It's the economy, stupid

UK journalists are reluctant to report the economic progress being made on the West Bank


Former prime Minister Gordon Brown always regarded building the economy and institutions as the best path to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But it is a view that has never found great favour in the British media, which is obsessive about settlements (even when they are in urban Jerusalem), the IDF's alleged human rights abuses and the blockade of Gaza.

A new report by the media monitoring group, Just journalism (JJ), seeks to look at events in the region through a different prism. It charges that the British media systematically ignores the economic progress being made on the West Bank under the stewardship of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and contrasts it with the more favourable reporting in the US press.

This is the first major JJ report since a youthful New Yorker, Michael Weiss, took over as executive director in the spring. In its effort to maintain a studied neutrality, it includes an introduction by Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. JJ looks to be keen to rebuild its credibility as a balanced monitor rather than echo some of the brash Zionist tone of some of its rival media watchers.

What the JJ report establishes beyond doubt is that the American broadsheets, led by The New York Times (NYT) and Wall Street Journal, take Fayyad's efforts much more seriously than their UK counterparts. The tone of much of the American coverage has been set by the optimism of NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, an exponent of globalisation, who argued in a column in August 2009: "Fayaddism is based on the simple but all too-rare notion that an Arab leader's legitimacy should be based not on slogan or rejectionism or personality cults, or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services."

The British press is obsessed with settlements and the Gaza blockade

The JJ report looks closely at the reporting of the 38-page Palestinian White Paper which outlined plans for "shelter, education and health insurance" in an emergent Palestinian state. It was reported by the NYT in detail and included praise from the Israel side of the security fence. The Financial Times, which might have been expected to take the study seriously, ignored it at first and instead carried a leading article arguing that "Netanyahu's peace is a cynical evasion" for focusing on the economic track.

The Israeli Embassy went on the offensive in the shape of a letter to the FT and a subsequent opinion article placed in The Daily Telegraph by ambassador Ron Prosor which sought to restore the balance. Indeed, this is a message which Prosor has been trying to put across since his arrival in London. At a private briefing dinner for UK-based reporters Prosor's message, which found few mentions in the British press, was all about building stronger institutions in the West Bank and strengthening economic bonds.

JJ notes that both The Times and The Independent did report on the Fayyad plan but cast it in a negative light. A significant breakthrough for Fayyad, noted in the US press prominently, was his appearance at this year Herzliya conference in February where, not surprisingly, Robert Fisk, in a special report for the Indy, was disparaging.

The Guardian Comment is Free website at least sought to place it in context with an article by Yousef Munayyer seeing Fayyad as the natural successor to President Abbas. But he wondered if the technocrat will ever acquire the legitimacy "to pull a nation together".

Amid all the media coverage of the violence around the botched Gaza blockade, more positive attention is often ignored. Reuters reported that the Israeli military has partially opened Highway 44, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to Palestinians - an important economic lifeline. But it also pointed out that access to Ramallah, the West Bank's economic and administrative centre, will not be allowed.

Jerusalem might still need some persuading before fully buying into America's enthusiasm for Fayyadism.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 1:29pm, June 3 2010