The following article is adapted from Pintak's new book, Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas, published in January 2006 by Pluto Books UK and the University of Michigan Press.
A radical restructuring of the global media landscape and the emergence of information ghettos, in which US and Muslim audiences view policy through conflicting prisms, has transformed Palestine into a marker of Muslim identity among non-Arab Muslims. This development results, in part, from a failure of the Bush administration during its first term to recognize that Washington can no longer say one thing and do another, and has profound implications for future US relations with the Muslim world.
During a whirlwind tour of Asia in the fall of 2003, President George W. Bush met with Indonesian Muslim leaders on the island of Bali. Emerging from the three hour session, Bush turned to his aides and expressed amazement that the Indonesians seemed to believe that Americans saw all Muslims as terrorists. “He was equally distressed,” The New York Times reported, “to hear that the United States was so pro-Israel that it was uninterested in the creation of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, despite his frequent declarations calling for exactly that.”(1)
This moment reflected the yawning gap in worldview, perception and communications that had fed the rise of anti-Americanism in the post-9/11 era. It also vividly drove home the degree to which the Bush administration’s policies and rhetoric – combined with revolutionary media reform – had elevated the question of Palestine from an afterthought in the non-Arab Muslim world to a marker of Muslim identity and measure of attitudes toward the US.
The New Information Ghettos
A host of public opinion surveys since 9/11 have tracked the steady disintegration of attitudes toward the US in the Muslim world, from widespread sympathy immediately after the attacks to almost universal disdain by the summer of 2004. It is a given that this shift has had a dramatic impact on Arab views of US Middle East policy. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the degree to which Arab issues now inform US relations with the peoples of the non-Arab Muslim world.
Palestine has always been a defining issue in the Middle East; a deeply emotional issue for many Arabs and a cause célèbre given at least lip service by even the most reactionary regimes. But in the non-Arab Muslim world, Palestine held no similar lock on the public psyche. The situation is now very different. Iraq may today command headlines around the globe, but a confluence of post-9/11 events have meanwhile elevated the question of Palestine to the level of a marker of Muslim identity, a development with policy implications at least as important as the invasion of Iraq.
This heightened sense of Palestine as a Muslim cause is the result of a revolutionary shift in the international media, which has resulted in a complete restructuring of what Marshall McLuhan called “the global village.” The result is a set of information ghettos whose inhabitants – in the US and the Muslim world – see dramatically different versions of the same reality, much as domestic American audiences are turning to news outlets, such as Fox News, that reinforce their own ideological worldviews.
The emergence of these information ghettos and the rise of Palestine as a marker of identity in the non-Arab Muslim world are critical developments that must be taken into account by those plotting future US policy.
As this article will illustrate, the turning point in non-Arab Muslim attitudes toward Palestine came with Israel’s invasion of the West Bank and Gaza in the spring of 2002, an event that coincided with a confluence of three critical developments: A sense of psychological siege among Muslims as a result of the ‘war on terror;’ the perception of an overtly pro-Israeli shift in Bush administration policy; and, most critically, the emergence of Al Jazeera as a primary source of news in the Middle East and broader non-Arab Muslim world.
Changing Views of Palestine
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and site of the meeting that so perplexed the president, is emblematic of this new view of Palestine and its role as a lens through which non-Arab Muslims perceive US policy.
In the year 2000, a Pew survey reported that 75 percent of Indonesians held a “favorable view” of the US.(2) In the spring of 2002, that figure still stood at 61 percent.(3) But by the spring of 2003 the situation had essentially reversed, with 85 percent of Indonesians surveyed reporting an unfavorable view of the US.(4) With these new attitudes toward the US came a new concern for the Palestinians. In a country where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had never been more than a tertiary issue, 68 percent of those polled in 2003 listed Yasser Arafat as the world figure in whom they had the most confidence. Even more striking, King Abdullah of Jordan, another major player in the Israel-Palestine dispute, came in second at 66 percent.(5) The Middle East was suddenly at the top of the Indonesian agenda.
“There is no other problem which Muslims identify with more than the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Jusuf Wanandi, of Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that same year.(6) It was a huge psychological shift, brought about by the Bush administration’s failure to understand – or at least try to understand – Muslim perceptions of US policy, as well as the apparent inability of the White House to grasp the fact that recent and dramatic changes in international media structures meant the US government could no longer write the script for the global narrative, saying one thing and doing another; nor could it ignore international realities – like the psychological importance of Palestine – that inconveniently conflicted with its domestic political agenda.
Historically, Indonesians never much cared about the plight of the Palestinians. When the first Palestinian Intifada broke out in December 1987, Indonesians barely noticed. The first mention of the crisis in the country’s largest-circulation daily, Kompas, came nine days after the uprising began, in the form of a small photograph from the Associated Press buried deep inside the paper. The caption read: “Beaten – Israeli soldiers on Tuesday hit and kicked a Palestinian youth who was violently protesting in the Gaza Strip. The protests, which have been occurring since 8 December, also broke on the Western side of the River Jordan.”(7) The fact that at least 17 Palestinians had so far been killed by Israeli troops was not mentioned.
Another four days would pass before Kompas again reported on the crisis. The paper was instead dominated by news of riots in South Korea and stories about a scandal involving US presidential candidate Gary Hart and model Donna Rice. With two million Palestinians on strike, shutting down Israel’s economy, widespread rioting and a wave of sympathy attacks against Israeli troops in Lebanon, the paper ran a short wire service article on its foreign page about Arab condemnation of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories.(8) The following day it printed another small wire service story.(9) On Dec. 23, with the shooting deaths of three Palestinians by Israeli forces bringing the death toll for the two weeks of violence to at least 22, the Intifada finally made it to the front page of Kompas. The paper wrote its first editorial on the emerging conflict the same day. While US editorials evocatively described the “clash of dreams and realities” in the Occupied Territories that had left as casualties “Arab lives and Israeli conscience,”(10) Kompas confined itself to an academic history lesson of the past 40 years, which failed to even mention Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem, site of one of Islam’s most sacred mosques, or the fact that the holy city had been declared the Jewish capital. Quoting a political science professor from Hebrew University, the paper dryly explained that there were “basically two opinions” regarding the Gaza Strip and what Kompas called “the West Bank of the Jordan River.” “One thought is the territorial school of thought and the other is more of a sociological school of thought.” Without betraying any opinion on the subject, the paper blandly explained that “the Arab population” of those territories occupied by Israel “think that these areas that they reside in are theirs.”(11)
Not only was the newspaper silent about its own opinion of the violence or the plight of the Palestinians, so too was the Indonesian government and the country’s Muslim community. The White House had sharply rebuked Israel for “harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition” against Palestinian civilians in those opening days of the Intifada,(12) but Kompas reported no similar concerns from the presidential palace of the world’s largest Muslim country, nor did its few articles about the crisis mention local attitudes. The crisis would remain on the front pages of US newspapers and on editorials and opinion pages, with talk of “inhumane conditions” for detainees(13) and the danger that, if it did not resolve the plight of the Palestinians, “Israel will become another South Africa.”(14) A headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune, for example, asked, “Has Israel Lost Its Democracy?”(15) But Kompas neither posed compelling questions nor cast its lot with its fellow Muslims. Nor, apparently, did its readers. Not a single letter to the editor published between December 9 and December 24 mentioned the Palestinians
Kompas exhibited only slightly more interest ten months later in October 1990 when at least 18 Palestinians were killed and more than 150 were injured by Israeli forces after they prevented Jewish extremists from placing a cornerstone for a “Jewish third temple” on the grounds of al-Aqsa Mosque. A small article headlined “Israel Shoots Palestinians” made the bottom corner of the front page, but it was dwarfed by a four-column photograph showing Israeli soldiers fitting children with gas masks in anticipation of missile attacks from Iraq, which was then occupying Kuwait, an image likely to evoke sympathy for Israelis rather than outrage at Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
With the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque closed to Muslims and ringed by Israel troops, a Kompaseditorial still showed little solidarity with the Palestinians or sense of Muslim outrage, noting only that, “Whoever is to blame” for the violence, “the Israeli police have already killed 22 Palestinians and this event can easily cause other bigger events” in the Middle East “and even the whole world of Islam.”(16) An Indonesian picking up the paper three days later would have assumed the crisis had passed. Newspapers in the US were fixated on Israel’s refusal to allow entry to a team sent by the UN Security Council to investigate the shootings, but Kompas had turned its attention elsewhere. Even a demand from President George H.W. Bush that an investigation into whether Israel was responsible for a massacre of Palestinians be “fully implemented” and a warning from Secretary of State James Baker that Israel was in danger of being compared to Saddam Hussein in blocking a UN investigating team(17) passed without mention in Kompas.
The turning point in Indonesia attitudes toward Palestine came 12 years later, in the spring of 2002, when Israel launched its assault on the Occupied Territories in the midst of the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada. Coverage could not have been more different. Images of Israeli tanks on the West Bank dominated the front page of Kompas, news articles quoted Indonesian political figures as denouncing the violence and editorials shouted condemnations of Israel and expressed praise for Palestinian “martyrs.” “The Indonesian government strongly condemns the Israeli military aggression in Ramallah,” read the lead of a front-page story on April 2, 2002.(18) “An unstoppable wave of censure” had erupted in Indonesia, the paper reported the following day.(19) The statements from the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a stark contrast to the silence of the Suharto regime in the first Intifada, were driven by domestic politics. Across the ideological spectrum, Indonesians were attuned to and enraged by the violence unfolding in the Occupied Territories. Where, in the first Intifada, the Palestinians were portrayed as “they,” a sense of “we” now infused the coverage.
