Sunset in the northern Gaza strip. Zenab Oudah/Press Association. All rights reserved. Towards the end of 1991, in the wake of the Madrid Conference on the Middle East, I was chairing a packed Palestinian-Jewish dialogue meeting in London when speaker after speaker denounced the bias of the press. So I called for a straw vote. Sure enough, almost everyone was apparently of the same mind. Then I asked who the bias favoured. Roughly half the audience thought it was definitely slanted towards Israel while the other half was equally convinced it favoured the Palestinian and Arab side.
So what may we conclude from this? Does it mean that bias is merely in the eye of the beholder and that the much-maligned mainstream media are innocent of the charge? Might it even be that the charge itself merely exposes and reflects the accuser’s own bias? Would the accusations evaporate if the media made a greater effort to be balanced and report objectively? Do we really know, in fact, what we mean by balance and objectivity? And is it what we truly want? What if it takes us outside of our respective comfort zones, as it’s bound to do?
These are critical questions in any conflict situation and they don’t just impact the media. I was faced with these conundrums when embarking on a doctoral thesis in the early 1970s on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I set out to write a brief, objective, history of the conflict as the introductory chapter and was counselled by my academic advisors to stick scrupulously to the facts, to be even-handed and not to be swayed by the passions of either side. But I soon found I could not make even the most basic facts sit still long enough to get them down on paper.
Then came my ‘eureka’ moment: the realization that what I was trying to do was not achievable. Like Archimedes, I was lying in the bath at the time but, unlike Archimedes, I did not go running naked through the streets. I just sat wrapped in my towel robe over my typewriter as I contemplated what my supervisor used to call “another blinding insight into the bleeding obvious” – in this case that there wasn’t one history but two discrete histories, stemming from two distinct peoples with quite different pasts, whose destinies happened to collide at the same period of time in the same corner of the earth.
So, with some trepidation, I took an entirely different approach, one that entailed seeing the conflict as the protagonists themselves saw it: subjectively, through their eyes, each in turn, with all the imbalances and emotions and historical traumas – even the distortions, fabrications and fictions – left in. For factual inaccuracies or mythologies, when thought to be true, are no less potent than factual truths in the minds of those who believe them.
This, I found, was the only way of making sense of disputed facts, coming to grips with what made both sides tick, and potentially influencing their attitudes and behaviours.
A tale of two peoples
Applying this methodology, I authored a Young Fabian pamphlet, A tale of two peoples, published in January 1973, which elaborated the two main core perspectives and, against that backdrop concluded that key to resolving the conflict was the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside Israel – what in later years came to be known as the “two-state solution”.
As for the nature of the two states and their relationship, my personal vision was of a future confederative arrangement for Israel and Palestine (or Israel, Palestine and Jordan) – more akin to Benelux than the two Koreas – but this of course was a matter for the two (or three) peoples to decide among themselves, not for outsiders to impose their own preferred models including, alternatively, a European-style unitary secular state. I continue to maintain the importance of outsiders constraining their imperialist instincts, however well-intentioned. It only ever causes mayhem.
I can safely say I would never have reached the conclusion I did and advanced the two-state paradigm had I done as initially instructed and effectively emptied the conflict of its very essence by adopting from the outset a more dispassionate “objective” approach. Of course, objective analysis is vital but, without first acquiring an empathetic understanding of the subjective perceptions – condensed in my recent TEDx talk: it is what I have called “phoney objectivity”.
As a researcher and analyst, I am dependent on the mass media for much of my raw material. I therefore rely on the resolve, skills and integrity of professional journalists such as my fellow panellists. If I want to check out the partisan perspectives, I go to the innately partisan press, where I don’t expect fairness, accuracy, appropriate context or sensitivity. Misrepresenting their foes, if not demonizing them, is sometimes par for the course.
But even with the mainstream media, I’ve found I cannot afford to lower my guard and take their reporting at face value. I have to draw on my own experience and historical knowledge, consult different sources and use my own judgment in appraising their ostensibly untarnished facts and assessing their credibility.
To the extent that they are tarnished, this may not be conscious, for one of the distinguishing features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that almost everyone who engages with it is, or soon becomes, a stakeholder of sorts. Inevitably, this shapes the way we view events. Even the most seasoned of commentators are prone to ‘take a side’.
Sometimes this is quite overt, sometimes it is more subtle – even to the point where we may not actually be aware of it ourselves. Sometimes, the ‘side’ we take may be just an acute frustration with both parties, reflected in such comments as “a pox on both their houses” or “they deserve each other”. But even this is a position and is liable to influence the holder’s take on events.
Replacing indefinite occupation
Directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously, we become players and get trapped in and by our own narratives. What we present as analysis is often veiled advocacy. What we regard as impartial ‘facts’ are frequently selected to comply with our witting or unwitting predilections. Our supposedly neutral future projections may be little more than a product, often self-serving, of our own desires or delusions or despondencies. Developments outside the boundaries of our mental visions or affinities are thus apt to catch us unawares.
Our blinkered visions have consequences. They largely account for our serial failures to foresee almost every seismic event in the region since the 1967 Arab-Israel war, and there have been numerous such events. So, whether as journalists, analysts or everyday bloggers, we are simply not providing the service the public is entitled to expect of us and we need to reflect seriously on why this is so.
I do not hold that it is necessarily the role of the media to promote peace or back one particular outcome over another, but ultimately the end of occupation and an equitable resolution must surely be the common objective. To this end, the Palestinian-American thinker Sam Bahour and I, following the collapse of the Kerry talks some three years ago, proposed that the Israeli government be called upon either to recognize an independent Palestinian state imminently or, pending a future final agreement – whatever and whenever that may be -– grant full civil and political rights in the meantime to everyone living under Israeli jurisdiction. This would replace the indefinite occupation as the legitimate default status quo in the eyes of the international community.
Overcoming historical inhibitions, there is an urgent need for Palestinian and Israeli anti-occupation activists, working together or in parallel, to take an initiative along these lines. If they can devise a common strategy, the rest of the world, including diverse governments and important segments of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian constituencies, would have something concrete to throw its weight behind as an alternative to the current promise of endless strife.