Al Jazeera as West's friend

AN ISRAELI diplomat in Ottawa has spoken the unspeakable. Ofir Gendelman, a second secretary in Ottawa, sees the genre of television stations spawned by Al Jazeera in the Middle East as "potential friend(s)" and is calling on Canada and other western nations to treat them as allies in the ongoing campaign against terrorism.

By George Abraham

Published: Tue 1 May 2007, 8:28 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:23 AM

In a commentary headlined, "How to Make Al Jazeera Your Friend," published in the Ottawa Citizen on April 21 and put out by the Israeli embassy a few days later in an e-mail to journalists, Mr Gendelman offers this uncharacteristic perspective: " It is common to denounce Al Jazeera, the wildly popular Qatari TV station, as a venue for anti-Israel and anti-American propaganda, and as the favourite channel of Osama bin Laden. As an Israeli, however, I prefer to think of Al Jazeera, and other emerging Arabic language TV channels, as a potential friend. "

He further said, " This idea of talking to the Arab world in its own language, using its own terminology, should be adopted by other democratic countries, especially those who feel the war on terror is at least in part a war over ideas. It's astonishing to me the US State Department has just one Arabic speaking diplomat, representing the entire Bush administration on highly important matters such as the war in Iraq and the situation in the Middle East.

"Canada, Britain and other G-8 members could learn a lot from the Israeli experience. After all, they enjoy a huge advantage of having diplomatic relations with all the Arab countries, something Israel sadly does not have. Everyone likes to talk about winning the ‘hearts and minds' of Arabs, but that's impossible to do if you don't know their culture and background and if you don't start talking to them in their own language."

His opinions were audacious for an Israeli diplomat posted to a country that has shunned Al Jazeera and all that it has stood for, largely because of the channel's perceived "anti-Semitism" and its dubious reputation as a mouthpiece for terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. The fact that no news channel anywhere in the world has resisted the temptation of airing the infamous bin Laden tapes, and in fact, have vied with Arabic stations to "scoop" them has had little effect on Al Jazeera's overwhelmingly negative ratings in both Canada and the US.

One recalls the charged atmosphere in early 2003 leading up to the invasion of Iraq when Washington was making a deliberate effort to link Al Qaeda with the discredited regime of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. On February 14, 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to steal Al Jazeera's thunder by divulging excerpts from the latest bin Laden tape. Powell knew the Doha-based television station also had a copy of the same audio tape, but rather than allowing the Arab channel to go first, the Bush administration's point man decided to reveal the tape's contents to CNN. The American network, of course, went to town with the story.

In the span of a year, going by published accounts, Al Jazeera had grown from a painful nuisance to a grave threat. In March 2004, US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were reported to have talked about bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha during a White House conversation. The Daily Mirror in Britain got hold of a memo that contained details of this conversation and published the account in October 2005, unleashing vociferous denials from both London and Washington and the invoking of the Official Secrets Act to ensure that other British newspapers did not compound the damage already done.

In Canada, Al Jazeera's footprint is virtually non-existent, despite its licensing by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in July 2004. Although the commission went out on a limb in granting the licence in the face of opposition to the channel's programming, it placed such onerous conditions that no distributor has considered it worth their while to buy the rights in Canada. Cable operators were asked to record programming in advance and delete any content that may be considered "abusive" under Canada's hate laws.

There have been a few voices calling for a correction, among them Tony Burman, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC News's editor in chief. He said in an online article coinciding with the launch of Al Jazeera's English version last November: " In spite of our much-celebrated ‘500-channel universe', US cable operators loathe controversy and love profits so they prefer more lucrative channels such as gambling and pornography to information. If a lesson from the heightening tensions worldwide is that we can all do with a bit more light, and considerably less heat, it baffles me that anyone can feel that preventing channels such as Al Jazeera from entering Canadian homes makes this world a smarter place."

Of course, Ottawa, Washington and London are far removed from the Middle East where Al Jazeera's impact has been quite revolutionary. From an Israeli perspective, Gendelman's commentary perhaps marks the transformation of Al Jazeera from a ‘necessary evil' to a "potential friend." In the broader context of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the channel moves from being a ‘part of the problem' to being a ‘part of the solution.' The change, however, is more than 10 years too late because it is not as if Al Jazeera has toned down its broadcasts in the face of western and Israeli criticism since its inception in 1996. It is the West and Israel that appear to have gradually developed a deeper appreciation for this lightning rod of a television station.

Interestingly, rather than being pulled up for his out-of-line opinions, Gendelman is poised to take over as the deputy director of the Israeli foreign ministry's Arab media division this summer. If this is indicative of official policy, Israel has taken a small step towards bridging the civilisational divide that separates Arabs from Jews. However, coming to terms with the reality that is the Al Jazeera media genre and the validity of its point of view is just a beginning. Canada and its allies should also be persuading Israel to take up the recent Riyadh Arab summit's peace offering more seriously.

George Abraham is a journalist based in Ottawa, Canada

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