Can the British media understand nuances?

By Yair Lapid, February 18, 2011
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Gentlemen (and ladies) of the British press, may I offer you a deal? The offer lasts until the close of this article. (Regular readers of the JC, please bear with me; though you are not the specific readership for this offer, the substance of it concerns us all).

The deal (you know what they say about us Jews, we love deals) goes as follows: you can maintain whatever opinion you hold on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - which, from a strictly statistical perspective, puts me on rather shaky ground since, as British journalists, you are probably pro-Palestinian.

In return, you agree to concede that, even from where you sit, the situation over here in the Middle East is complicated.

After all, this is a conflict with far-reaching implications not just for this one small territory but for democracy, international relations, the combating of global terror, oil and the world economy, the future of Iran, religious freedom, etc. In fact, for a great many of the vexing issues facing the world at large.

Just consider what would happen if Hamas borrowed the IDF for 48 hours

Our problem as journalists, however, is that we do not like complicated issues, do we? C'mon, it's just us media folks here, so let's face it, modern journalism looks at intricacies the way the lions looked at Daniel: one glance and they knew he was not digestible. We all know the rules. Not only does the story have to be short (49 seconds on-air or 450 words on the Opinion page), it also has to conform to the basic rules of drama: good versus bad, right versus wrong, the mighty evil-doers bashing the underdogs. And Robin Hood can't possibly be the bad guy. In all good stories, the message is a simple one.

And, of course, every picture tells a (simple) story. A homeless child covered with blood; a soldier holding a sub-machine gun. Even captions are unnecessary.

With such straightforward messages, solutions, too, are clear-cut. In the Middle East context, the simple answer is: "Dismantle the settlements, give the Palestinians their state and then everything will be just fine and dandy."

As it happens, I agree that the settlements should be dismantled, as do the majority of Israelis. This is clear from opinion poll after opinion poll. Maybe it is worth reminding you that Israel has already agreed (twice!) to give the Palestinians 97 per cent of the occupied territories, and they declined. I don't understand why, but they did. So, if it was that simple, it would have been settled a long time ago.

If you are still finding it hard to stick to the deal and admit that the situation is complex, let me concede one of those simplistic generalisations, this time one that is politically incorrect: that Jews are very intelligent. Well, if that is so, then surely the people who gave the world Jesus of Nazareth, Freud, Kafka and Einstein - not to mention Google, Facebook and a hugely disproportionate number of Nobel laureates - would have sorted out this tragic mess by now.

But generalisations are lazy and patronising. Wouldn't you find it just a bit irritating if the Israeli press had been constantly berating you over the years with: "Oh, for the love of God, why not just give the Catholics/Nationalists in Northern Ireland whatever they want and get this over with?"

Yes, I know, it's not that simple.

Real, historical, ethnic and national conflicts are not fairy-tales. Sometimes, the "mighty" is an isolated democracy, with all its faults but struggling to uphold human values. Sometimes, too, the "underdog" comes in the shape of Hamas - an Islamic fundamentalist body that oppresses women, hangs homosexuals, and has declared Jihad on all Jews, blaming them for all the world's ills including the Holocaust and 9/11.

If, like me, you have complained about the excessive use of force by the Israeli army, just consider what would happen if Hamas were to borrow our armed forces for just 48 hours? If you find that hard to answer, there are clues: from Darfur to the Twin-Towers, from Afghanistan to the London tube.

The two-state solution is, and has been for some time now, the declared policy of successive Israeli governments. But questions remain. To whom are we actually giving the Palestinian state? How can we secure ourselves from terror? What would prevent the new state from becoming another Iranian proxy on our Eastern border, alongside Hizbollah in the north and Hamas in the south?

All these are weighty questions, and resolving them requires risk-taking, careful and painful decision-making, a delicate balance, patience and wisdom on both sides. For me, this is not a matter of sound-bites or intellectual games. For me, this is my life, and it is bloody complicated.

So, that's the deal. Simple, isn't it?

Yair Lapid is a leading Israeli broadcaster and columnist. He will be talking about his new book, 'Memories After My Death' - about his father, Tommy Lapid, at Jewish Book Week on March 6

Last updated: 11:03am, February 18 2011