Much of the military establishment here still doesn't get that nowadays, you also have to spin wars to win them (especially if you're a small nation like us). And I suspect that won't change until a senior position is created in the Defense Ministry for a permanent official in charge of long-term strategic communications planning, just as they have for other types of research and development. If a serious systemic examination is done in the security establishment of its current communications strategy, I'm certain one of the first recommendations made would be to revise the censorship restrictions. Until then, as Bolton noted, we mushrooms will just have to keep stumbling around in the dark. [email protected]