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Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Just Journalism director Michael Weiss | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq al-Awsat- Michael Weiss is an American journalist, and contributing editor of Tablet magazine. Having received a BA in History from Dartmouth College in 2002, Weiss has gone on to write extensively on the Middle East, with particular expertise on the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights issues. His work has been featured in many prestigious publications in both the United States and Britain, including The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, where he currently contributes a regular blog on Middle Eastern issues.

Besides journalism, Weiss is also actively involved in political research, and works for two independent think tanks in London. He is currently Director of Communications for The Henry Jackson Society, and serves as the spokesperson for Just Journalism. Weiss also had a brief foray in the political arena in 2004, when he stood as a candidate for the New York State Assembly.

Asharq al-Awsat recently spoke with Michael Weiss to glean his insight into the current events in the Middle East, with particular reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Weiss offered his views on the Western media perception of Arab events, the probable outcome of developments in Syria, and what lies ahead for Palestine and the peace process. The following is the full text from the interview:

[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your educational background?

[Weiss] I’m an American and grew up in New York City, where I spent most of my life excepting university – I studied at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – and before hopping it to London a little over a year ago.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What led you into journalism?

[Weiss] A lack of ability for anything else, really. I’m lousy at maths, I have an awful bedside manner, and I anticipate being sued more often in life than doing the suing my life. Also, I wanted to be a writer from a very young age and perhaps made the mistake we all do when we enter this field, of thinking of it in romanticised terms. Every man an Orwell. (We forget what Orwell had to go through to be an Orwell, of course, and how rare that species of reporter was.) In my case, I got into journalism at a point in history when the profession no longer really exists, or at least hasn’t decided its own future.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What made you want to specialise on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Middle East?

[Weiss] This is the one subject you can spend all your life studying and still not understand, so it seemed the most challenging to me. Also — and this is probably something my readers and critics would be better placed to answer — I don’t see this conflict in tribalistic or emotional terms. I see it as misconstrued or misreported from both “sides”.

For instance, when I got to London, I found it a terrific irony that for all the sympathy the UK press has with the Palestinian cause, almost nothing was being said about one the tangible achievement in advancing that cause: Salam Fayyad’s state-building programme. I interviewed Fayyad in 2009 and found him incredibly impressive. Since then, I’ve written or co-written four or five articles about the progress of this programme, calling attention to what’s happening in the West Bank, not just improved security and economic development but also the normalisation of Palestinian society. I thought this was the biggest story out of the Middle East in the last two years, prior to the Arab Spring, and yet not very well covered in Britain.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about the purpose of the Henry Jackson Society?

[Weiss] We’re a London-based think tank that seeks to promote democracy and human rights abroad. A lot of people wonder why a British organisation is named for US Senator, but Henry Jackson was integral in embedding human rights to US foreign policy toward the Soviet Union.

[Asharq al-Awsat] As Director of Communications and Public Relations; what exactly does your job entail?

[Weiss] Making sure we’re talked about, or appear, in the media. Also helping our staff pitch and craft articles based on their research. At the moment, I’m actually heading up the research end of the organisation as well.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Can you tell is a little about “Just Journalism”?

[Weiss] It’s a media monitor organisation that looks at how Israel-Palestine is covered in the UK press. We start from the premise that there’s a skewed and disproportionate portrayal of the issue. It’s not really about factual inaccuracy (although that enters into it sometimes) but more about editorial framing of stories. The ‘Palestine Papers’, for example, was a perfect instance whereby The Guardian had un-remembered [sic] all its prior reporting on a final status agreement and, for the sake of salacity or sensationalism, act as the PA had sold out by compromising and negotiating — doing what everyone knew it’d been doing for 10 years.

The Arab Spring, I think, vindicated much of what we’d been saying. We recently published a report quantifying all the news and editorial coverage given to four Middle Eastern countries — Israel, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — by the five major broadsheets — The Times, The Guardian, The FT, The Telegraph and The Independent — and the BBC News website. We found that total news pieces on Egypt, Libya and Tunisia combined amounted to less than total news pieces on Israel. At the BBC News website, coverage of the Arab countries combined and doubled still amounted to less than was written about Israel.

