I was going through some very old CNN tapes yesterday and came across a quote from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 1987 during a visit to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In a speech that I covered, Shultz encouraged the Israelis to take a risk for peace. What struck me about that quote is that it was almost exactly what President Obama said this week about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“I think he’s willing to take risks for peace….”). Twenty-three years later and the U.S. is still saying the same thing to Israel.
Headlines from twenty-three years ago spoke of “Hope for Peace Talks” but it’s now clear that there never was any hope by anyone informed of the true situation. And can journalists really use the term “peace process” to describe the fruitless attempts at meaningful talks that have taken place decade after decade in the Middle East? There ought to be a more realistic, truthful term to describe the situation. “Peace process” has a nice sound to it, and serves as a reminder what the desired goal ought to be, but there’s no peace and no process, just a seemingly endless series of fits and starts.
A cynic might wonder whether U.S. politicians ever really cared about peace in the Middle East. One problem is that even if American officials wanted to do something meaningful, they can never get very far without running up against political reality. A first-term president is thinking about re-election and usually the main issue is the economy, not the Middle East. A second-term president is often a lame duck, and the politicians who are candidates to replace him do not place the Middle East at the top of their agenda because that’s not what wins them the votes they need. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian situation is on the front burner, it won’t receive much American attention.
Which brings us to the news media. Since politicians won’t focus enough on the Middle East to make a difference, journalists need to. Journalists need to keep focusing public attention on the human suffering in that part of the world, and on the cynical exploitation of it by local politicians. European news media do a much better job of this than American news media. American journalists oversimplify complex developments, often playing up the viewpoint of Israel, America’s ally, or getting sidetracked by trivial issues. Journalists need to report more seriously and more in-depth on the historical context for each news development. You can’t understand the Middle East without understanding history, and since our schools don’t teach enough history, the American public often learns about the world and its past largely through the news media — which is a sad commentary and one that doesn’t offer much hope for the future.
(Knesset, White House photos)