AS A newsman having spent more than a decade in Middle East newsrooms, it’s a poser one has often found facetious. One is referring here to the coverage in the media of the long-standing Palestine-Israel imbroglio.

Of course the media landscape has undergone humongous changes with focus shifting to the visual and the digital over the last few years. And, unlike in the past, what is overlooked in the print now can always find its pride of place on the new mediums. But despite all this metamorphosis I still find myself slipping into the myriad and, way too often, the incongruous hues of this deeply disturbing issue.

It was partly driven by this ambivalence that this newsman put this poser to Jeffrey D Feltman, the then US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, as he addressed a select group of journalists in Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman, on June 21, 2011.

I must also admit here that mine was the only question of all the posers put forth on the occasion, and really I wondered if I were to be seen as the odd-man-out on the Palestine issue. His answer, however, was reassuring.

Replying to my question, Feltman very much agreed that the Palestine issue might have dropped off the front pages but it remained fundamental to achieving any lasting peace in the Middle East region.

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“But we have to overcome a lot of mistrust, a lot of history for that,” he noted, while adding that the solution would come only through negotiations.

“The Israelis need to recognise the Palestinians’ concerns on territory and the Palestinians need to understand the Israelis’ concerns over security,” he said.

As his interview was carried in the various publications the next day, mine was no one else had any question even remotely connected to mine the only story with Palestine as its ‘lede’.

To be fair, I wasn’t surprised at all. Newsrooms and editors back then were near unanimous about these stories no longer holding the traction to be splashed on the front pages. The take-it-on-the-inside-page tone greeted any such suggestion almost like a clich`.

But that had not always been the case. As one moved to the region in the mid-2000s, one had a fair inkling of these ‘standard leads’ for front pages. This was especially true on days when editors would struggle for ‘leads’ on what newsrooms would typically refer to as a”dull day”!

It’s important for those in the business of news to keep track of what all tingles the nerves of the reader. No denying this. And it’s got to be a rare instance when a personal whim can dictate the agenda of a newsroom.

However, I have a feeling — I have no way of substantiating it, though — that the Palestine issue, for news outlets in this region at least, was never one that deserved to be relegated to the obscurity of remote corners of the printed world.

The two Gulf wars, 9/11, the Afghan war, the emergence of ISIS, the Syria war (that continues until this day) etc. have all contributed their mite in amortising the news value of Palestine-related stories.

Things seem to be changing, however. US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December last year that the United States now considers Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, has helped the Palestine story leapfrog to the front page once again.

The way events have unfolded since that announcement, especially with UN General Assembly rejecting Trump’s Jerusalem move and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling for the convening of an international conference by mid-2018 to pave the way for recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of a wider Middle East peace process, there is little chance this story can be pushed to the inside pages anytime soon.

Whether this media buzz can translate into a meaningful solution one that both sides could count on as an honourable one is another debate, and one can be an optimist or a pessimist depending on how one interprets the power of the media.

Back to the interview with the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, I wonder if it was an untimely poser back then, was it way off the mark? Journalists, after all, are encouraged to nurture an objective outlook and keep their eyes and ears open at all times. Aren’t they?

As it turns out, recent events have further convinced this newsman that it was not an inapt question to ask the US diplomat.

(This opinion article first appeared on the Edit page of the Qatar Tribune newspaper on Saturday, February 24, 2018)PDF-2

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