On August 6, popular news media outlet Al Jazeera issued an English-language statement “on Israel’s plan to ban network,” following public calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Communications Minister, Ayoub Kara, to do just that. Israeli government claims that the network carries out incitement. Al Jazeera, in turn, dismisses such charges and “denounces this decision made by a state that claims to be ‘the only democratic state in the Middle East.’” This appeal to democratic norms mimics the network’s declaration from the previous month, responding to several Arab governments’ calls for Al Jazeera’s closure as part of an ultimatum to the channel’s state sponsor, Qatar. In a July press release, Al Jazeera encouraged its audience to counter Doha’s rivals with the hashtag, “#DemandPressFreedom.”
It is easy to see Al Jazeera’s cause as noble. The scandal-prone Benjamin Netanyahu now accuses Israeli media of a, “witch hunt against me and my family, in order to carry out a coup.” With this outlook, Arab-owned Al Jazeera’s critical reporting on Israel and the occupied territories is certain to make the prime minister’s enemies list. Beyond Israel, Qatar’s five autocratic rivals (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan) do not challenge Al Jazeera with the purest intentions. Yet, the looming showdown between Israel and Al Jazeera is more complex than this. Closer examination exposes Al Jazeera’s English-language calls to defend journalistic liberty as hypocritical. Meanwhile, Israel’s claims against the channel, while grounded largely in fact, belie more suspect intentions. Netanyahu and Kara make at best a half-effort towards actually shuttering the network, but simply attacking an unpopular media outlet can easily energize their supporters.
Qatar’s government-funded station presents two distinct faces to the world: one Anglophone, and one in Arabic. One need not agree with its editorial line, but Al Jazeera English’s political bent is not too different from Western left-wing outlets like The Guardian or even Israel’s Haaretz. However one-sided and shallow, the one-to-two minute AJ+ (Al Jazeera) Facebook clips can hardly be called incitement. Of course, under the progressive veneer, Al Jazeera English’s Qatari state sponsor would likely never, “#DemandPressFreedom” at home. Reporters Without Borders names Qatar 123rd out of 180 nations for press freedom, and 2016 saw the country fall six spots in the rankings. Still, such hypocrisy does not by itself warrant a ban.
It is not only Al Jazeera English and the AJ+ Facebook page that now find themselves in the Israeli government’s crosshairs. The English p superficially “progressive” outfits mask the network’s second face: the Al Jazeera that counts an audience of 27 million families in the Middle East, the station’s original presentation, the least accessible outside of the Arab world, and the most politically extreme. This is Al Jazeera TV, otherwise known as Al Jazeera Arabic.
AJ+ and Al Jazeera English presented Israel’s handling of the recent crisis around the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Mosque as repressive and overbearing. Whether accurate or not, this is generally consistent with many other left-of-center analyses. Al Jazeera Arabic’s July 16 interview with Sheikh Kamal Khatib, deputy leader of Israel’s Islamic Movement provides a sharp contrast with the English-language station’s more mainstream tilt. On air, Sheikh Khatib tells his Al Jazeera interviewer that:
“The occupation [Israel] used chemical substances that have a long-term effect. These substances could eat away at the rocks and pillars [of Al Aqsa], but its effects would not show immediately, and afterwards they would be able to claim that the cracks in Al Aqsa… it has happened. There are fissures and sinkholes in some places. They [Israel] would be able to claim that it was the working of nature.”
The Al Jazeera host then interrupts Sheikh Khatib to pose a question: did the Jewish state place corrosive chemicals inside the facade of Al Aqsa during the mosque’s recent closure by Israeli authorities – “did it execute this secret scheme?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes yes. I fear – I am almost convinced that the goal of Israel in closing the mosque was not just to search for weapons.”
In other words, Al Jazeera pushed a narrative in which Israel employs chemical agents to demolish the third holiest site in Islam. Besides being a horrific crime against all Muslim faithful, destroying (even intentionally damaging) the Al Aqsa Mosque would provoke the wrath of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists worldwide and likely upend peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. Diaspora Jewish communities would be threatened and Israel might even risk military and political confrontation with Muslim-majority states well beyond the Middle East. Even the most right wing of Israeli governments understands this.
