There's an optimistic mood in the region and in the media following yesterday's election of Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) as president of the Palestinian Authority. Associated Press hailed 'the promise of a new era,' Philadelphia Inquirer saw 'a precious opportunity,' and Chicago Tribune described 'a mandate for reform, Mideast peace.'
While everyone hopes progress will indeed occur, HonestReporting is concerned that many media outlets have been carried away by the optimism and begun engaging in unhelpful wishful thinking. Consider two themes that characterized media coverage of this election: Abbas' opposition to Palestinian terror, and the emerging Palestinian democracy.
1) OPPOSITION TO TERROR
Journalists have continually labeled Abbas a 'moderate' and 'a strong and courageous opponent of violence' (Washington Post), and Abbas has made some statements to that effect.
Yet Abbas' campaign has also brought the accuracy of these media labels into question:
œ His appearing on the shoulders of wanted terrorists,
œ His denouncing 'the Zionist enemy,'
œ His promising a mass Palestinian 'right of return' to Israel, and
œ As reported in the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, his funneling of at least $100,000 to wanted terrorists during the campaign.
One should also recall that this is the same Mahmoud Abbas whose doctoral thesis denied the Holocaust \ and which was published as the book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. This is the same Abbas who speaks of all of Israel as Palestine: 'What applies to Jerusalem also applies to Hebron, Nablus, Galilee...' (Al-Ittahad, May 30, 1999). And this is the same Abbas who, according to Abu Daoud (organizer of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre), was the paymaster for that terrorist plot. Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby warns:
Again and again, Abbas has expressed his solidarity with violent extremists. Last month he traveled to Damascus to meet with some of the region's most implacable terror groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Afterward, Abbas's "foreign minister," Nabil Sha'ath, declared that between the Palestinian Authority and the other groups, "there are no differences over the objectives."
In his victory speech last night, Abbas said:
The small jihad, which was the armed struggle, has ended, and now begins the large jihad, which will be the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the building of our homeland. I present this victory to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people and to our martyrs.
'The large jihad'? Dedicating victory 'to the martyrs'? This doesn't sound like 'moderate' rhetoric. And during the campaign, Abbas questioned only the efficacy \ but not the morality \ of terror attacks on Israeli civilians. Charles Krauthammer reminds us of the power of words in this conflict:
What of Abbas's vaunted opposition to violence? On Jan. 2 he tells Hamas terrorists firing rockets that maim and kill Jewish villagers within Israel, "This is not the time for this kind of act." This is an interesting "renunciation" of terrorism: Not today, boys; perhaps later, when the time is right. Which was exactly Arafat's utilitarian approach to terrorism throughout the Oslo decade...
Have we learned nothing? In the Middle East, words are actions. Never more so than in an election campaign in which your words define your platform and establish your mandate. Abbas is running practically unopposed, and yet, on the question of both ends and means, he chooses to run as Yasser Arafat.
HonestReporting urges subscribers to monitor both the stated policies of the new Palestinian leader and his representation in the media, lest the two drift too far apart.
2) PALESTINIAN DEMOCRACY
Senator John Kerry, an election observer, passes a Palestinian policeman (AP)
While yesterday's election was hailed as democratic and accepted as legitimate by the Israeli government, there remains some concern on this matter. The New York Sun (Dec. 31) reported that Abbas' opponents didn't exactly get a fair shake \ the PA-controlled press allowed almost no coverage of their campaigns, and people were afraid to be seen even reading their campaign literature. Moreover:
The message that the people have received from various leaders of the PA is that if they vote for a candidate other than Mr. Abbas they will either lose jobs they already have in the PA or will not be hired by the PA in the future. Since the PA is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, the threat carries a great deal of weight.
Looking forward, Abbas must work to dismantle this culture of intimidation and create the essential structures of democratic society \ a free press, accountability of elected officials, and due process of law. These are essential elements for progress toward a lasting peace with Israel.
Today, President Bush extended an offer to meet Abbas at the White House. Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan clarified the terms for real progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace:
The Palestinian leadership has responsibility to move forward on putting in place a unified security force that is committed to fighting terrorism. And they have a responsibility to put in place reforms that will lead to democratic institutions.
Yet The New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Chicago Tribune, and The (UK) Guardian all published columns 'lowering the bar' on essential Palestinian democratic reform, arguing that Israel and the US should immediately deal with even a non-democratic Palestinian leadership.
Tallying the vote in Gaza City (AFP)
But the Arafat era taught us nothing if not the fallacy of building a peace edifice without a foundation. At this critical juncture, HonestReporting subscribers must not allow the media to advance wishful thinking at the expense of a process that leads to a genuine, lasting peace in the region.
Thank you for your ongoing involvement in the battle against media bias.