A poll conducted in Indonesia by Zogby International in the late spring of 2002, in the midst of the largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 war, found that 65 percent of Indonesians rated Palestine as “the most important” or “a very important” issue. Not even those surveyed in Saudi Arabia gave it more importance. At the same time, 78 percent had an “unfavorable” view of US policy toward the Palestinians and 66 percent supported an independent Palestinian state.(20)
A distant “Arab” event had been transformed into an Islamic cause, galvanizing non-Arab Muslims half a world away. “Palestine’s struggle is a struggle along God’s ways which should be supported by all Muslims since Israel’s Zionism of unbelievers have declared war against the Muslim community,” Majalis Ulamaa Indonesia, the leading Islamic clerics organization, declared.(21) Talk of “crimes against humanity” and “Israeli unbelievers and their terrorizing acts” filled the media. Highly publicized meetings were held in Parliament and the presidential palace. The speaker of Parliament called for the government to “react in a very strong and clear way” and the vice president met the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia to offer his support.(22) The connection between Indonesians and the Palestinians was driven home on another level as well, with Indonesian commentators drawing analogies to their own country’s colonial struggle and pointing out that Megawati’s father, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, “himself was a very tough leader who fought several forms of colonialism.”(23)
Equally significant, political observers were quick to link Israel’s actions to those of the US. Using the American “war on terror” as an excuse to crush the Palestinians, said analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar, was “a dirty way to conquer a political opponent.” If the US failed to reign in the Israelis, she said, it would confirm that “the US view of terrorism is one-sided,” thus undermining the anti-terror coalition.(24)
Why had this dramatic shift taken place? Part of the answer could be found in the “Al Jazeera effect,” named for the Qatar-based television channel that revolutionized the media landscape in the Middle East and beyond. According to Goenawan Mohamad, founding editor of the magazine Tempo and one of the most respected figures in Indonesian journalism, when it came to international news, newspaper editors during the earlier Suharto era “took their lead” from state-run television, which gave almost no attention to the first Intifada.(25) The stories that did air in that period were brief clips from US television networks. By the time the second, or al-Aqsa, Intifada broke out, several things had changed. Suharto’s forced resignation in 1998 had ushered in an era of reformasi, in which most government controls were removed and the country witnessed the birth of a vibrant media sector, with the number of publications growing from 260 to more than 800, television channels increasing from six to 29, and the population of journalists rising from some 6,000 to more than 25,000.(26) At the same time, Al Jazeera had come to the fore in the Middle East, providing a new perspective on the conflicts of that region. Where CNN and other Western television networks had provided Indonesian television with its coverage of previous conflicts, beginning with Afghanistan Al Jazeera supplied the footage and the framing. This new Arab view of war had a profound effect on Indonesian audiences.
A Gallup poll conducted in December 2001 and January 2002 found that 89 percent of Indonesians surveyed called US military action in Afghanistan “morally unjustified”(27) and the suspicion that America was engaged in a crusade against Islam began to take root. Many Indonesians retained their generally positive view of the US, but their sense of identification with fellow Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia was growing, as was their interest in once-distant political events. When Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza in the spring of 2002, Indonesian television provided extensive coverage via the cameras of Al Jazeera, and the print media followed suit, further politicizing the Indonesian body politic. Coverage of the US invasion of Iraq a year later was all-pervasive. One of the aggressive new channels, the Kompas-owned TV-7, stayed on the air 24 hours a day to cover the conflict, carrying Al Jazeera’s coverage live and unedited, complete with Bahasa Indonesia translation, from 11 p.m. until 11 a.m. everyday. The result was new antipathy for both the US and the US media. “We believe Al Jazeera more because what they said about the war is true,” said Suhendro,(28) a Jakarta businessman and mosque leader, who watched both Western channels and Al Jazeera. “They showed us how Iraqi civilians have become the victims of the war. Children, mothers, old people, civilians killed and injured because of their war. I see them losing their hands and legs and other body parts. Scenes I will never see on CNN.”(29)
Words are No Longer Enough
Before Al Jazeera came along, the world saw itself through the prism of the Western -- particularly US -- media, which dominated the global information flow. Stories reflected the worldviews and cultural biases of the primarily American journalists who reported them, employed footage shot and edited from a Western perspective, and followed a broad agenda set largely at the White House. For decades, viewers in the Arab world and beyond had to rely on brief clips on CNN or the BBC for news of their own region, or coverage provided to their terrestrial TV stations by Western news organizations.
By 9/11, Qatar-based Al Jazeera -- which began broadcasting in the late 1990s -- had revolutionized the Arab media scene, replacing the Western networks as the prime source of news about the region; supplying its viewers and terrestrial stations with “hours and hours of uncut footage that was never available before,” notes Salwa Kaana, the Internet editor of the Palestinian daily Al Quds Al Arabi.(30) Suddenly, Arabs and Muslims were seeing vivid and unrelenting images of the impact of US policy in Palestine, Afghanistan, and later Iraq, as seen from an Arab perspective.
