Settlement row exposes bias
The Ramat Shlomo controversy was a gift to the Israel-bashing elements in the British press
No one disputes that the announcement of plans to build 1,600 new homes in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo, during the visit of US vice-president Joe Biden to Jerusalem early this month, was a blunder of the first order.
Not only did it cast an ugly pall over Washington-Jerusalem relations, it provided an excuse for Israel's critics in the media (in the US, London and Israel itself) to engage in unrestrained bashing of the Netanyahu administration and settlement policy. It also has led to rioting in and around Jerusalem and the loss (last weekend) of some young Palestinian lives.
What it has also demonstrated is that the British media, in particular, rarely miss the chance to focus hostile attention on Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza, with The Independent struggling with low budgets - but with plenty of people on the ground in the Middle East - often leading the charge.
One of the least edifying aspects of the reporting, especially by columnists, is the failure to make distinctions between settlements, the status of Jerusalem and activities in Ramat Shlomo, which, until now, have not been regarded as a huge bone of contention.
The reality is that Ramat Shlomo may have made international headlines but it is not a new settlement. As Honest Reporting points out, it was founded in 1995, is largely populated by strictly Orthodox Jews and is located in North Jerusalem adjacent to other Jewish neighbourhoods although beyond the Green Line.
What has been lacking from much of the coverage is any kind of context
Moreover, at no time has the Israeli government offered to modify its policy on Jerusalem. As Prime Minister Netanyahu asserted in Washington this week: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital".
A survey of UK broadsheet coverage of the diplomatic row by monitoring group Just Journalism uncovered basic weaknesses. The papers failed to acknowledge that the precondition that peace talks can only take place if there is a settlement freeze is new; that Netanyahu, for all his faults, is a politician seeking to hold together a fragile grip on power; and that new settlement building does not preclude undoing what has been built, as was proved with the Israeli pull-out from Gaza in 2005.
What has been lacking from much of the coverage is any kind of context. Chris McGreal, writing in The Observer last weekend, described the proposed development at Ramat Shlomo "as ethnically exclusive housing".
Philip Stephens in the Financial Times scolded Israel, saying its "intransigence over East Jerusalem mirrors a refusal last year to offer more than a partial building moratorium on the West Bank".
A dispatch in The Times sought to understand the issues better through the eyes of the residents. It found that for the 18,000 strictly Orthodox inhabitants, "the commotion over the new building is unwelcome and unwanted publicity".
The paper quoted one resident, mother-of-six Leah Goldstein, as saying that if only the authorities had waited, "the whole world wouldn't be talking about it. Then we could have had our houses already".
Conservative writer Brett Stephens, in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, noted: "It is easy to dislike the settlements and easier to dislike the settlers". But he argued that the problem is that the core Israel-Palestinian dispute is not territorial but existential, and that Palestinians have not yet reconciled themselves to "living with a Jewish state alongside theirs".
Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, not known for overwhelming pro-Zionist sympathies, pointed out that while extension of Ramat Sholmo may have been clumsy, it was less offensive than the dedication of a square in the West bank town of El Bireh to the 19-year-old terrorist, Dalal Mughrabi. "What confidence can Israelis have in a people who honour the 1978 murder of innocents?" Cohen asked.
Very little one presumes. But in the reporting the Middle East coverage, it is the zeitgiest which counts. Washington chose to make Ramat Sholmo an issue and the international media grabbed the bait hook, line and sinker.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail