Does the Path to Middle East Peace Stop in Doha?

Al Jazeera's influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

It is no secret that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more deadlocked than at any time since President Obama took office. But as if an intractable Israeli prime minister, a divided Palestinian leadership, and an overburdened American administration were not enough, there remains an additional obstacle whose influence on the conflict has not previously been fully acknowledged or understood: Al Jazeera.

Founded in 1996, the Qatar-based channel has become the most widely watched station in the Middle East and a subject of fascination to many Western analysts. The news network has made its mark in the Arab world through hard-hitting journalism, heated debate programs, and a willingness to examine both sides of an issue—all with a touch of sensationalism. For a region long blanketed in overt state censorship, Al Jazeera’s more freewheeling coverage has been welcomed by many viewers.

The channel’s tremendous popularity has also, for better or worse, made it a shaper of public opinion. Its coverage often determines what becomes a story and what does not, as well as how Arab viewers think about issues. Whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, the stories highlighted and the criticisms aired by guests on Al Jazeera’s news programs have often significantly affected the course of events in the region.

In Palestine, the station’s influence is particularly strong. Recent polling indicates that in the West Bank and Gaza, Al Jazeera is the primary news source for an astounding 53.4 percent of Palestinian viewers. The second and third most watched channels, Palestine TV and Al Arabiya, poll a distant 12.8 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The result of Al Jazeera’s market dominance is that it has itself become a mover and shaker in Palestinian politics, helping to craft public perceptions and influence the debate. This has obvious implications for the peace process: how Al Jazeera covers the deliberations and the outcome of any negotiated agreement with Israel will fundamentally shape how it is viewed—and, more importantly, whether it is accepted—by the Palestinian public.

No recent event has better highlighted the influence Al Jazeera wields in the Palestinian territories, and the resulting challenge it poses for American diplomacy, than the fiasco surrounding the Palestinian Authority’s handling of the Goldstone Report. Led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, a UN panel charged with investigating potential war crimes in the 2009 Gaza conflict found Israel responsible for a range of violations. The controversial findings raised hopes across the Arab world that Israeli leaders would finally be held accountable under international law. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, feeling the heat of American pressure, agreed to defer discussion of the report at the UN Human Rights Council. It was a decision that he would come to regret.

In pressuring the Palestinian Authority (PA) to delay discussion of the report, the Obama administration assumed that it could avoid a potentially damaging distraction from its efforts to reopen talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Abbas, siding with this view, seemed to believe that whatever domestic political price he paid for submitting to American pressure would be worth the goodwill it earned him in Washington. But these assumptions were wrong. Discussion of Abbas’s “capitulation” to Washington came to dominate Arab satellite news coverage, and the popular outrage that ensued gave rise to calls for Abbas’s resignation and forced even his own Fatah party to condemn the decision. Abbas ultimately reversed his position, having witnessed his credibility with the Palestinian (and broader Arab) public fall to a new low.

In underestimating the consequences of ignoring the report, both Washington and the PA failed to take Al Jazeera’s influence into proper account. The channel made the issue a primary focus of its news coverage for several days, quickly turning the decision into the biggest story in the Arab world since Barack Obama’s election. The report was the topic of discussion on Ma Wara Al-Khabr—the channel’s primetime show—on five of the six nights that followed the announcement of the decision; it also served as the topic of discussion for popular talk shows such as Akthar Min Ra’i, Min Washington, and Al-Itijah Al-Muakis.

During each of these shows, as well as every night on the channel’s popular eleven o’clock news program, guests condemned the decision as a humiliation and characterized those who made it as enemy collaborators. Al Jazeera quickly became a platform for anti-Abbas criticism. As always, Al Jazeera gave time to those representing both sides of the issue, but the overriding tone conveyed in the channel’s programming was unmistakably hostile to the PA’s decision. It was a tone that was at once in line with, and reinforcing of, broader Arab and Palestinian sentiment. In one typical newscast, Abd Al-Bari Atwan, the hardline editor of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, demanded that Abbas resign and even called for the prosecution of PA leadership. This sentiment was soon echoed on the Palestinian streets, as posters calling for the president’s resignation covered walls in Hamas-controlled Gaza and even appeared in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Al Jazeera’s intensive focus on the issue also forced its more moderate competitors—namely Al Arabiya—to extend their own coverage, thus rendering impossible PA efforts to downplay its importance. Fatah was sent reeling, as key party leaders publicly distanced themselves from Abbas’s decision and the PA’s ambassador to Egypt resigned in protest.

The Qaddoumi incident provides another indication of Al Jazeera’s substantial influence in affecting Palestinian public opinion and its politics more broadly. In July of last year, prominent Fatah member Farrouq Al-Qaddoumi made a surprise announcement at a press conference in Amman, Jordan, declaring that Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan had conspired to kill Yasser Arafat. Qaddoumi’s inflammatory and brazen accusations were backed up by documents of questionable authenticity. Many Palestinian analysts quickly concluded that the supposed evidence was fabricated. Other observers argued that Qaddoumi’s claims merely represented a cynical move to undermine Abbas, his long-time political rival, and bolster his own power within the organization on the eve of a major Fatah party conference in August.

Although several local Palestinian news outlets reported on the accusations, Al Jazeera’s heavy coverage was what truly inflated the story. Ma Wara Al-Khabr focused two successive shows on the subject, and the scandal was also hotly discussed on the weekly Al-Itijah Al-Muakis program. Additionally, the channel recorded a nearly fifteen-minute one-on-one interview with Qaddoumi, allowing him additional airtime to reiterate his accusations, and headlined the Qaddoumi story for several days straight as part of its regular hourly news coverage. The other major Arab TV network, Al Arabiya, barely focused on the story at all.

Al Jazeera’s coverage was enough to blow the story up. An already divided Fatah leadership found itself forced to deny the allegations and to wage a counter-attack on the credibility of Qaddoumi himself, calling the estranged Fatah leader “deranged” and “hysterical.” Abbas and Dahlan also waded into the fray, with the latter not-so-subtly questioning Qaddoumi’s mental sanity. The Palestinian Ministry of Information even went as far as to shut down the Al Jazeera office in the West Bank (the only TV channel that they chose to target), accusing it of “inciting against the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority” with its heavy coverage of the Qaddoumi allegations.

Although the allegations would certainly have still made a stir if not for the attention of Al Jazeera, the channel’s prolonged coverage helped to provide legitimacy for the conspiracy theory by presenting it as worthy of extended debate and discussion. The consequence of the channel’s intensive focus on the issue was a further weakened Fatah with an even greater domestic credibility deficit. Indeed, an online poll conducted between the 14th and the 17th of July on Aljazeera.net is particularly telling in the picture it paints of the channel’s influence in shaping public opinion. Of nearly 21,500 votes cast, an astonishing 92.3 percent of respondents believed that Qaddoumi’s allegations were credible.

Whether with the Goldstone report or the Qaddoumi incident, the channel’s influence in shaping Palestinian public opinion is clear. It is a reality that has obvious implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Al Jazeera’s coverage of any future deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians will fundamentally impact the way it is viewed amongst the Palestinian public. The criticisms it highlights, the guests it interviews, and the particular focus of its coverage has the potential to play a major role in whether Palestinians accept a deal—or reject it.

For Americans seeking to understand Al Jazeera’s role in shaping public opinion, it is perhaps useful to compare the channel to Fox News or MSNBC. Al Jazeera largely reports the facts, but in choosing which stories to highlight and which guests to invite on regularly, it betrays a certain political perspective. Of course, whereas Fox News and MSNBC operate in a highly competitive media environment, Al Jazeera is the main source of news for a majority of Palestinians and is the most popular television channel in the Arab world. This maximizes its influence. Indeed, Al Jazeera’s dominance of the Arab media makes it a political force unto itself. In no place is this more true than in the Palestinian arena, where it focuses much of its news coverage and where its market share is particularly strong.

In the years following the signing of the historic Oslo Accords, Hamas tried to derail the peace by sending suicide bombers into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in order to undercut popular faith in the agreement. In today’s environment, such extremes may be unnecessary. If Al Jazeera’s coverage of a future accord is sufficiently critical, the resulting Palestinian skepticism could be enough to doom any peace agreement before it even has a chance to succeed.

Noah Bonsey and Jeb Koogler are the co-authors of this piece. Noah Bonsey is an Arabic media analyst based in Qatar. Jeb Koogler is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.