The impact in the Arab world was dramatic. But from a US policy perspective, the affect in the broader Muslim world was particularly notable, especially on the question of Palestine. Where the conflicts of the Middle East were once distant events, Al Jazeera brought them into the living rooms of non-Arab Muslims at a time when they had already become more politicized by the ‘war on terror.’ It wasn’t even necessary to have a satellite dish, since terrestrial channels made extensive use of coverage of the Intifada and the US invasion of Iraq by Al Jazeera and its imitators, such as Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV.
As Al Jazeera and the other cross-border Arab channels brought the wars of the Middle East and South Asia into the living rooms of Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia, they increased the appetite for more, which meant that newspapers across the region ratcheted up their coverage as well – the so-called “Al Jazeera effect.”
In an earlier era, the proclivity of successive US administrations to say one thing and do another was, to a large degree, masked behind a veil of media silence. This silence was a legacy of the fact that in the Middle East and many Muslim-majority countries – where the media was (and still is) government controlled – reporters toed the government line, had few resources, and “the concept of television journalism …was virtually nonexistent.”(31) With the arrival of Al Jazeera and its clones, independent Web sites and loosened restrictions on print media in some countries, all that changed. An open, cross-border public sphere arose, freed of dependence on the Western media lens. Now, what America said and what it did was right there for the world to see.
“Our foreign policy is for the development of a Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel in peace and I'm the first president to ever articulate such a vision," President Bush declared, standing on a beach in Bali after that 2003 meeting with Indonesian Muslim leaders.(32) But Indonesians weren’t buying; they had seen on their television screens what US policy toward Israel had wrought on the West Bank and Gaza. In the face of images of dead babies and destroyed homes, words were no longer enough. An administration that prided itself on message management at home was trapped in a communications time warp – applying twentieth century policy communications strategies to a twenty-first century media world. The global village had been subject to urban renewal but the Bush White House was still waiting to sign the construction permit.
To Americans, Vietnam was the first television war. To Arabs and Muslims, Afghanistan and Palestine played the same role. For the first time, images of a conflict were captured by Arab cameras and reported through an Arab and Muslim frame. Most damning for the US, statements by American officials talking of liberty and democracy were often carried over footage of the civilian casualties of war, just as split-screen scenes of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were later matched with Israelis doing the same to Palestinians.
For non-Arab Muslim viewers with little historic connection to the Palestine conflict, these images struck a very sensitive nerve, already rubbed raw by the rhetoric of the war on terror. The plight of the Palestinians became the plight of Muslims everywhere.
A Question of Denial
There was a particular irony in the fact that Palestine became a key measure of political legitimacy for the world’s Muslims. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Israel’s supporters in the US mounted a concerted effort to quash any suggestion that anger over the plight of Palestinians and US support for Israel may have had anything to do with the bombings. “Israel Isn’t the Issue,” read the headline of a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Norman Podhertz of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a consistent defender of Israel.(33) Added David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee: “Only those reaching for the most complicated or conspiratorial theories would reach the conclusion that Israel is somehow central to the story.”(34)
The campaign to head off any identification of US policy toward Israel with the roots of animosity driving anti-American terrorism manifest itself in two ways: Statements like those above further sensitized the antenna of government officials and newspaper editorial writers, exacerbating the traditional reluctance to criticize Israel for the many reasons of politics and culture much written about elsewhere. At the same time, those who did imply even an indirect connection between US Israel policy and the tragedy of 9/11 were quickly denounced as anti-Semites.
Such a seemingly extreme reaction reflected the fact that, “[f]or many Jews, [the] entire situation is terrifying,” as Jennifer Laszlo, a pollster active in Jewish causes, told one reporter.(35) The effort to silence critics was not confined to the US mainland. After Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Indonesian political researcher and presidential advisor, published a column in The Jakarta Post suggesting such a link, the US ambassador to Indonesia, Robert Gelbard, wrote to the paper denouncing her “anti-Semitic and misinformed comments.”(36) This extreme level of defensiveness largely shut down the opportunity to re-examine Arab and Muslim perceptions of American policy toward Israel. The irony was that while Israel’s supporters in the US were dismissing linkage, some Israelis themselves saw the bombings as a clarion call. “The world must at long last treat the festering wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is poisoning the whole body of humanity,” wrote Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery.(37) His voice was lost in a cacophony of denial emanating from official circles in the US and Israel.
No matter how vociferous the denials among Israel’s defenders, they could not change reality; Palestine was, as Shibley Telhami put it, “the prism of pain” through which Arabs saw the world.(38) “Nothing has shaped the Arab mood since the post-World War II [period] more than the developments concerning Palestine,” agreed Egypt’s ambassador to Indonesia, Ezzat Saad el Sayed.(39) Others were even more pointed in their conclusions. “Israel was the real [party] responsible for this bloody tragedy,” Jalal Duwaydar of Egypt’s Al Akhbar newspaper wrote in a column published Sept. 12, 2001. “Washington has sacrificed all its interests, values, resolutions of international legitimacy and principles of international law merely to consolidate the Israeli occupation and injustice.” It was just one of many such comments across the region and beyond – and precisely what Israel’s supporters feared.
