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by Barry Rubin

The Washington Post published a detailed article by Scott Wilson on why President Barack Obama failed to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. It still stands as the best mainstream media effort to explain Obama’s policy. Wilson did a lot of work, conducted many interviews, and strives to be fair. The article is useful in large part because it shows how much of what we’ve been saying about the Obama Administration was accurate, and it also includes a lot of useful quotes.

For example, Wilson’s article shows Obama explicitly saying — we know he did it but not that he said it in so many words — that America must distance itself more from Israel as a way to persuade the Arabs to make peace. Of course, Obama’s action instead persuaded the Arab side to give nothing and demand more, a conclusion not drawn in this article.

What’s most lacking in Wilson’s serious effort to get the story, though, is any conceptual sense of why Obama did fail. And this can be largely explained by a curious but constant missing ingredient in mass media coverage. About 95 percent of the article is concerned with Obama’s relationship with Jews and Israel. The Palestinian side of the factor is hardly mentioned. Yet it was this aspect that caused the failure. What makes this stranger in this case is that Wilson is not trying to excuse the Palestinian side for refusing to want to make peace and even for its reluctance to negotiate.

He doesn’t even mention the refusal of Arab states to help Obama by offering Israel something in 2008; Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ interview with the Post’s own Jackson Diehl, during Abbas’ first visit to Obama-led Washington, making clear his disinterest in diplomatic progress; Abbas’ pie-in-the-face for Obama when the president called for talks in late 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, and the Palestinians refused; how Abbas sabotaged Obama by making a statehood bid at the UN; and many more such things.

I’m not seeking here to bash Wilson. He has produced the best account we are going to see in the mass media and yet, ironically, he has added very little — except for some juicy Obama quotes from secret meetings — to what we (and by this is meant you and I) already knew and understood.

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Why are the Palestinians — their leaders’ intransigence, the radicalism of a public opinion nurtured in this direction for years, the effect of the competition from Hamas, and so on — left out of the equation? We can offer many suggestions but cannot answer this question definitively. That is a task which also requires assigning each of these factors a priority:

  • The journalists’ lack of knowledge about Palestinian politics?
  • The fear of being considered biased toward Israel, or even “racist”?
  • An unconsciously patronizing view in which the Palestinians — and Arabs or Muslims generally — are just “inferior” people who cannot be assigned responsibility for their actions?
  • Or the concept that they can only be victims?
  • A parallel idea that Israel must always be responsible because it is held to a higher standard?
  • Ignorance about Israeli politics and society?
  • The seemingly rational view that they must be eager to get a state and end the largely nonexistent these days “occupation” and thus cannot be intransigent?
  • The refusal to comprehend that the main theme of Palestinian politics is still wiping Israel off the map and not a two-state solution, though this, of course, is not the universal view among them?
  • A Washington-centric view which is obsessed with Obama’s domestic political and electoral considerations far more than the actual situation in the Middle East?
  •  In some cases, though more rarely in America than Europe and certainly not in regard to this article, a deep-seated antagonism toward Jews?
  • In some cases, though more rarely in America than Europe and often coming from left-wing Jews in the United States — certainly not the case with this article by Wilson — a deep-seated antagonism toward the existence of a Jewish state?

Wilson here provides us with the case of a reporter who is willing to work hard and genuinely wants to understand what happened. Yet he is only able to offer a series of scenes with no conceptual overview, along with the missing Palestinian factor. Or, to put it bluntly, Obama could stand on his head, Netanyahu could stop all construction on settlement for five years, and Palestinian ideology, goals, politics, and internal rivalries would still prevent any breakthrough to a comprehensive peace.

The bottom line is that there are only two permitted mainstream media positions: Either it is all Israel’s fault or it is simply an issue that is too tough and complex to resolve. The latter stance, as in Wilson’s article, is the best we can expect.

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.

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