The final item in the January 25th evening edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ was introduced by presenter Tim Franks (from 45:06 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Franks: “Joe Biden’s number one priority, he’s consistently said, is trying to control the awful damage of the Coronavirus. But it’s in the nature of being the most powerful man in the world that he will not be able to stop foreign policy disputes crowding in. We’re spending a bit of time looking at those challenges abroad and today we’ll return to one of those which has longest eluded resolution: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So what effect can a Biden presidency have? Let’s begin with the Palestinian view. Their representative in London is Husam Zomlot.”
Those familiar with the frequent appearances of Husam Zomlot in BBC content would not be surprised by his often less than diplomatic tone, his frequently cavalier relationship with facts and his dogmatic interpretations of ‘international law’. Nevertheless – despite the BBC being obliged to provide “duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding” – Franks’ refrained from challenging Zomlot’s inaccuracies and talking points.
Zomlot: “Number one we hope he would clear the floor completely clean from the aberration of Mr Trump. As he started doing day one, reversing all the illegal acts by Mr Trump internally in the US, we need the same to happen vis-à-vis Palestine and the political settlement process.”
Franks: “You’re not surely talking about him having to move the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv?”
Zomlot: “I am, definitely, because the issue of Jerusalem is very well defined in international law. This is not just…”
Franks [interrupts]: “I understand the argument but I mean it’s…it’s…he’s hardly going to do that, is he?”
Zomlot: “That’s up to him but that will not be really a cleaning up and starting afresh. That will leave mess behind. It’s an international city and its fate can only be decided by final negotiations. These are the US long-held position and policies and reverting back to them would be highly recommended to move us forward. But it’s not just Jerusalem that Trump has ransacked. It’s every issue. The issue of refugees, settlements were declared by his State Department to be not contrary to international law; name it! Annexation was endorsed and supported by the administration. So there is a lot to be reversed, to be corrected and we truly, truly look forward to that. This is not correcting it for the sake of Palestine. This is correcting all the bogus [unintelligible] international [unintelligible].”
Zomlot’s portrayal of Jerusalem is “an international city” is taken from from the 1947 UNGA Partition Plan proposal which was of course rejected by the Arabs, including Palestinians, at the time and hence became irrelevant. So why did Franks not challenge that claim? The answer to that question is found in a 2013 decision published by the now defunct BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee which shows just how close the BBC’s approach on the topic of Jerusalem is to that of the PLO.
“The [BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards] Committee noted that while there is no expectation that in a two-state solution West Jerusalem would become Palestinian territory, a UN resolution passed in 1947 has not been rescinded. It calls for the whole of Jerusalem to be an international city, a corpus separatum (similar to the Vatican City), and in that context, technically, West Jerusalem is not Israeli sovereign territory. “
Franks’ failure to challenge Zomlot’s claim that “[t]hese are the US long-held position and policies” is – sadly – not surprising either. Ever since the topic of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem first arose, a recurrent theme in BBC reporting has been promotion of the claim that President Trump “reversed decades of American foreign policy by recognising the ancient city as Israel’s capital”. That inaccurate claim erases from audience view several resolutions on the topic passed by the US Congress and Senate over the last 30 years, including the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act.
Franks: “However far you are keen for there to be movement, I mean the Secretary of State – his nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken – has said that he wants to move forward on the two-state solution, do you accept that the priority inevitably for Joe Biden when it comes to the Middle East won’t be the Palestinians and it will be Iran, for the time being?”
Neither did Franks’ failure to challenge Zomlot’s anachronistic claim concerning the ‘centrality’ of “the Palestinian issue” come as much of a surprise given the approach taken by the BBC in its coverage of the Abraham Accords.
Zomlot: “It will be a gravely missed opportunity and like Mr Biden has learned himself over the years of being a US official, the Palestinian issue is the central issue in the region and all issues are interconnected. So we are hoping that the issue of Palestine is a priority and I believe the base that has brought President Biden to the White House want to see peace prevailing there and therefore we hope that the administration will pick on this issue early on.”
Listeners to this item did however discover that – despite its silence on the topic to date – the BBC is in fact aware of the supposedly upcoming Palestinian elections.
Franks: “Do you accept that they’re unlikely to make any real move until after…I mean we’ve got the Israeli elections in the next couple of months but also much delayed elections for both the Palestinian National Assembly but also the presidency. And again the administration isn’t really likely to make a big move until they know the outcome of that.”
Zomlot: “Yeah and that give us time to reset the Palestinian-American bilateral relations. We need to re-open the consulate general in Jerusalem – occupied East Jerusalem. We need to reopen our mission in Washington, we need to resume funding and we need to make sure that the relationship is grounded on mutual interests and values not subjected to the Congress or the Israeli veto for that matter. We need to make sure that the political process starts on the right foot. First, it needs to be around international resolutions and second it has to be multi-lateral mediations not excluding other players. Elections in Palestine is very important. We will wait for elections in Israel but in the meantime we have a huge homework to do that once the US starts investing in the political process it will be the absolute right investment.”
Franks made no effort to inform listeners of potential legal barriers to some of Zomlot’s wish-list – including those presented by the Palestinian Authority’s policy of paying convicted terrorists. He even failed to remind audiences that the ‘exclusion’ of the Palestinians since December 2017 came entirely at their initiative.
Franks: “Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission in London.”
The item continued with an interview with Uzi Arad which raised some interesting points in itself but did not relieve listeners of any of the inaccurate impressions promoted by Zomlot.
Throughout the four years of the Trump administration the BBC conducted numerous interviews with – and received at least one briefing from – Husam Zomlot. Its journalists should therefore by this time be capable of challenging his somewhat limited repertoire of talking points. Nevertheless, even experienced BBC presenters such as Tim Franks continue to refrain from asking the challenging questions which would actually help BBC audiences understand why the Israel-Palestinian conflict is still – as Franks put it – “one of those which has longest eluded resolution”.