Neo-conservatives within the Bush administration would later claim that “the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.”(40) In other words, overthrow Saddam, put the fear of US military might into the minds of other Arab states, and the Palestinian conflict could be solved. This fatally flawed strategy betrayed the ignorance – or conscious denial – of Middle East realities among the neo-conservatives who authored it. Looking back, Gen. Anthony Zinni, the one-time commander of US forces in the region, who President Bush had appointed Middle East envoy in 2002, told an audience, referring to the Iraq invasion: “I couldn't believe what I was hearing about the benefits of this strategic move. That the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true, the road to Baghdad led through Jerusalem. You solve the Middle East peace process; you'd be surprised what kinds of others things will work out.”(41) Yet the administration’s official line did accurately reflect one reality: The existence of a Washington mindset in which every aspect of US Middle East policy was calculated on the basis of how it would affect Israel. In a twisted way, the neo-cons were right: all roads in US Middle East policy did lead to Jerusalem.
There is much debate over bin Laden’s sincerity regarding the Palestine issue. No matter whether it was a cause of convenience for bin Laden or central issue, his rhetoric about the Palestinian struggle, combined with the graphic coverage of the Palestinian crisis by Al Jazeera and other Arab media, brought the issue front-and-center in the succeeding years, feeding anti-American sentiment.
The Israeli-American ‘Us’ against the Muslim ‘Them’
In parallel with the effort to decouple US policy toward Israel from the motivations behind the 9/11 attacks, Israeli leaders sought to use the tragedy to firmly link Israel’s war against the Palestinians with America’s war on terror. “The fight against terrorism is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness that seek to destroy our liberty and our way of life,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sept. 11, 2001, using language that would become the staple of Bush administration rhetoric. “I believe that together, we can defeat these forces of evil.”(42) Writing in the Jerusalem Post Israeli journalist Uri Dan (who also served as Israel correspondent for The New York Post), saw the attacks of 9/11 as ushering in a new era in which
the US will join Israel in a totally new approach to the war against terrorism. A unique situation has arisen in which the dictatorial terrorist threat against both the American democracy and the sole democracy in the Middle East has become crystal clear. This situation will obligate special, more drastic steps to be taken by both countries, both individually and with greater coordination than ever before.(43)
Exactly what Israeli officials hoped such a putative new relationship might mean was evident 24 hours after the attacks of 9/11, when the Sharon government launched the largest Israeli incursion into the West Bank in a year and declared Yasser Arafat to be “our bin Laden.”(44) At first, Bush administration officials refused to allow themselves to be drawn into the Israeli “us and them” dichotomy. Recognizing that it was critical to build a solid coalition with Arab and other Muslim countries, the president, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others distanced themselves from Sharon’s comments and made clear their displeasure at the new Israeli military offensive. “No matter what you might think about the crisis in the Middle East, this is not the way to solve it,” said Powell.(45) To underscore its sensitivity to the dangers that Arabs and Muslims might perceive the American response to 9/11 as a US-Israeli campaign, the White House specifically left the Palestinians off its initial list of terrorist groups to be targeted in the “war on terror” and opened conversations with Arafat, who had quickly denounced the 9/11 attacks and signaled his cooperation.
This issue of what constituted a ‘terrorist’ group would become a political football deftly manipulated by Sharon. In his Sept. 20 Congressional address, President Bush vowed that the ‘war on terrorism’ would continue “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”(46) When Bush gave the speech, he still hoped to include as many Arab and Muslim countries as possible in his new anti-terror coalition. The deliberate choice of the phrase “of global reach” to describe the terror groups being targeted was a pragmatic move meant to reassure these potential Arab and Muslim allies that the US distinguished between al-Qaeda and more localized groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah and others, which many in the Middle East looked upon with sympathy or favor. The decision was made on the basis of what was in America’s strategic interests. Many at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon still wanted to strike back at Hizbullah for the slaughter of Americans in Beirut in the early 1980s, but there was a tacit recognition that in the bigger picture, it was more important to build a broad coalition against al-Qaeda than to get even with the Lebanese Shi’ite group. As part of this new pragmatic approach that sought to reposition the US relationship with the Muslim world, the administration also revisited the thorny issue of the Palestinian conflict.