Far from uncovering an insidious Israeli plot, Al Jazeera Arabic facilitated a sinister fiction. Simply insinuating that such a conspiracy exists could conceivably move some to violence.
The July 16 Al Aqsa chemical story is not an aberration on a network that regularly trucks in bold-faced anti-Semitism. In an election-night interview in November 2016, a Hamas official speculates that Donald Trump might be a Jew, stating plainly to his Al Jazeera host that, “the most important thing in the Jewish religion is Jewish money.” The Hamas commander reiterates this twice more in the same program – each time, unchallenged by the Al Jazeera newscaster. Although this bigotry is oft repeated on Al Jazeera, the network dares not insult their progressive Anglophone audience by promoting this bizarre vitriol in the English-language edition or on AJ+. Instead, Doha reserves such debased content for its Arabic speaking viewers.
For all Al Jazeera’s unscrupulous behavior, Israeli calls to ban the network likely amount to political posturing. In his escalating attacks on Israel’s free press, Prime Minister has adopted the Trumpian epithet “fake news” (transliterated into Hebrew “פייק ניוז”). Al Jazeera did not make the list of Israeli outlets Netanyahu labeled as “fake news” in a Facebook post last month (despite the Arabic edition’s frequent peddling of conspiracy theories). While Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and Channel 2 do not belong to the same category as Doha’s propaganda outfit, a victory against Al Jazeera might inspire Netanyahu and his supporters to launch new attacks against independent journalistic enterprise.
The blatant opportunism of the Israeli government’s push against Al Jazeera also undermines the sincerity of Jerusalem’s claims. Although Al Jazeera Arabic has advanced an anti-Semitic line for the past twenty years, Netanyahu and Ayoub Kara are only attacking the station now, when a powerful Arab state coalition also threatens the channel. Communications Minister Kara himself admitted that the Israeli government chose to strike based on Saudi Arabia and its allies’ recent demands against Qatar. Al Jazeera’s Arabic content is inflammatory, but if the station represents an immediate threat to Israel’s security, it begs asking why calls for a ban are only emerging now and why Netanyahu and Kara appear to have taken few actual steps against Al Jazeera beyond empty threats and hollow proclamations.
Procedurally, the issue is more complicated than Netanyahu and Kara’s bold statements might suggest. Closing Al Jazeera in Israel would require more than just public indignation. Although, Ayoub Kara called on the Government Press Office to revoke Al Jazeera journalists’ credentials, a cabinet minister cannot simply demand the GPO shutter a media outlet. Closing a station requires hearings and the recommendation of the Israeli security services, which remains not forthcoming. While Kara asked Israeli commercial broadcasters HOT and Yes to stop carrying Al Jazeera, both companies have only said that they would do so on orders from the semi-governmental Council on Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting of which the Communications Minister is just one member. This does not even begin to address serious questions about individuals’ rights to access an outlet with a privately owned satellite dish, on the Internet, or via social media. Netanyahu and Kara may profess to be serious about silencing Al Jazeera, but they have taken little action to this end. Ultimately, the station is an easy rhetorical target: funded by a state that does not recognize Israel and mostly watched by Palestinian-Israeli citizens, themselves a politically isolated constituency. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Communications Minister may not even need to go through with closing Al Jazeera. Simply musing about a ban in the open may be enough to score points with right-wing voters.
Al Jazeera’s plight in Israel is not the enlightened crusade to “#DemandPressFreedom” presented in the Qatari state’s English language channel. Al Jazeera Arabic’s frequent circulation of anti-Semitic myths has always risked inviting Israeli government intervention. Nevertheless, one should question the timing of Netanyahu and Kara’s move against Al Jazeera, if such plans are even actionable, and how calls for a ban fit into the Israeli government’s broader rhetorical attacks on the country’s media. Whatever comes to pass in Netanyahu and Kara’s campaign against the Doha-based network, Al Jazeera will be sure to report on it – with separate coverage in English and Arabic.