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US Media Biased in Mideast Coverage

8 April 2002

"The Israelis are becoming increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life, not hesitating to kill a great many of them and justifying this on the grounds that they are being the objects of terrorism, which is true. But their reactions are all out of proportion . . . "

Almost exactly, those are my thoughts - especially the comparison between Israel and the brutal apartheid state.

But they are the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and respected foreign policy intellectual, speaking during a recent broadcast of PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

The Israeli blitzkrieg into Palestinian territory and the arrogance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently have forced even some of Israel's most solid supporters to join a global chorus of condemnation.

Notably, some of the strongest criticism of Sharon comes from within Israel. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz bemoaned in a March 5 editorial that the "Sharon government is hot-headed" and "fanning the flames" rather than promoting peace.

The newspaper, Israel's largest, is not alone in condemning the right-wing government.

In fact, readers are likely to read stronger criticisms of Sharon's policies in the Israeli than in the U.S. media.

A March 28 column by Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman, on the MSNBC Web site, revealed one possible reason: Americans rarely get well-rounded views of Middle Eastern policy because the vast majority of top commentators are "pro-Israel partisans."

Alterman wrote, "for reasons of religion, politics, history and genuine conviction, the punditocracy debate of the Middle East in America is dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel."

He listed commentators who fit a category he titled, "columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification," and came up with 62 names.

His list was an exhaustive inventory of the leading members of what he calls the punditocracy. Readers of the Tribune's Commentary page will recognize many of the names.

He also listed "columnists likely to be reflexively anti-Israel and or pro-Palestinian, regardless of circumstance." He named five.

Alterman puts himself among the seven pundits who were "likely to criticize both Israel and the Palestinians, but view themselves to be critically supporters of Israel, and ultimately, would support Israeli security over Palestinian rights."

His admittedly unscientific survey can be faulted for its methodology, and Alterman may overstate the number who are "reflexively anti-Israel."

But after reading his inventory, it should be clear that America's leading opinion makers are overwhelmingly one-sided in complicated controversy.

Although some Jewish groups have adopted a policy of harassing news organizations for coverage they claim is insufficiently pro-Israel, he noted, "Even Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to complain about the level of support their actions typically receive from the members of the punditocracy."

Alterman performs a useful function with this column. By actually naming the names of prominent pundits, he puts flesh on the charge that U.S. commentators are profoundly pro-Israel. That knowledge may help Americans understand why the U.S. stands virtually alone in supporting Sharon's aggressive policies.

Sharon is being sued in Belgium for "crimes against humanity" resulting from a massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee campus during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when he was defense minister.

He consistently has opposed the Oslo peace protocols and the attendant accords that won Yasser Arafat and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the Nobel Peace Prize. The Israeli right wing, of which Sharon is a leading figure, was widely criticized for its vicious rhetoric against Rabin, who was assassinated later by a right-wing fanatic. In September 2000, Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa mosque, a venerated Muslim site. This deliberate provocation sparked the so-called Al Aqsa Intifada, dashed the peace talks and added a religious element into what had been largely a secular struggle over land.

The very man who sparked the current unrest was ironically elected prime minister to end it.

That irony is just one of the many we're unlikely to read about in this country.

Salim Muwakkil
Published in the Chicago Tribune © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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