National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook, host of "On Point," has a formula for discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Invite a Palestinian representative who heaps blame on Israel while absolving the Palestinians of any responsibility; match him with an American or Israeli Jew who agrees that Israel is to blame; then provide a "neutral" expert, usually a former State Department official who casts both sides as obstinate children in need of some outside discipline.
Listeners were treated to an all-too-familiar version of Ashbrook's "balanced" discussions on July 9, 2014 in a segment on the recent murders of three Israeli teenagers, a Palestinian teenager and the upswing in violence between Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza Strip. The guests included former Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman and professor Rashid Khalidi, former State Department official Nicholas Burns and J-Street official Alan Elsner.
Khalidi offered undiluted Palestinian propaganda, confident that no one would hold him accountable for factual accuracy. After Khalidi's well-rehearsed talking points, Elsner's turn came. He immediately launched into alleged Israeli societal racism as responsible for the killing of the Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Lost in the distorted portrayal of recent events was the stark contrast between the Israeli response to the killing of Abu Khdeir and the Palestinian response to the murders of the three Jewish teenagers, Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frankel.
Across the spectrum of Israeli society the murder of the Palestinian boy prompted condemnation and soul-searching. The suspected perpetrators were quickly apprehended. In contrast, the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish boys generated widespread festivities in Gaza and the West Bank, including the handing out of candies. Meanhwhile, the murderers remain at large.
Bias and misinformation manifested itself even before the discussion with the guests. NPR correspondent Michelle Dunn editorialized that "Israel should be more eager to make peace with the Palestinians" in order to "deflate radicalism in the region." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she explained, "has not been receptive to those arguments" and has been "less willing" to negotiate with the Palestinians. In reality, it is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who has stubbornly refused to pursue negotiations if their objective was to be two states, one Jewish, one Palestinian.
Dunn also incorrectly stated that "the United States has provided to Israel Iron-Dome," the defense system capable of intercepting rockets launched by Palestinian Arabs in Gaza. In fact, Iron Dome was developed in Israel, with the United States providing some of the funding in exchange for Israel's sharing the technology.
Ashbrook's first guest, Nicholas Burns, provided the pat State Department view that negotiations are the only path to resolving the conflict. He portrays the Israelis and Palestinians as children in need of adult supervision, contending that America "needs to step in diplomatically in a very tough way and try to separate these two [Hamas and the Israelis]." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, provides "mature, responsible leadership," but has been stymied because he "cannot find a reasonable Israeli negotiating partner." Burns' patronizing attitude toward the Israeli government demands an Israeli response. It was left to a nervous caller to point out that the Palestinian Authority still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That Abbas' term as president expired years ago, that his Palestinian Authority media almost daily disseminate anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli incitement, and that without tacit support from Israel and its security forces he might be driven from the West Bank by Hamas as he was from the Gaza Strip did not seem relevant to Burns' prescriptions.
Sounding more like a pitchman than a professor, Rashid Khalidi delivered the standard Palestinian talking points, always laying the blame on Israel, while the Palestinian Arabs are entirely blameless for their predicament. Khalidi cynically shifts the burden of guilt for the unprovoked murder of three boys from the Palestinian terrorists to the Israelis who "use" the incidence to kill Palestinians. According to Khalidi, the current outburst of terrorism and violence was a natural response to "the expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise and the siege of Gaza." This "led to an eruption - the killing of the Yeshiva students - used by Israel to shoot down five in the West Bank."
Khalidi claims the Israeli "war machine" is "killing many, many Palestinians" and that "Israel could easily have racheted things down." But it was Hamas who initiated the violence and continued to launch rockets on Israeli cities. Ashbrook passed up an opportunity to challenge his guest's sloppy logic by pointing out that in light of Israel's vast military capabilities, 78 fatalities reported as of July 10 [mostly Hamas and Islamic Jihad members] resulting from several hundred targeted air strikes leads to the conclusion that Israel is applying force in a careful and restrained manner.
Israel is the intransigent party, according to Khalidi, because it "had no intention of doing anything that would lead to Palestinian self-determination." Khalidi's counter-historical assertion reveals his contempt for Ashbrook and On Point's audience's knowledge of the conflict, because it was the Palestinian Arabs, who in 2000-2001 and 2008, turned their backs on Israeli and U.S. offers of a West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian state in exchange for peace with Israel.
