BBC Radio 4 coverage of US Secretary of State visit – part two

In part one of this post we discussed a pre-emptive report by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell concerning a visit to Israel by the US Secretary of State which was aired on the morning of November 19th on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme.

In addition to that three-minute report, listeners later heard almost six additional minutes of similar commentary on precisely the same topic (from 2:35:01 here) which was introduced by presenter Mishal Husain as follows:

Husain: “Mike Pompeo – President Trump’s Secretary of State – is visiting Israel at the moment. Jeremy Bowen our Middle East editor is on the line. We were talking to our correspondent in Jerusalem Yolande Knell earlier, Jeremy, who was saying there was still some uncertainty over exactly where he was going to go and crucially whether he was going to visit a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Where has he been and what has he been doing?”

Although the day’s itinerary was barely underway by that time, Bowen began his somewhat rambling contribution.

Bowen: “Well the plan today is for him to go to the West Bank and also to the occupied Golan Heights – occupied from Syria in 1967 and which the Trump administration has recognised as…ah…having Israeli sovereignty over it. And he’s due to go to a West Bank winery on a settlement later on today which – after he issued a notice of support by saying that the EU should not…ahm…label it as a product of the West Bank…or of Israeli settlements rather – it actually named a wine after him. It makes a large amount of wine every year and I think that all this is…ahm…very much in line with the Trump administration’s policy which has been effectively to try to normalise the occupation of the land Palestinians want for a state.”

The statement made by Mr Pompeo which prompted the Psagot Winery to introduce a product labelled with his name actually referred to the US administration’s approach to Israeli communities in Judea & Samaria rather that to the EU, as inaccurately claimed by Bowen.  Bowen’s memory also appears to deceive him on the topic of “the land the Palestinians want for a state”. The US administration’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ vision proposes that a Palestinian state would include a significant proportion of what is today known as Area C and that during negotiations (section 22), Israel would not build in those areas: hardly an effort “to normalise the occupation” of that land.

Bowen then indulged in some speculation:

Bowen: “And Pompeo, don’t forget as well, has his own presidential ambitions four years from now so he’s also positioning himself among Republican friends of Israel as Israel’s number one friend, perhaps after Trump himself.”

Husain next brought up the same ‘what Biden will or will not do’ topic that had already been discussed in Yolande Knell’s earlier report:

Husain: “And then what about the Israeli government, given that this administration isn’t going to be in power for much longer? Are they apprehensive about what president-elect Biden might do?”

Bowen: “Well yeah, I think they have to be because…ah…Trump has been the, you know, the biggest friend, the gift that keeps on giving. Moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Pompeo also has said that West Bank settlements are not inconsistent with international law. I don’t think Biden is gonna do things like move the embassy back to Tel Aviv but – and he’s always seen himself as a big friend of Israel – but he has had testy moments with Netanyahu as vice-president over settlement expansion. So I don’t think they’re expecting they’re going to get the same kind of ride out of Biden as they would out of Trump. And Netanyahu himself has only just started referring to Mr Biden as the president-elect. He…for a while he sort of dilly-dallied about that.”

Husain then gave Bowen the cue to bring up a topic the BBC had covered badly earlier in the week:

Husain: “Other things that Mr Netanyahu is going to be trying to press ahead with and get done before January the 20th when Joe Biden takes office?”

Bowen: “Yeah there are plans for a big new settlement in parts of occupied East Jerusalem. The EU has condemned it, saying that it means that a Palestinian state will be even less likely if this was built. And they’re trying to get the tenders fixed for this before Trump actually stands down. They’re trying to get in under the wire.”

Bowen was referring to the Givat Hamatos neighbourhood in Jerusalem and – like Yolande Knell before him – he unquestioningly amplified unconfirmed claims made by the political NGO ‘Peace Now’ which had appeared days earlier in a written BBC report on the topic.

Failing to clarify that some of the cuts in US aid were made at the demand of the Palestinian Authority itself (or to note that in January 2018 BBC audiences were told that any cut in US aid to Palestinians would cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse), Bowen went on:

Bowen: “You know and let’s not forget that under Trump Palestinians have had a lot of pressure put on them. He stopped any kind of aid to them and to UN agencies that deal with Palestinians and just in the last week or two Israel has demolished 76 Palestinian structures in one single village which it said was illegally built. That’s the biggest single demolition of its kind in a decade.”

Bowen was referring to Khirbet Humsa where a considerably lower number of illegally built structures than claimed by Bowen were demolished on November 3rd following a decade of court cases. That story of course has nothing whatsoever to do with the US administration.

The BBC’s Middle East editor then proceeded to promote a falsehood concerning PA tax revenues:

Bowen: “And so President Abbas, the Palestinian leader, is under a massive amount of pressure and he has just restored civilian and security cooperation with Israel because…ah…essentially Israel didn’t deliver the tax revenues it collects on their behalf and he just could not keep going with what had been a boycott of those contracts…those contacts and he too of course will be hoping for a somewhat easier ride under the new administration.”

In fact it was the Palestinian Authority which since June has repeatedly refused to accept the monthly payment of tax revenues collected on its behalf rather than Israel which “didn’t deliver”. That issue too has nothing whatsoever to do with the US administration.

Listeners then heard a reference to a visit to Israel the previous day by the Foreign Minister of Bahrain for meetings concerning topics including the opening of embassies and direct flights which did not receive any stand-alone BBC coverage.

Husain: “Ahm…one of the big…ah…areas in foreign policy that the Trump administration was particularly proud of in the Middle East was the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Bahrain and Israel. Is that something which is already having a practical effect? Are there links? Are there things that are sort of evident on the ground?”

Bowen: “There are some plans for embassies but the main thing are flights. Etihad the Abu Dhabi airline is starting direct flights. Ah…I think the Bahraini airline is doing that as well. The Bahraini foreign minister was actually in Jerusalem the other day and he appeared on a podium with Mr Pompeo and with Mr Netanyahu.”

Bowen did not provide listeners with any information concerning recent trade and business agreements and investments involving Israeli and Gulf firms. He did however go on to give an entirely context-free account of a recent incident which once again has no connection to the US administration.

Bowen: “So that is certainly going on and Mr Pompeo has said during his trip already there that it shows that Iran is being weakened, that it’s less relevant and that the American policy of so-called maximum pressure – big sanctions against Iran – is working and it’s bearing fruit. The Israelis as well have mounted airstrikes in recent days against Iranian forces inside Syria and most unusually admitted that it was they who did it.”

Citing a New York Times report and attributing unsourced ‘messages’ to several sources, he closed the item:

Bowen: “So that pressure is continuing and while there’ve been some reports that Trump has even flirted with the idea of trying to attack Iran in some way – I think it’s most unlikely that that will occur before January – the…very much the message coming from Trump White House, from the US State Department, from Pompeo, from the Israelis and from their new allies in the Gulf is that Iran needs to be kept under pressure and may well buckle as a result. The Iranians of course would say that is not going to happen.”

Those nearly six minutes of maundering ‘analysis’ of a visit not yet completed from the person tasked with making Middle East issues comprehensible to BBC audiences promoted speculation, context-free irrelevant linkage and clear political messaging as well as inaccuracies. Obviously its aim was not to inform listeners about Mr Pompeo’s visit to Israel but to promote the Middle East editor’s chosen narrative on that and additional topics.

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