You don’t have to accept the occupation or admire Israeli policy to think that something’s journalistically “off” about these statistics.

Just Journalism also puts a focus on Fayyadism for reasons I mentioned above.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What was your motivation behind becoming a candidate for New York State Assembly in 2004?

[Weiss] Well, there was no chance I’d win — the New York State Assembly had a 99% incumbent re-election rate — but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see politics from the inside. Also, I was 24 years-old and this beat any other gig I might have had at the time.

I didn’t do so terribly. I remember my campaign raised about $15,000 and I polled 33%. The guy in the adjoining district to mine raised $100,000 and he didn’t break out of the single digits.

My opponent didn’t even dip into his war chest to campaign, so sure was he of his victory. New York state politics is still very much run the way it was during Tammany Hall. What a shame Anthony Weiner’s dirty pictures on Twitter didn’t lead to a Tahrir Square moment in Times Square.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Do you wish to pursue a political career in the future?

[Weiss] No. The experience was fun but it turned me off a career politics completely. I’m not a good glad-hander and baby-kisser, I’m afraid. Much more my speed is scandalising politicians.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What effect will the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation have on the prospects of peace for Israel and Palestine?

[Weiss] I’m deeply skeptical that there is in fact anything to reconcile. Hamas hasn’t forgotten that it’s Hamas just because it signed a piece of paper. On the ground in Gaza, calls for measurable progress toward reunification are still being met with brute violence. Youth protestors were badly beaten up on May 31, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

Also, Fayyadism can’t sustain itself if Hamas are allowed to dictate policy in the West Bank. You’ll recall that several months ago, at an academic ceremony in Ramallah, Fayyad gave a speech about the need for Palestinian education reform in which he called for modernising the curriculum and teaching men and women to interact with each other as they would in a corporate board room. Hamas called this the promotion of “pornography” and a “war on Islam.”

In essence, you have two competitive and diametrically opposed interests in Palestinian politics. One wishes to see another Dubai created in the Middle East. The other wishes to see another Somalia. How can the two be reconciled?

[Asharq al-Awsat] What effect has the Arab uprising had on Arab/Israeli relations?

[Weiss] It’s had more of an impact on internal Palestinian dynamics, at least symbolically.

The uprisings clearly fomented the Hamas-Fatah deal but in a very interesting and, I think, outmoded fashion. It shows how slow diplomacy is in catching up to historical events.

This deal [was concluded] with the joint production of Egypt and Syria, the two countries that have always used the Palestinian national cause as a way of distracting from their own internal turmoil. Nasser created the PLO as a way of “reclaiming” the cause from Fatah’s feyadeens, which had melded into the Syrian military intelligence apparatus. This preceded the PLO’s transformation into an umbrella of feyadeen organisations, of which Fatah of course became the most predominant.

Plus ca change…. After the Egyptian and Syrian people have called for an end to militaristic dictatorships, and risked life and limb to see that end, their governments are still acting as if Nasser was in power and Hafez al-Assad was Minister of Defence and both men were playing the same game of geopolitical chess.

Only now the pieces have changed. Egypt needs to appease the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to win the largest bloc of parliamentary seats in the next election and wants its sister group Hamas to have the upper hand in Palestine. Assad, meanwhile, still thinks he can convince the West — despite killing 1,600 of his own people, jailing 10,000 more and making another 12,000 into refugees — that he’s still the linchpin for Arab-Israeli peace. This is why the United States hasn’t called for Assad’s resignation and is still talking about his potential for “reform.”

