BBC’s lame interview with Israel’s defence minister

Sarah Montague

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

On 19 March the BBC conducted an interview with Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, which was broadcast on Radio 4’s flagship “Today” programme.

The interview took place just two days after Israel’s general election, and three days after Binyamin Netanyahu said there would be no Palestinian state if he was re-elected as prime minister, so one would have expected some hard-hitting questioning, and close scrutiny of Ya’alon’s answers, from the interviewer, Sarah Montague (pictured above).

Instead, we got the complete opposite: lame and misleading framing of questions, and a total failure to challenge the Israeli defence minister’s evasive and deceptive answers.

Needless to say, campaigners for justice for the Palestinian people will not be surprised: the BBC is after all Britain’s state broadcaster, and Britain, let us not forget, is the creator, midwife, loyal international spokesman and facilitator of the Jews-only state, working on its behalf from the United Nations to the European Union.

The BBC’s history of bias towards Israel, and the reasons for this bias have long been the subject of serious academic studies, the best known of which is Greg Philo’s and Mike Berry’s More Bad News from Israel. In fact, an independent report commissioned by the BBC’s own governing body concluded in 2006 that BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “does not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture”.

This should be of grave concern to the British public, which funds the BBC through a compulsory levy known as the TV licence fee. As the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) states,

BBC news reaches 81 per cent of the UK every week via TV, radio and online articles. That is a huge number of people to be misinforming about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Because misinform is exactly what the BBC does.

But the reporting is so disingenuous that pinpointing exactly how it misinforms can sometimes be difficult.

Below, PSC analysts examine Montague’s 19 March interview with Ya’alon to expose the misinformation arising from the interviewer’s lame questioning, her failure to provide accurate context so that the listener can make a proper judgement of Ya’alon’s answers, and her failure to challenge Ya’alon’s deceptive replies.

First, here is a recording of the relevant part of the interview – the part that is examined below.

[Sarah Montague] 
There was of course a surprise victory for Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Israeli election – his fourth term […] Earlier, I spoke to the country’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon […] We heard the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, say that, in the final day of the campaign, that he wouldn’t permit a Palestinian state to be created. That is now the official government position is it, as far as the position of having a two state solution – that’s just gone is it?’

[Moshe Ya’alon] [Sighs] That’s more like slogans than looking to the situation as we analyse it. [Voice rises] Actually, they enjoy already political independence. They have their own political system, government, parliament, municipalities and so forth. And we are happy with it. We don’t want to govern them whatsoever.

PSC analysis

The Palestinians don’t have political independence. They live under occupation and, in Gaza, under siege. In the West Bank, Israel arrests and detains Palestinian MPs, often without charge or trial. West Bank Palestinians’ taxes are collected by Israel and then handed to the Palestinian Authority. Israel regularly withholds the tax revenue from the PA when it goes against its wishes. Area C in the West Bank (the largest area) is under full Israeli civil and security control. Area B is joint Israeli and Palestinian civil and security control. None of this can be called ‘political independence’.

The words ‘occupation’, ‘occupied’, ‘blockade’ or ‘siege’ aren’t mentioned once. Obviously, Ya’alon, with his political agenda, won’t use those words, but neither does Montague. She allows him to tell his lies about ‘Palestinian political independence’ without challenge.

Even when Ya’alon says “we don’t want to govern them whatsoever”, Montague doesn’t intervene to point out that Israel keeps “them” under occupation, and governs every detail of their lives, from their freedom of movement to how much water they are allowed.

[Moshe Ya’alon] They decided to be divided into two principal entities, one in the West Bank, led by Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, the second is Hamastan in the Gaza Strip. It’s up to them.

PSC analysis

The Palestinians didn’t “decide to be divided”. Geographically, they were split by the UN’s partition plan in 1947. Politically, Israel has maintained the Hamas and Fatah split, reacting with extreme violence to any attempt by the Palestinians to form a unity government, most recently in 2014 with the 50 day assault on Gaza after the Palestinians announced a unity government in April.

The Palestinians are an occupied people, in no position to make decisions. They do not enjoy self-determination and have no seat in the UN. However, Ya’alon is allowed to deliver his propaganda without challenge from Montague.

[Moshe Ya’alon] Nevertheless, we are ready to co-operate with Abu Mazen, with Mahmoud Abbas, to have a more competent, responsible, accountable regime, living with us side by side.

PSC analysis

Here, Montague could have questioned whether Israel itself is a responsible, accountable regime. It has a nuclear arsenal which it denies possessing and which has never been inspected by the outside world. And it annihilated Gaza last summer, massacring 504 children, including babies, in 50 days, and wiped out entire families.

However, Montague uncritically accepts Ya’alon’s assertion that Israel is competent, responsible and accountable and that the Palestinians aren’t.