In early October 2001, after President Bush remarked that, “The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected,”(47) Sharon accused the US and its allies of trying to “appease the Arabs at our expense.”(48) The White House quickly labeled Sharon’s comments “unacceptable,”(49) but in the same statement, merely confirmed what Arabs and Muslims believed they already knew: “Israel can have no better or stronger friend than the United States and [no] better friend than President Bush,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.(50) To many in the Middle East, this served as more evidence of the impermeable bond between the US and Israel. “As the White House spokesman has said, the United States is Israel's best ally and friend in the entire world,” wrote columnist Ahmad Al-Jindi in Cairo’s Al Akhbar.(51) Many Arab media outlets were nonetheless cautiously hopeful the US would continue to move toward a more evenhanded approach to the Palestinian conflict. That expectation was bolstered by a November speech on US Middle East policy given by Secretary of State Powell, in which he painted a picture of Palestinian and Israeli suffering, noting that, “Both sides will need to face up to some plain truths about where this process is heading” and “make hard compromises.”(52)
Yet US resolve to take a new evenhanded approach to the conflict had already begun to fray. The first public sign came in late October 2001 when the Jerusalem Post reported that President Bush had explicitly told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that he now considered Hizbullah a terrorist organization of global reach, “making it clear for the first time that the Iranian-backed group would be targeted in the next phase of the US-led war on terrorism.”(53)
Any remaining Arab and Muslim hopes of US parity in the Middle East would be dashed with Sharon’s visit to the White House in early December 2001. Through the autumn, the Bush administration had publicly kept up its pressure on the Israeli leader to resume negotiations with Arafat, with whom Washington had opened a dialogue. The diplomatic initiative was recognition that the US could not afford to have the Palestinian crisis undermine efforts to bring Arab and Muslim countries into the ‘war on terror’ coalition. However, as Sharon arrived in Washington for what was expected to be a round of meetings in which he would face strong pressure to compromise with Arafat, suicide bombers from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas struck in Haifa and Jerusalem, killing 26 people and injuring more than 150 in retaliation for the earlier Israeli assassination of a leading Hamas official.(54) During an emergency meeting with Sharon at the White House, President Bush denounced the “horrific acts of murder” and demanded that Arafat reign in the radicals.(55) It was the first in a series of pivotal events that would have a serious negative impact on Arab and Muslim perceptions. Washington made clear that the burden for achieving peace now rested firmly on Arafat’s shoulders.(56)
Less than 24 hours later, with Sharon back in Israel, Israel launched a major assault on the Occupied Territories. Helicopter gun-ships pounded positions around the Palestinian leader’s headquarters and targeted the security infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Much to the chagrin of America’s would-be Arab allies, the Bush administration resolutely refused to denounce the latest violence. Israel “obviously has the right to defend itself,” White House spokesman Ari Fleisher told reporters. “The President understands that very clearly.”(57) Colin Powell said the crisis was “a moment of truth” for Arafat and demanded that the Palestinian leader arrest those responsible for the suicide bombings, which, he said, were not only “dastardly acts of terror, they were attacks against his [Arafat’s] authority.”(58)
From the Muslim world, the timing of the new Israeli offensive, the day after Sharon was welcomed at the White House, and the tone of the US response were all evidence of an American “green light”(59) for Sharon’s plan to use the US ‘war on terror’ as cover for his own expansionist goals. “The White House has justified these crimes by saying Israel has the right to defend itself,” noted Al Watan of Saudi Arabia.(60) This perception was driven home by Sharon himself, who, in a nationwide speech the night after returning from Washington, echoed President Bush in declaring that Israel would wage a “war on terror . . . with all the means at our disposal.”(61) The parallels between Sharon’s speech and the language President Bush had been using since 9/11 was so apparent that former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger complained Sharon was “piggy-backing off our own war,” noting that, from the perspective of US interests, “this link to Israel is - can be a problem.”(62) Under any circumstances, this psychological linking of America’s ‘war on terror’ with Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians was an impediment to winning Arab and Muslim support for the US-led coalition. The fact that it was Ariel Sharon with whom the president was seen as siding made matters infinitely worse. Sharon was, without match, the most hated man in the Arab world.
In the coming months, from the perspective of the Muslim world, the Bush administration slid inexorably into the Israeli camp, even as the president dispatched envoys to the Middle East because, he said, “we fully understand that in order to be effective in our fight against terror … we need others to join us.”(63) Both the media and leaders in Arab and Muslim countries warned the US that it was undermining its own interests and that US “support for the current Israeli policy is a strategic blunder.”(64) Pressure on Arafat, who had been confined to his Ramallah compound by Israeli troops since December, continued to build. In early February 2002, against the backdrop of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli attacks in the Occupied Territories, Sharon was back at the White House, being welcomed by the president as “a good friend” who shared “our mutual desire to rid the world of terror.”(65) Though he stopped short of acceding to Sharon’s request that the US cut ties to the PLO, the president promised, “We will continue to keep pressure on Mr. Arafat to convince him that he must take serious concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activity in the Middle East.”(66) Numerous observers across the Muslim world all responded with the same question: “If Palestinian violence is seen as terrorism, what then is Israeli aggression?” asked Malaysia’s New Straits Times reflecting a widely-shared perception of deliberate American myopia.(67) What was evident to Arabs and Muslims was also becoming apparent to some Americans. The Christian Science Monitor observed that “in the wake of the war on terrorism, the yellow "caution" lights the United States once flashed at Israel have largely turned green.”(68)
And the sea of green -- on everything from Israel's isolation and virtual imprisonment of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to its comparison of the struggle with Palestinians to the war on terrorism -- is drawing into question the ability of the US government to be a balanced arbiter in one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.(69)
Despite such perceptions at home and abroad, the Bush administration continued its twin policies of tactic support for Israel’s steadily escalating military campaign in the Occupied Territories and the isolation of Arafat. While the Palestinian leader remained under political and physical siege at his headquarters in Ramallah, Sharon became a frequent visitor to Washington. He was back at the White House in early February 2002, where he declared the time had come to replace Arafat with new Palestinian leadership. At a separate Washington, D.C. news conference, Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer claimed that in a private meeting, Vice President Dick Cheney had said of Arafat, as far as the vice president was concerned “you can go ahead and hang him.”(70) US officials vociferously denied Cheney had ever said such a thing and Ben-Eliezer apologized, but in terms of Arab and Muslim perceptions, the damage had already been done.
