The BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday‘ claims that it gives listeners “a look at the ethical and religious issues of the week”. However, the lead item in its January 15th edition fell outside that mission statement and, as its description in the programme’s synopsis shows, was in fact a transparently political story.
“Yolande Knell reports on the implications of a proposal by President elect Trump to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
“Will Donald Trump follow through with his campaign promise to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? The answer to that question could have huge implications for the Middle East. We’re joined from Jerusalem by our correspondent Yolande Knell. Yolande; it matters because the status of Jerusalem is absolutely crucial to the two-state solution that people, until now, say they want.”
Predictably, Knell’s response had the history of the millennia-old city beginning just fifty years ago, with no mention of the preceding 19-year Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem.
Knell: “That’s right and Jerusalem has proven time and time again to be one of the most explosive issues; one of the most difficult issues to solve in this decades-old conflict, not least because of its holy sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians. And of course Israel captured the east of the city – which includes the Old City – in 1967 in the Middle East war. It went on to annex East Jerusalem, declare all of Jerusalem its united, eternal capital – although that’s never been recognised internationally. And the Palestinians are basically saying that any move for a US embassy – bringing it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – would kill the two-state solution; this long-standing goal of international policy on this conflict. It’s enshrined in UN resolutions: the idea of creating a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel. It will be based in Gaza, the West Bank and have East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Stourton: “I think I’m right in saying the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been in the Vatican this weekend. He’s been talking about some of this, hasn’t he?”
In her response to that question, Knell introduced the falsehood of “pre-1967 borders” – a concept which not only does not exist, but was specifically and deliberately rejected by the parties to the 1949 Armistice Agreement.
Knell: “That’s right – very deliberate timing. He was actually at the Vatican to inaugurate an embassy for the State of Palestine. This is after the Vatican recognised a State of Palestine on pre-1967 borders and he was there for talks with the Pope. He told reporters while he was there that this…again, this move would destroy the two-state solution and he talked to the Pope about the need for Jerusalem to be an open city for three religions, we’re told. The Vatican’s position is that it seeks an internationally guaranteed status for Jerusalem: a status that would safeguard its sacred character.”
Stourton: “The…Donald Trump is not the first American president to have talked about the possibility of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Ahm…it hasn’t happened though in the past. How strong is the evidence that he’s really serious about this?”
Knell: “Well, because Donald Trump made this campaign promise and so many previous presidential contenders have – George W Bush and Bill Clinton at least and then they didn’t do it – that means that people really didn’t take it very seriously at first. But then we heard from one of his advisors – from Kellyanne Conway – that this was for him a very big priority. There was also the State Department official who came out saying to the press that it had been asked for logistical advice on a move. And then we know as well that the nominee for ambassador to Israel chosen by Mr Trump, David Friedman – somebody with very hardline views – he wants this very much. He issued a statement when he was nominated saying that he looked forward to moving the US embassy to Israel’s eternal capital Jerusalem: those were his words. So when I’ve been briefed by Palestinian officials – even in just the last few days – one of their fears is this announcement could come in the inauguration speech of Mr Trump.”
According to reports from the time, the words Knell claims to quote were actually these:
“In the statement, Freidman said he was “deeply honored and humbled” that Trump selected him to represent the US in Israel, and that he aimed to “strengthen the bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.””
Stourton: “What about the international background to all this because there’s this…as we have in the news, there’s this conference in Paris today on this question.”
Knell: “Yes and it’s also coming after a UN Security Council resolution was passed last month restating this commitment to the two-state solution and well-informed sources are basically saying that a draft statement from the Paris talks is going to come out with a similar kind of statement. It will affirm also the international community will not recognise changes to the pre-1967 lines for Israel unless they’re agreed with the Palestinians. It will make clear that a negotiated solution is the only way to ensure enduring peace but it’s also going to warn, I think, against unilateral moves. That could be a reference to the idea of Donald Trump moving…eh…moving the embassy because that would basically recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”
In fact, the reference to “unilateral steps” in the text of the conference’s closing statement specifically relates to the two parties to the conflict rather than to the US or any other outside country.
Stourton: “And, Yolande, finally: do you detect internally any appetite for renewed negotiations between the two sides?”
Once again, BBC audiences heard a sanitised version of the breakdown of negotiations in 2014 that promotes false equivalence in Knell’s response to that question. However, Knell made sure to close with some very clear signposting with regard to which side listeners should view as being responsible for the lack of current negotiations.
Knell: “Ahm…both sides say that they’re ready to have talks but then the talks have been frozen since April 2014. They fell apart and I think that’s why there is now this…a lot of frustration from the international community. You have 70 countries and international bodies like the EU, the UN, the Arab League, other organisations, coming together for these talks. When you talk to analysts they really see these as a last-ditch attempt to try to save the moribund peace process but they don’t expect much to come out of these talks because – as much as the Palestinians are supporting them – the Israelis say that these are futile, they’re rigged, this pushes peace backwards and they’re not even going to go for a meeting with President Hollande in the coming weeks to be debriefed on what happened.”
Since mid-December the BBC has produced several items concerning or mentioning the proposed relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. All those reports – including this one – have amplified the Palestinian messaging on that topic but BBC audiences have yet to hear any opposite viewpoint – as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality demand.
Seeing as we now know that Yolande Knell is “briefed by Palestinian officials – even in just the last few days”, that lack of due impartiality is perhaps more comprehensible.