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.