How the US Media Grooms and Dooms Palestinian Leaders

Fatah held its general congress on November 29, the seventh since the organization’s founding in 1964 and only the second to take place in Palestine. The five-day long event took place against the background of frequent outbreaks of violence in response to Israel’s unabated occupation of Palestine. This bleak reality, however, did not deter Fatah’s top leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), from maneuvering to consolidate power. Abbas’ term as Fatah chairman technically ended in 2009. By convening Fatah to renew his mandate officially, Abbas also ensures his continued chairmanship of the PLO, the umbrella Palestinian organization where Fatah holds a majority. Thus, consolidating his influence over the policies of the organization, in addition to his continuing to serve as the president of the Palestinian Authority and of the State of Palestine. In effect, Abbas controls the three most influential political positions among Palestinians.

Abbas’s power grab notably comes even as talk of his likely successor continues apace. Rifts in Fatah have long been evident, particularly between Abbas and former Palestinian national security adviser Mohammed Dahlan, whom Abbas expelled in the aftermath of Hamas’ 2007 coup in the Gaza Strip. Abbas made sure that his rivalry with Dahlan was conspicuously absent from the Fatah congress. He had personally ensured that neither Dahlan nor his known supporters could attend.

Local and regional media outlets reported on a three-hour long speech by Abbas that received 232 rounds of applause. US media coverage of the congress focused on other aspects and factors. Recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post indicate that the two most influential newspapers in the United States are throwing their weight behind Mohammed Dahlan. Arguably, the most important shaper of Western views of Palestine and Palestinians is US mainstream media coverage, which plays a substantial role in framing discourses and setting agenda. .

The Washington Post was quick to note that Dahlan is a powerful and well-connected figure in the Arab world. In a January article, Hazem Balousha and William Booth mentioned Dahlan’s close relationship with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, as well as his personal friendship with Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi.

During their interview with Dahlan, which bordered on the sycophantic, Balousha and Booth felt compelled to mention his “designer jeans and a white T-shirt that showed off his gym-trained physique.” They paid far less attention, however to Dahlan’s lack of popular support across Palestine, his record of human rights abuses in Gaza, and corruption charges.

In its coverage, the New York Times followed suit, foregoing substance and instead pandering to Dahlan with hollow complements. “With dark hair, an easy smile and the trim physique of a man who exercises 90 minutes a day, Mr. Dahlan exuded vigor and charm in a recent interview.” This quote is an outstanding example of the Times’ journalistic integrity in covering Palestine: None.

Unmentioned in both newspapers’ reports was that Dahlan, as security chief, supervised forces in Gaza which, according to statements from victims, “routinely tortured” dissidents. One victim declared that his captors often chanted Dahlan’s name while abusing prisoners. However, Dahlan was cleared of all charges, in absentia, by the Ramallah corruption court in 2015 after the evidence was deemed “inadmissible.”

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post depicted Dahlan as the main contender for the mantle of Palestinian leadership. The Washington Post called him the “archrival to Abbas,” while the New York Times described the Palestinian leadership contest as “a proxy battle pitting an old guard struggling for legitimacy against a new generation of leadership.” Possible contenders other than Dahlan, such as Marwan Barghouti, enjoy considerably higher levels of support. According to a recent survey, 37% of Palestinians prefer to see Barghouti replace Abbas, compared to only 5% for Dahlan.

Taking a slightly more objective stance, the Washington Post acknowledged that Dahlan was a third-tier candidate to win a presidential election; placing him behind former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas affiliate Ismail Haniyeh, the incumbent Abbas, and Barghouti, who is currently serving five life sentences for allegedly orchestrating an attack which killed five people. For all of the PR he generates, Dahlan can only muster the support of 5% of voters in Palestine.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, described Dahlan as “a shady character whom foreign governments depend on to do dirty work quietly, and he has often been willing.” In contrast, the Washington Post suggests that the only reason Hamas “branded Dahlan a spy or an Israeli pawn” was because of his past involvement in peace negotiations with Israel.

US mainstream media efforts to pre-empt or ridicule democratic processes in Palestine are not new. During the 2005 elections, the late Yasser Arafat was labeled an obstructionist and a terrorist while Mahmoud Abbas was lauded as a potential catalyst “for reviving peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” The New York Times delivered this posthumous insult against Arafat in January 2005, accusing him of encouraging “warlordism, corruption with state and donor money, and a breakdown in public order” by pitting political strongmen in his party against each other.

At the same time, Abbas was enjoying public endorsements from the Bush administration. Compare these two extracts from the New York Times, the first taken from the aforementioned 2005 article, and the second from a report in 2015:

Administration officials said there was a mood of guarded optimism among Mr. Bush’s aides that, while the emergence of Mr. Abbas promised a new opportunity, progress is contingent on the Palestinians curbing terrorist activity and the Israelis easing their grip in the West Bank and curtailing settlement growth there.

To an increasing number of Palestinians, Mr. Abbas is inextricably enmeshed with their broader problems. A colorless leader in the 10th year of what was meant to have been a five-year term — the Palestinian leadership has not held a presidential election since 2005 — he has failed to cultivate a successor and has systematically snuffed out any challenges to his rule.

The 2005 extract sounds like the US media’s portrayal of Dahlan in 2016, while the 2015 extract is reminiscent of media portrayals of Arafat both before and after his death in 2004.

Eleven years later, and the tables have turned on President Abbas. Despite his meager support on the ground in Palestine, Dahlan is now the Western media’s favored candidate, the handsome young leader who can take over from the old guard’s iron grip. Dahlan’s misconduct in Gaza has been whitewashed; and his physical appearance and charisma are considered more important than his spotty political record.

Given that internal Palestinian affairs are poorly covered in the US media, the New York Times’ and the Washington Post’s praises for Dahlan are less journalistic accounts than they are political agenda-setting or pro-Israel pandering.

Talal Husseini is an Editorial Intern with IPS. Dorgham Abusalim contributed to this article.