The idea that the US had given a green light for the assassination of Arafat was underscored when Sharon and Ben-Eliezer returned to Jerusalem and Israeli jets bombed a Palestinian security complex a few hundred yards from Arafat’s compound.(71) The action was part of a continuing escalation of the violence, punctuated by Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli air raids and ground attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, which also hit UN facilities. So ferocious were the Israeli attacks that the State Department eventually issued a rare criticism of the Jewish state: “Though we understand the need for Israel to take steps to ensure its self-defense, we’re seriously concerned about Israeli attacks over the past several days.”(72) Arabs and Muslims welcomed the comment, but noted that it was carefully couched in language that betrayed what they saw as America’s inherent bias.
As February 2002 wore on, anger in the Arab and Muslim world mounted when Israeli troops invaded Nablus and Gaza City; launched air, ground and sea-borne assaults on Palestinian areas across the Occupied Territories; and sealed off five West Bank cities. Even when Arafat arrested three men accused of assassinating Israeli Interior Minister Rahavam Ze’evi, a key Israeli demand, Arabs and Muslims heard the US blame Arafat for the upsurge in violence, while only mildly rebuking Sharon as “unhelpful.”(73) When Sharon responded to an American call for both sides to “consider their actions and the consequences very carefully” by announcing he would seize Palestinian lands to set up new buffer zones and defeat the “terrorists,”(74) even as Arafat reiterated his call December for Palestinians to cease attacks on Israelis, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said only, “Israel’s right to defend herself is clear.”(75)
Perceptions of Policy
The right or wrong of US policy toward Israel is, in the context of this article, immaterial. The issue is one of perception. Arabs and Muslims saw American statements and actions as concrete evidence of the inherent link between the US ‘war on terror’ and Sharon’s campaign against the Palestinians. By the end of February 2002, as a new wave of suicide bombings prompted yet another round of Israeli attacks, the death toll in the 17 months of violence had reached more than 1,000 Palestinians and 288 Israelis.(76) From the perspective of Arabs and Muslims, the lopsided figures were further evidence of the inherent unfairness of American criticism of Arafat. That was only reinforced in the coming months as Israel mounted the largest invasion of the Occupied Territories since the 1972 Arab-Israeli war, with what appeared to Arabs and Muslims to be tacit US approval. From an American perspective, the administration appeared to be genuinely working for fair and equitable solution. President Bush sketched out a “roadmap to peace,”(77) endorsed a Saudi plan for a broad Arab-Israeli settlement, and dispatched the head of the CIA and his special Middle East envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, to the region. To Arabs and Muslims, the rhetoric that accompanied these putative peace initiatives sent a clear message that it was the Palestinians who must bend to America’s will, even though most of the blood being shed was theirs.
