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Jewish World Review May 30, 2001 / 8 Sivan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Did You Have a Nice 'Catastrophe' Day?

A war of words against Israel is paying dividends for the Palestinians -- HOW did you mark May 15 this year? What was May 15, you ask? Why "Catastrophe" Day, of course! What is "Catastrophe" Day? According to most of the international and American media, that's the way to refer to the founding of Israel.

Arabs have referred to the date of Israeli independence as "al Nakba" -- the catastrophe -- for decades. Few Western journalists bothered to use the term until relatively recently. But this year, as the Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel was put into overdrive, it became the popular way to refer to the date.

Most Jews, including those of us who live in the United States, celebrate Israel's independence on the date that it falls on the Hebrew calendar, the fifth of Iyar, which this year fell on April 28.

The acquiescence of the media to the use of the Palestinian Arab propaganda term to refer to the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel in 1948 is just the tip of the iceberg that friends of Israel face in dealing with the current situation.

Words are just words, but they symbolize the uphill battle Israel faces. Some supporters of Israel objected bitterly to the use of the term "West Bank" to describe the territories that were formerly part of the British Mandate of Palestine that Israel took from Jordan in a defensive war in 1967.

The term "West Bank" only made sense if one thought of that land as belonging to the Kingdom of Jordan which from 1948 to 1967 consisted of Eastern Palestine (partitioned from the rest of the country in 1922) on the east bank of the Jordan river, and the lands it conquered in 1948 when it joined the five-nation invasion of Palestine to crush the newborn State of Israel.

Calling that territory "Judea and Samaria" is actually geographically correct, since that land is comprised of those historic regions and was referred to that way for millennia. But following the lead of the Arab-propaganda machine, the Western media -- and, indeed, most of the Israeli media, which wanted to disassociate itself from the land for its own internal political reasons -- kept calling it the "West Bank."

Today, that area is also referred to as the "occupied Palestinian territories," even though most of it is now under the misrule of the Palestinian Authority.

But other words are even bigger problems. Take for example, "martyrdom." Where once the term was reserved for those who suffered persecution, now people who blow up innocent passersby at shopping malls and busy streets are called "martyrs" -- that is, if the bomber is a Palestinian and the people he is blowing up are Jews.

Recently, after yet another Palestinian committed such an atrocity at a mall in the seaside town of Netanya, the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted the mourning for the killer in a headline as "In West Bank, a celebration of martyrdom."

You can't blame the Inqy for reporting the fact that this is exactly how the criminal act was treated by the man's family, as well as Palestinian society in general. But we can blame the paper -- and virtually every other major media outlet -- for having been so co-opted by the Palestinian point of view that they no longer feel the need to place that reporting in any kind of context.

Such context might remind the public that the "martyr" in question -- an "ordinary" guy, according to the newspaper story -- has committed an act of cold-blooded murder. A mention of the fact that this crime was incited by a culture of hatred for Jews would also be useful.

Thus, even on days that the Palestinians commit a despicable outrage,the news from the Middle East is still filtered through the frame of reference of the Arabs. This sort of coverage has enabled the Palestinians to keep up a daily pace of attacks on Israeli civilians while still claiming the role of the oppressed victim.

When Israel strikes back at those who commit terrorism, its defensive actions are discussed by the media as being no different than that of the Palestinians. Indeed, the more the Arabs escalate the fighting, the better they think it's going to be for them in world opinion.

So far, that strategy has worked well to portray the Israelis as the bad guys. But it hasn't resulted in further Israeli concessions. Which brings us to the object of the Palestinian campaign: moving the Bush administration to intervene by pushing Israel to reward the Palestinians for their intransigence.

P.A. leader Yasser Arafat calculated that by refusing former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented concessions last summer, he would be in a position to force a weak Labor government to offer even more. He also figured that by launching a low-level war of attrition (incorrectly referred to by the media as an "intifada," which falsely attributes the fighting to a spontaneous uprising by the Palestinians), he would win sympathy and get more in the long run.

But with both Barak and President Clinton gone from power, Arafat finds himself without the leverage he needs. CNN, NPR and Peter Jennings may still be helping him out, but they don't have the power to move George W. Bush. Dubya may have been elected president with minimal Jewish support, but his unwillingness to gamble his administration's prestige on a failed peace process has worked against Arafat's interests. This stance has tacitly supported the Israeli position that Arafat must end the violence before negotiations can resume.

Even as it suffers defeats in the press on a daily basis, Israel still has one thing going for -- that the president is oblivious to the media and to the conventional wisdom of the day that it peddles. The New York Times is using the fighting to push Bush to adopt Clinton's failed tactics, but the paper's support for this idea may be part of the reason why Bush won't buy into it.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Colin Powell is more enamored of the affection of the chattering classes, who long for the United States to do something to bring Israel to heel. Powell's egregious statement that Israel's actions were "excessive" gave Arafat hope. So, too, would any Powell initiative that sought to pressure Israel in the guise of "evenhandedness." Israel was anxious not to be portrayed as the party which said "no" to Powell's push this week. But even liberal critics of Israel like The New York Times' Thomas Friedman know that, as Friedman said in a column on May 22, Arafat's intransigence is the real obstacle to peace, not Jewish settlements.

Though he is the sole untouchable member of the Cabinet, Powell is alone in this administration when it comes to the Middle East -- and some other major issues as well.

The Palestinians have shown in the last year that they have no interest in a peaceful resolution, except in terms of a complete Israeli surrender. Under the circumstances, the best Israel can hope for is to stay strong and rely on America to remain behind the Jewish state's principled refusal to give in to terrorism.

If Bush stays indifferent to the media and doesn't allow Colin Powell to take American policy off course, then perhaps by next "catastrophe" day, the Palestinians will still be waiting in vain for Israel to be handed to them on a silver platter.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin