In almost 40 years of studying these issues, I’ve never seen a better case study of mass media bias and knee-jerk narrowness than an aspect of the current flap about what presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during his trip to Israel. I’m going to focus on a single point because it brings this problem into sharp focus.
If you truly understand what you are about to read, I don’t see how you can accord most of the mass media any credibility when it comes to Israel ever again. Briefly, Romney mentioned the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian economies — ironically, he vastly understated the gap — and attributed it to “culture,” by which he meant, as Romney has said elsewhere, such things as democracy, individual liberty, free enterprise, and the rule of law.
But I’m not talking about Romney here or the media’s critique of him. What is interesting is this: How do you explain the reason why Israel is so more advanced in terms of economy, technology, and living standards? The media generally rejected Romney’s explanation and pretty much all made the same point. To quote the Associated Press story, that was:
Comparison of the two economies did not take into account the stifling effect the Israeli occupation has had on the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem—areas Israel captured in 1967 where the Palestinians hope to establish a state.
In the West Bank, Palestinians have only limited self-rule. Israel controls all border crossings in and out of the territory, and continues to restrict Palestinian trade and movement. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967, but has invested much less heavily there than in Jewish west Jerusalem.
Or, in other words, it’s all Israel’s fault. Yet in choosing to blame Israel, the media generally showed no interest at all in additional factors which are equally, or far more, valid.
I’m not suggesting that journalists and editors thought through the following list of factors and deliberately decided not to mention them. I think that these things never entered their minds. Yet how can that be? Some of these points require knowledge of the situation on the ground and its history. Still, many should be obvious to those who have read past newspaper accounts or just use logic, not to mention research.
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Consider the points made below. You might count them for less, but anyone honest should admit that they add up to a compelling case:
1. The most devastating problem for the Palestinian economy has been the leadership’s refusal to make peace with Israel and to get a state. Most notably, the opportunities thrown away in 1948, 1979, and 2000 doomed both countries to years of suffering, casualties, and lower development. Today, in 2012, both Palestinian leaderships — Fatah and Hamas — continue this strategy.
2. Statistics show major advances in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the period of Israeli occupation. A lot of money also came in from Palestinians working in Israel (or to a surprising extent on the Jewish settlements).
3. The media should be expected to explain why Israel interfered at all once, by around 1994, almost all West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were under Palestinian rule. The reason, of course, was Palestinian violence against Israel and Israelis. If there had not been such attacks, Israeli forces would not have set foot in Palestinian-ruled areas. Stability would have encouraged development and foreign investment. There would be no roadblocks. Incidentally, roadblocks and restrictions on travel have changed constantly and at times of relative quiet became almost non-existent. Of course, Israel maintained control of the borders to prevent weapons from coming in.
4. There was a large transfer of funds (as provided in the Oslo agreement, but PA behavior did not make Israel violate the agreement) from Israel to the PA regarding refunds on customs duties and workers’ fringe benefits.
5.The well-documented incompetence and corruption of the Palestinian Authority. For example, there is no reliable body of law that a company could depend on there. Bribes determine who gets contracts. Literally billions of dollars have been stolen and mostly ended up in the European accounts of Palestinian leaders.
6. And where did those billions of dollars come from? They came from foreign donors who showered huge amounts of money on a relatively small population. Yet, even aside from theft, the money was not used productively or to benefit the people.
7. Because of the risks and attacks on Israel, the country stopped admitting Palestinian workers except for a far smaller number. Tens of thousands thus lost lucrative jobs and the PA could not replace these.
8. The unequal status of women in the Palestinian society throws away up to one-half of the potential labor and talent that could otherwise have made a big contribution to development.
9. And then there are the special factors relating to the Gaza Strip. Under the rule of Hamas, a group committing many acts of terror and openly calling for genocide against Israel, the emphasis was not put on economic development but on war-fighting. The shooting of rockets at Israel created an economic blockade. Note also, however, that Hamas also alienated the Mubarak regime in Egypt which also had no incentive to help it, instituting its own restrictions that were as intense as those of Israel.
10. The Palestinian leadership generally antagonized Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other oil-rich Arab states that were consequently not interested in helping them develop.
11. Also, compare the Palestinians to the Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, or Lebanese. In those places the excuse of “it’s all Israel’s fault” is hard to sustain, yet the Palestinians have done as well or better than those other Arabs who share a very similar political culture.
12. And incidentally, remember that Israel also had to cope with war, terrorism, and defense needs unequaled by the burden faced by any other democratic state in the world. Moreover, it could not trade for most of its history with any of its neighbors — and commerce is still limited — or any of the countries in the Arabic-speaking world that surround it. In addition, it has almost no natural resources. So while Israel received a lot of U.S. aid, most of that went into defense and not economic development. In other words, Israel’s has handicaps as impressive (or almost as marked) as the Palestinian ones.
My goal here was not so much to present these twelve points but to ask the question: Why is it that these factors were barely mentioned or not mentioned at all in the media analyses of Romney’s statement?
The answer, of course, is that most of the media is set on the blame-Israel argument. Yet even given this truth, why do they have to do so virtually 100 percent of the time with nothing about the other side of the issue? This applies to dozens of other questions, such as why peace hasn’t been achieved. And in this as in many other cases, they virtually take the PA’s talking points as their themes and facts.
Often, one suspects there are a lot of people in the mass media and academia who are totally uninterested in presenting anything other than an anti-Israel narrative. This article doesn’t mean to generalize about everyone, of course, but you who are doing that know who you are, and you readers know who they are!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East
Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition),
The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle
East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.