Israel undecided on Al-Jazeera boycott

Foreign Ministry says station's coverage biased; Al Jazeera: Israel acting like some of the Arab regimes.

The Foreign Ministry has not yet officially declared a boycott of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, even thought deputy foreign minister Majallie Whbee said Wednesday that such a move was necessary. In an Army Radio interview, Whbee said that "discussions on the matter were held in the Foreign Ministry, and I decided that we would boycott the channel. Al-Jazeera has turned into [a mouthpiece for terrorists]. These reports are not credible, they harm us, and they spur people into carrying out acts of terror." Later, however, Whbee backed away a bit from these comments. A spokesman in his office said the deputy foreign minister was sending a letter to Al-Jazeera calling for a dialogue with the network to discuss the matter, so a situation would not develop whereby Israel would refuse to cooperate with the network. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that Foreign Ministry spokespeople were refusing requests to appear on Al-Jazeera because of what the ministry deemed the Qatari-based station's heavily biased coverage of the situation in the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said last week in a meeting with foreign diplomats that "Al-Jazeera abuses the situation on the ground by telling lies," and "when it comes to Al-Jazeera, everything is exaggerated." The Post has learned that the Foreign Ministry, along with other government bodies, has held a number of discussions on the matter over the last two weeks and is currently "studying" the situation. While ministry spokespeople are continuing to refuse requests to appear on Al-Jazeera's Arabic news programs, they do appear on the English newscasts because, according to government officials, those reports are more balanced. Government officials said that refusing to appear on Al-Jazeera was the least-serious measure that could be taken, and that if the government decided to genuinely boycott the network, it would include more serious steps such as not granting its reporters visas in Israel, or denying them press credentials. Al-Jazeera Jerusalem bureau chief Walid al-Omary said sanctions against Al-Jazeera were yet another attempt to exert pressure on the station and frighten its correspondents the same way some Arab regimes did. "The incitement against Al-Jazeera began long before the last Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip," he said. "That's why we were surprised by this decision." Omary said there had been no changes in the way Al-Jazeera covered the events in the region. "This is how we have been covering events here for the past 12 years," he asserted. "There's nothing new in our policy, whether it's in Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip." He said Al-Jazeera has always sought interviews with Israeli government officials. But, he said, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Livni have avoided requests for interviews in the past few weeks. Omary claimed that Israel was trying to "intimidate" the station. However, "Al-Jazeera is not scared," he said. "In the past, we were not scared when Arab regimes targeted Al-Jazeera. In any case, I don't understand Israel, which claims to be a democracy but is pursuing journalists and is trying to limit the freedom of expression." He said this was not the first time Israel had targeted Al-Jazeera. "At the beginning of the intifada, we were threatened and our press credentials were revoked," he said. "During the last Lebanon war, I was detained for a number of hours on silly charges."