[Moshe Ya’alon] It should be done on all means [sic] regarding governance, law and order, security and, not less important, economic prosperity. That’s what should be done. And if we want to live side by side, let’s enjoy the benefits, the advantages of each side

PSC analysis

Montague could have interrupted here to ask, “How can you live side by side when you’re holding the Palestinians under occupation and, in Gaza, under siege?” But she chose not to stop the flow of Israeli propaganda.

[Moshe Ya’alon] And, you know, the Palestinian economy of today consists of working in Israel. And if we are going to live together, why should we uproot Jews or transfer Jews from certain territories? Let’s live side by side, co-existence, for the benefit of the two sides.

PSC analysis

This is Ya’alon’s underhand plea for keeping the settlements and Montague should have jumped on it. The settlements are illegal under international law and, according to UN Resolution 446, “constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. Resolution 446 also states that the settlements “have no legal validity”. Montague should have brought this up and asked how serious Ya’alon is about “living together”, as he claims, when Israel keeps stealing Palestinian land and building settlements on it.

Ya’alon doesn’t refer to the settlers as Israelis, but uses emotive terms: “uproot Jews” and “transfer Jews”. However, in reality, it is Palestinians who are uprooted and transferred when their land is stolen, their villages destroyed and the settlements built. Palestinians aren’t allowed to live in the settlements. Is this Ya’alon’s idea of “living together/living side by side/coexistence”? How is destroying Palestinian homes, farmland and olive groves “for the benefit” of Palestinians? But, instead of challenging his disingenuity, Montague remains silent.

And she remains silent when Ya’alon says “the Palestinian economy of today consists of working in Israel”. The Israeli occupation has destroyed the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, in particular its agricultural economy, and so Palestinians are forced to try and find work in settlements or in Israel. In Gaza, Israel has destroyed the economy through occupation, siege and physical destruction. But Montague is careful not to bring up the occupation, siege and apartheid with Ya’alon.

Ya’alon ends his answer here, having enjoyed extraordinary freedom from Montague. The listener has not even heard an “mmm” from her, but she has been completely silent throughout. This has never been the case when Today presenters interview a Palestinian.

[Sarah Montague] OK, you paint this picture of these effectively two states but with no borders, but there are those who say that, as a result of that plan, that proposal, what you have is an Israel that is less safe, because you have Palestinians that have longed for a state that they would consider theirs, without Israeli government interference, and, as a result, the suggestion is that Israel is less safe. What do you say to that?

PSC analysis

Montague’s phrasing is astonishing. She reduces the brutal, near 50-year-long military occupation, in which genocide is being committed against the Palestinian people to mere “Israeli government interference”. And her focus is on Israeli security, with no indication of Palestinian security or the threat Israel poses to Palestine and the Palestinians. It’s a very colonialist attitude on Montague’s part – her concern for the safety of the invader and occupier, not for the colonised people.

[Moshe Ya’alon] We have one and a half million Arabs living with us in the state of Israel, enjoying the same civil rights as we enjoy. Is it safe or not safe? It depends, what are the aspirations? Now, those who claim there should be separation – can you imagine a viable Palestinian entity, economic wise? What about infrastructure, electricity, water? They are connected with us like Siam twins, so the whole idea of full separation isn’t viable.

PSC analysis

Once again, Ya’alon is allowed to make the case for continuing the occupation. Montague doesn’t even force him to call it the occupation or to confront the existence of Israel’s siege on Gaza.

She also fails to challenge Ya’alon’s outright lie that 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel “enjoy the same civil rights as we enjoy”. There are more than 60 laws in Israel which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

And the March election was called because of coalition disagreements over Netanyahu’s bill to officially define Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people”. This bill would give Jewish citizens of Israel greater rights than Palestinian Israeli citizens. With Netanhyu’s Likud party now in a majority, the bill could go through and become law, but Montague unquestioningly accepts Ya’alon claims about Israelis and Palestinians living as equals within Israel.

She also accepts Ya’alon’s implication that the Palestinians aren’t capable of creating their own “viable entity”, and that they have to be looked after by the Israelis. When he says “can you imagine a viable Palestinian entity?”, she could have said: “Israel has destroyed a viable Palestinian entity in Gaza, quite literally physically destroyed Gaza. All those things you talk about – infrastructure, water, electricity – Israel has destroyed them in Gaza. What do you say to that?”

But she doesn’t. Instead, she accepts Ya’alon’s underlying assumption that the Palestinians are incapable of creating their own state, presumably because they’re Arab, and that only the Israelis – who are considered “one of us” by the Western bloc – are capable of creating a state. Again, she displays the colonialist mindset that is evident in most of the BBC’s news reporting on Palestine and Israel.

There is not a single challenge, interruption or even sound from Montague during any of Ya’alon’s answers. Consequently, this does not sound like an interview on a British radio station, but more like a propaganda broadcast on Israeli state radio.

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