The siege of Ramallah. The assault on Jenin, which left more than 50 Palestinians dead and some 4,000 homeless in what Amnesty International would later label Israeli “war crimes.”(78) The blockade of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity by Israeli forces, who had trapped a group of Palestinian fighters in the birthplace of Jesus. Day after day Arabs and Muslims saw on their television screens and the front-pages of their newspapers images of Israeli tanks and Palestinian bodies, as they heard and read statements from the Bush administration that grew increasingly critical of Arafat and more closely identified with the Israelis. Each time the administration seemed to finally reach its breaking point with the Israelis, such as the president’s early April 2002 declaration that “enough is enough,”(79) it quickly settled back into what Arabs and Muslims saw as a pro-Israel tone. Particularly shocking to Arabs and Muslims was the administration’s adoption of terminology favored by Sharon, such as “homicide bomber,”(80) which the president and his spokesman began using in mid-April to refer to what were more commonly known as suicide bombers. The comment came even as Powell met with Arafat in his battered Ramallah headquarters, ending – for the moment – the administration’s boycott of the Palestinian leader. Yet any positive attitudes toward the US that the Arafat meetings might have produced within the Arab and Muslim body politic were dissipated when President Bush welcomed Powell back to Washington by endorsing Sharon as “a man of peace.”(81)
Critics at home and abroad were stunned. “To have Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Chatilla, believed by many Israelis to be a war criminal, named a “man of peace” by President Bush may be one of the worst misstatements any president has ever made,” wrote Paul ‘Pete’ McCloskey, Jr., a former Republican member of the US Congress from California. “Those words could only infuriate the very people who were most likely to volunteer as suicide bombers against us. Worse, they cause the entire Muslim world to view the United States as the willing abettor of Sharon’s more recent acts of brutality in the occupied territories.”(82)
Weeks later, as Israeli armor and aircraft continued operations in the Occupied Territories and the siege of the Church of the Nativity dragged on, Sharon was back at the White House, where President Bush once more praised his desire for peace and told reporters, “I have been disappointed in Chairman Arafat. I think he's let the Palestinian people down.”(83) The comment fed directly into the Arab suspicion that the ‘war on terror’ was, as the radicals claimed, a Zionist-Christian conspiracy against Islam. By Sharon’s next White House visit a month later, the Palestinian death toll in the Intifada had reached 1,600, including some 300 children,(84) and Arafat was again politically isolated and still physically besieged by Israeli armor. Once more, images of a smiling George Bush welcoming his “friend” Ariel Sharon were juxtaposed on Arab and Muslim television screens with Israeli tanks and Palestinian dead and wounded. Once more Arafat was criticized by the president as an impediment to peace, even as television viewers across the Muslim world saw him a prisoner of the Israeli armor that ringed – and continued to shell – his wrecked headquarters, a beleaguered Arab David facing the Israeli Goliath and its American patron.
By month’s end, as the violence continued unabated, President Bush was standing in the Rose Garden demanding that Arafat, who was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996 with 87 percent of the vote, be replaced by a “new Palestinian leadership.”(85) This time, he expanded the circle of responsibility for ending the violence to the Arab world as a whole, still omitting any mention of Sharon, insisting that Arab countries must “stop the flow of money, equipment and recruits to terrorist groups seeking the destruction of Israel,” and directly equating support for Palestinian militants with support for the Islamist radicals targeting the US: “I've said in the past that nations are either with us or against us in the war on terror.”(86)
It was the final blow. “Both in words and deeds, Bush has demonstrated that by ‘foes’ he means those who see things from an angle different from the American perspective,” said Egypt’s Al Gomhoureya newspaper.(87) Even Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who together with Arafat and Yitzak Rabin won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Oslo peace accord, was reportedly so “revolted” by the president’s speech “that he could not listen to the end.”(88) Writing in the Jordan Times, journalist Rami Khouri gave the US president credit for acknowledging the eventual necessity of a Palestinian state, but said this “heavily camouflaged substantive core” of Bush policy “was so heavily tilted and burdened by Bush's pro-Israeli statements that it has been largely lost.”(89) Perceptions had proved at least as important as policy.
Implications for the Future
Media prophet Marshall McLuhan wrote of a “global village” that would usher in a “homogenization of the planet.”(90) The arrival of Al Jazeera has instead resulted in massive urban renewal in the global village, producing information ghettos whose citizens see reality through their own media prism, rarely exposed to the world beyond their electronic neighborhood.
Indonesia offers a case study in the impact this restructuring of the media has had in the world’s most populous Muslim country, but it is by no means unique. One need only look across the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia, where, in his final speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, outgoing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed -- a strong supporter of US policy immediately after 9/11 -- denounced the West’s “open support for Israeli intransigence and terrorism” against the Palestinians and highlighted the media fragmentation into information ghettos when he charged that Western powers “use their media to hide their misdeeds and spread lies.”(91)
If Palestine profoundly shapes attitudes toward the US 5,000 miles from the Middle East, imagine its grip on the imagination of Muslims living closer to the region, to say nothing of Arabs themselves. The implications for US policy are profound.
The rise of Palestine as a marker of Muslim identity means that the very issue whose import was so widely dismissed after 9/11 is today the key to reversing the rising tide of anti-Americanism. No action holds the potential to shift Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the US more than a fair and balanced effort to create a Palestinian state. Yet even as the Bush administration in early 2005 launched a new effort to resolve the conflict, there remained an overwhelming perception among Muslims that the US opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, despite presidential statements indicating exactly the opposite.
Whether the President will actually spend “political capital” on such an effort in his second term, as he has promised, remains a large question mark as of this writing. However, if he does mount such an attempt, the degree to which it begins to mitigate anti-Americanismespecially if it fails will depend in large part on the degree to which Muslims perceive that the administration’s words and actions are in synch with its stated goals. That, in turn, will be determined by whether the Bush administration adapts to the realities of the 21st Century media landscape, recognizes that the global narrative is no longer written in Washington, and abandons policy approaches in which the US says one thing and does another.