Khalidi claims that "the PLO recognized Israel in 1988, 2001 and 1993." But this is disingenuous, as the PLO leadership continued to assure its Arab audiences that the ultimate goal of dismantling Israel had not changed. The PLO and the Palestinian Authority still demand that Israel allow the several million descendants of Palestinian Arabs who fled what became Israel in 1948 to flood into the Jewish state, which would lead to the dissolution of the world's one Jewish country to permit establishment of its 23 Arab state, and they do so while suggesting that no Jews would be permitted to live in a West Bank and Gaza Strip "Palestine."
Khalidi argues that America's problems in the Middle East are all in some way connected to its support for Israel. At one point even Ashbrook appears incredulous, asking Khalidi whether the insurgency in Iraq and Syria are connected to American support for Israel. Khalidi responds that the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] "would be positively affected if the United States stopped its biased support of Israel."
Khalidi's anti-Israel screed requires an opposing viewpoint for balance. But that is not what Tom Ashbrook offers. Instread, he turns to Alan Elsner, an official at J-Street, an organization that claims to be pro-Israel, but was refused membership the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the major umbrella group for Jewish organizations in America. J Street was rejected because conference members could not reach consensus that the organization, which often lobbies against Israeli government policy and exists to counter the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the biggest pro-Israel lobby group, is really pro-Israel. Elsner offers no rebuttal of Khalidi's talking points, only a nervous caller points out that Palestinian leaders have refused offers of an independent state because it would require them to recognize Israel's right to exist. The best Elsner can offer is a timid "Yes there have been diplomatic efforts in the past... historians still argue about it."
Picking up from where Khalidi left off, Elsner castigates Israel, not the Palestinians, for alleged racism. This is an inversion of reality. Israeli society goes to great lengths to build bridges to its Arab population, viewing this as vital to the stability and future of the state. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, promotes virulent Jew-hatred in its communications media, schools and religious forums and insists that on a state emptied of Jews.
Even the fact that Israel quickly identified and arrested the perpetrators of the attack on the Palestinian boy does not satisfy Elsner. He predicts that they will soon be pardoned. He then offers the usual ideological slogans about recognizing Palestinian "sovereignty and dignity" and the "need for political change in Israel," without any commensurate call for political change in Palestinian society.
In a summing up, Khalidi states that "occupation and settlement is the incubation of radicalism." But in light of the violence and civil war throughout Arab and Islamic regions, such a contention can no longer be taken seriously. The Palestinian leadership were already quite radicalized prior to 1967 when there was no "occupation" or "settlement" unless one includes any part of Israel "occupied" by Jews.
The U.N.'s Reports on Arab World Human Development in the early years of the previous decade spotlighted religious extremism, economic stagnation and suppression of personal freedoms in the Arab world. These endemic problems led to the "Arab Spring" uprising. Today's endemic inter-Arab, inter-Muslim violence also has nothing to do with Israel. To maintain, as Khalidi does, that Israel's lawful status as the military occupational authority of the disputed territories, pending a negotiated settlement as called for by U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement, and the presence of Jewish communities in the West Bank, unlike the presence of Arab towns in Israel, "incubate radicalism" is sheer distraction. The region's radicalism has been "incubated" within dysfunctional Arab societies marked by abuse of power, widespread corruption, suppression of women and minorities, intolerance of dissent, insufficient economic opportunity and a general lack of freedom. Elsner and Ashbrook's failure to point out this obvious reality indicates their real purpose is to blame Israel.
Elsner's detachment from Israeli concerns is laid bare by his concluding statement, "I'm not so much worried about the external threats to Israel, I worry about the internal Israeli soul." He may not be that concerned with threats to Israel, but those millions fleeing to bomb shelters to escape Hamas rockets and living under the shadow of the Iranian nuclear program feel differently. If Elsner cannot muster sufficient intellectual rigor to rebut Khalidi and correct Ashbrook, maybe he should at least show a little humility when looking down his nose at "the internal Israeli soul."
But the real culprit for the serial misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East in general is host Tom Ashbrook. All that he needs to do to fix the problem is provide substantive balance by inviting an informed pro-Israel guest on to his show. That he doesn't allow an informed rebuttal to the propaganda provided by the likes of Rashid Khalidi suggests that a) Ashbrook is more interested in giving the Khalidis of the world a forum and b) afraid he couldn't suppress a serious supporter of Israel.
In any case, the Ashbrook formula for faked fairness is a disservice to his audience and probably illegal, in violation of the Telecommunications Act's requirement of public broadcasting for "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." Write your member of Congress. Tell him or her it's time for Ashbrook to either play fair or get off stations that receive federal funding.
Correction: The initial article identified the suspects arrested in the murder of Muhammad Khdeir as perpetrators. The article has been corrected to indicate that they are "suspected" perpetrators as none have yet been tried.