Wednesday, October 12, 2005

BBC's Elusive Peace: Elusive Translation, Elusive BBC

On Monday night, PBS broadcasted the BBC's three-part series on the last five years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "Elusive Peace: Israel and the Arabs". I caught most of past 2 and all of part 3. Lots of interesting high level interviews, but unfortunately, lots of bad things.

This particular program reflected several BBC theories, none of them new. The first is the theory of Israel-Arab history which holds that Labor politicians are rational and Likud members are nuts. The BBC's history of the conflict, Israel and the Arabs: 50 years of War, also made by Norma Percy, tended to present that history as a series of attempts by Labor politicians to make nice with Labor always getting screwed by hardliners like Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin, and so on. Arabs moderates are usually favored, as they are here in a scene where the documentarian describes the Beirut Summit in which the Arab League offered recognition to Israel in return for withdrawal to the 1967 borders (and, the documentarian forgot to mention, recognizing the right of return).

The second is the theory of Yasir Arafat as pathetic know-nothing. The BBC claims that Arafat did not know about Hamas bombings, could not stop them, and wasn't given any help by Israel anyway. Arafat does not exactly come off well here.

Though my Hebrew is not by any means perfect, I noticed a lot of suspicious translations. The most glaring:

When Ariel Sharon talked of Eretz Yisrael in a clip of the famous Herzilya speech where the Disengagement plan was unveiled, it was translated as "Greater Israel".

When Israeli leaders talked about the targeted assassinations of various Hamasniks, the word "La'harog", which means "to kill", was translated as "to murder".

When Sharon referred to Yehudah v'Shomron, it was translated as the "West Bank".

There are doubtless others, and I believe that these are not honest mistakes. The account of Jenin was also troubling. The Israeli soldier viewpoint consisted of one guy who looked an awful lot like a dissident saying that they were told beforehand to go in and destroy everything, and then, saying that thought the scale may have been exaggerated, later reports found that over 50 Palestinians had been killed. Of course, there nothing wrong with his inclusion, but when he is the only soldier interviewed, it's a problem.

Here, the BBC played Labor off against Likud. Peres says that the problem with Jenin was that it looked worse than it actually was and for that reason, he thought Sharon should have let in the UN inquiry while Mofaz (who ultimately won over Sharon) says he thought allowing in the UN would have been betraying his soldiers.

(A matter the BBC did not bring up, it seems, is the UN's choice of Maarti Ahtisaari to lead the delegation. According to a new memoir by Pedro Sanjuan, a former UN undersecretary general, Ahtisaari was always antagonistic toward Israel and did not, at least in the 1980s, believe its existence was justified.)

At another point, the Fuad Ben Eliezer says that when the Cabinet debated whether to hit Raed Karmi, he told the Cabinet that the time to take him out had probably passed and that it might do more harm than good.

There was some remarkable footage of Mofaz and Mohammed Dahlan speaking at the Aqaba summit.

Yasir Arafat comes out mixed. The documentary claims he did not have control of Hamas. Colin Powell, who describes himself as, in the weeks before President Bush's speech in June 2002 calling on the Palestinians to elect new leadership, Yasir Arafat last friend, says he finally lost faith in Arafat. Yasir Abed Rabbo describes the last meeting betweeen Arafat and Powell as a fiasco and even admits that Arafat tried to convince Powell that some of the suicide bombings were the work of Israeli intelligence. Abed Rabbo's body language suggests that even he thought Arafat was losing it by then.

From a Hasbara standpoint, I believe the documentary illustrates a structural disadvantage we face because of the extreme openness of the Israeli government. Israeli leaders are willing to disagree on core issues in public. Cabinet meetings are open to the public. This allows the news media to choose to play off one side against the other and impedes the goal of core message.

A positive in all of this is that while certain decisions were contested at the time, there seems to have been no lingering resentment. Shimon Peres and Fuad Ben-Eliezer are not seen lamenting the invasion of the West Bank in 2002. There is no disagreement on the fundamental need to fight terror. This is a good sign, and it means that it should be possible to find enough commonalities to put out a clear coherent message that transcends the daily political disputes.


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