Significantly, the outline of the Fatah-Hamas deal is no different from what Abbas offered Hamas last October. So why did Hamas go for it now? Because Assad realises that Khaled Mishal won’t be allowed safe haven in Damascus if the regime implodes and he’s still hoodwinking the West that only he can bring Hamas to heel. There isn’t much time left to declare a “victory” for Palestine for this weak-chinned dynast. Indeed, Mishal is said to have “sprung” this deal on Haniyeh and Jaabari, who of course wants nothing to do with Fatah unless he’s tossing their men off rooftops. So my question is this: If the Hamas-Fatah deal collapses, how will Haniyeh and Jaabari respond, quietly or with violence? The potential for disaster here is huge, and by that I don’t mean a third intifada against Israel but second Palestinian civil war.

When I exposed Syrian state documents showing that Assad orchestrated the Nakba Day raids into the Golan Heights (he provided 20 buses carrying 47 Palestinian refugees apiece to pass uncontested through military checkpoints), I was only offering evidence of what every Syrian on the ground already knew. Assad thinks his support for the Palestinian “resistance” immunises him from democratic opposition. He told The Wall Street Journal this in January.

The problem for Assad is, the Syrian people aren’t halfway as stupid as he is. And they’re fed up.

[Asharq al-Awsat] During 2010, broadsheet newspapers issued disproportionate coverage on Israel, in relation to other recent ‘Arab Spring countries’, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Do you think that this disproportion in information coverage could be among the reasons that leaders such as Mubarak were not toppled earlier?

[Weiss] Yes. Also, the United States bears a huge moral responsibility not just for supporting Mubarak but for not helping to prepare Egypt for the post-Mubarak era. It wasn’t always so. In 2005-2006, George W. Bush did press Mubarak on democratising reforms and actually withheld US aid after Egypt jailed Ayman Nour. Then what happened? Mubarak pointed to Fallujah and said to Bush, “This is what happens after I’m gone.” And Bush caved.

The U.S. missed its chance to help build up Egyptian civil society and create an organised alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they have to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.

[Asharq al-Awsat] The UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine (enshrined at the 2005 World Summit) dictates that the international community becomes responsible for the protection of civilians when the state fails. Do you believe that the efforts of international organisations, such as the UN and NATO, have been proportionate to current Middle Eastern problems? – Should intervention occur in Syria?

[Weiss] In general, yes, where large-scale atrocities occur, I do think that the UN has an obligation to use force to halt them and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Where would the Kurds of Iraq be today without the no-fly zone imposed after the First Gulf War?

That said, the will of the people on the ground must not be contravened. The Syrian opposition has been very clear about its method for toppling Assad. It does not want Western military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone for the simple reason that in Syria, unlike in Libya, military and civilian sights are too close to each other and therefore the chance of heavy civilian casualties from aerial bombardment is too high.

What frustrates me is that the Syrians are asking for something simple and easy enough to give: rhetoric. That usually comes easy to Obama. They want him to state unequivocally that Assad’s legitimacy has run out and that he must step down — not lead the transition to democracy himself, but resign, full stop. They also want a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s regime for violence and calling for a fact-finding mission into Syria. Russia and China, Assad’s longtime trade partners, oppose this measure. Dmitry Medvedev told the Financial Times a few weeks ago that he feels sorry for Assad. I feel sorry for Medvedev’s psychiatrist.

So talk isn’t cheap, it seems, unless one is making excuses for mass murderers.

I’ve argued that the Syrian opposition is the most sophisticated of all the Arab Spring oppositions. Look what they managed at Antalya. Even without journalists allowed into the country, they’ve documented not only Assad’s depredations but also their own coherence and — what else to call it? — pragmatism. Alawites have sheltered Sunni college students. Christians have marched arm-in-arm with Muslims. Kurds have rejected Assad’s overtures for citizenship rights and for that they’ve been thanked by having the Kurdish word for “freedom” — Azadi — given as the name of a Friday protest. Assad has tried to paint this as a sectarian conflict, but he’s the only one preying upon sectarianism.

