The Media's Giant Error

The Wall Street Journal

The American media's story line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear. As "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl put it to Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday evening, it's "David vs. Goliath"--Israel being the Goliath, of course, and the Palestinians the underdogs, up against a pitiless giant.

She couldn't have picked a more witless analogy. Not only was David the Jew of the Old Testament story, but the outcome of that story suggests that it is the Israelis who have something to fear in the current confrontation. And then there is the simple fact that today's contest pits not only Jews against Palestinians, but fewer than five million Israelis against several hundred million Arabs. Who is the Goliath here?

But then the media have never cared much for history. And nothing daunted, Ms. Stahl pressed ahead with yet another story line: that the bloodshed of recent months simply reflects two old men, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, acting out their irrational hatreds of each other.

Repeatedly, Ms. Stahl asked Mr. Sharon why he "hated" Mr. Arafat so intensely. And when the prime minister, elected only a year ago in the wake of the Palestinian rejection of the best peace offer since 1947, averred that he didn't hate Mr. Arafat but felt strongly about the slaughter of innocents in Israel, she demanded to know if he felt nothing for the killing of Palestinian civilians as well.

It was, in other words, a breathtaking display of the moral equivalence that so deeply infects the media. One waited in vain for the interview with Mr. Arafat from his bunker: Why do you hate Ariel Sharon so intensely, why do you issue statements lauding the suicide bombers, why did you back Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, why should anybody believe that a Palestinian state would look one whit different than the current lawless and corrupt Palestinian Authority? Instead, we only got pictures of an intrepid "leader of the Palestinians" talking defiantly of "martyrdom."

There are, to be sure, hard questions to be asked about Israeli strategy. The Palestinian Arabs aren't going away, and it's not clear that a few sweeps by the Israeli Defense Forces will do much more than enrage the local Arab population. And the Saudis, via a warmed-over land-for-peace formula that begs nearly all the important questions, have managed to manipulate the media into changing the subject from Iraq to Israel in recent weeks. That complicates whatever plans the Bush administration may have to pursue its wider antiterrorism goals.

But as President Bush has repeatedly pointed out, the war is likely to be long and hard. While the media have been sympathetic so far--chastened by graphic coverage of the carnage in lower Manhattan and Mr. Bush's stratospheric polls--it seems fair to ask how long it will be before impatient journalists like Lesley Stahl are demanding to know why Mr. Bush has it in for Osama bin Laden.

After all, isn't the muscle-bound United States, which spends more on its military than the next eight nations combined, the Goliath of this saga and bin Laden the clever, agile David? Doesn't bin Laden have a point when he criticizes American support for all those horrid Arab regimes? And what is to be served by a strategy of "vengeance" for Sept. 11?

Israel is the canary in the mine. If Mr. Sharon's efforts to destroy terrorist infrastructure fail, or are seen to be failing, questions will soon enough arise about Mr. Bush's global antiterror campaign. The task is already proving messy enough in just one country, Afghanistan. And it doesn't help public confidence that the administration seems to have lost control of the agenda in the Middle East, veering between all out support for Mr. Sharon one day and condemnation the next.

If more surefootedness is not forthcoming from Washington, it seems likely that Mr. Bush's poll numbers will start slipping in earnest. There is a clear reluctance on the part of the administration to link its own antiterror campaign to Israel's. But it has, in effect, already done so by naming as targets some of the same groups against which Israel is battling: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Mr. Arafat's own al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and so on. The question now would seem to be how best to drain the swamp in order to provide the footings for real peace.

Returning to a Clintonian attitude of neutrality between Israel and its terrorist foes might please the press corps. But it is a recipe for long-term disaster. Ultimately, it comes down to this: If Mr. Arafat wins, bin Laden wins--and America and the civilized world lose.

Mr. Bray is a staff columnist at the Detroit News. His column appears Tuesdays.