The Syrians reckon that added diplomatic pressure, coupled with tough sanctions, will pressurise top military commanders in Syria to flip to their side. Already, we’re seeing signs of this. The man who led the pushback against the massacre in Jisr al-Shughour was a general named Hussain Harmoush. He had about 120 mutineers and some locals armed with “sticks, binoculars and hunting rifles” as the New York Times described. They were up against 200 tanks, a fleet of helicopter gunships and thousands of Army regulars. Even still, this was rendered in some media outlets as the beginning of a “civil war.”

[Asharq al-Awsat] Once Assad runs out of money with which to pay his commanders – and the Hezbollah and Shabiha mercenaries he’s brought in to kill unarmed civilians – where will that leave him?

[Weiss] The guys I talk to on the ground say that once Ramadan hits, Aleppo and Damascus will rise. If and when that happens, Assad will have two choices: kill everyone or leave. He’ll wind up running a country that consists of himself and his brother. It’ll be a failed state as rendered by Samuel Beckett.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Evidence has recently shown that Syria organised the ‘Nabka Day’ clashes on Israel’s border to divert attention away from the turmoil plaguing the al-Assad regime. To what extent are his tactics working? Is the focus on Syria or Israel?

[Weiss] It didn’t work to the degree Assad would have liked. I talked a bit about the Nakba Day raids already, but I’ll add this: What happened on Naksa Day? Assad tried to repeat the performance by sending busloads of Palestinian refugees into the Golan. Only this time, many of them were blown up by exploding mines that no one told them were there. When their families in a refugee camp in Damascus found out, they confronted the PFLP-GC [The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine– General Command], which runs the camp, and blamed them for allowing their relatives to go on a suicide mission. The PFLP killed 14 Palestinian refugees in response. Did you read that in The Guardian or see it on the BBC?

Another significant detail is this: In Deraa, Palestinian refugees have been risking their lives to help the Deraans, to provide them with food and water after Assad tried to starve and dehydrate the entire city. Why would Palestinian refugees do that if they believed that Assad had the Palestinian cause at heart?

[Asharq al-Awsat] What do you think it will take for the Arab -Israeli conflict to be solved ? Is there still hope of successful negotiation?

[Weiss] If I had the answer to this, I wouldn’t be a lowly hack…

The only advice or analysis I can give is this: The Palestinians do a lot better when they negotiate unilaterally for themselves, not when they rely on Arab governments to broker deals or give them the parameters for negotiations.

Abbas seems to understand this, although he’s not done much to counteract it and, unfortunately, he’s old and tired now and it shows.

When he agreed to begin direct talks with Israel last year, he was interviewed in Amman and told reporters there that the Arab League was complaining about preconditions, etc. So he said he offered the League a choice: Either you go to war with Israel and liberate Palestine for us, or shut up and let us do our own talking. The Israeli press covered this as a sign at the Abbas is secretly an extremist, but they missed the point. He was simply calling out a huge, obsolescent bluff that determined decades of the conflict.

After the Arab Spring, perhaps that bluff will be called permanently. But I’m not holding my breath.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Do you think that Middle Eastern problems have become over-saturated in news outlets – or does reader interest continue to be high?

[Weiss] No, I think low-priority Middle Eastern problems have been over-saturated at the expense of high-priority ones.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What do you consider the main characteristics necessary to be a good reporter?

[Weiss] Ask questions, talk to a wide range of sources and don’t take anything at face value. Realise that anyone in power is likely lying to you or trying to spin you. Judge their words against their deeds — the same goes for those not in power but struggling to get there.

[Asharq al-Awsat] How important is a university degree to becoming a journalist?

[Weiss] Not at all. Journalism isn’t something that can be studied, only learned through practice. If you want to be a journalist, go be a journalist.

[Asharq al-Awsat] What advice would you give to aspiring young reporters?

[Weiss] Don’t mistake what you read in the newspaper as established fact. Do your own digging. More often than not, the people writing the news are even less informed than you are.

[Asharq al-Awsat] Any final words of wisdom?

[Weiss] If you write for an online publication, which you will, don’t read the comments left on your pieces. If someone has something important to say to you, they’ll email you. The rest is just noise.