The former Washington Post building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The Washington Post on January 10 published a piece by Bloomberg columnist Max Hastings titled “Israel’s Filmmakers Take Aim at the Nation’s Moral Ambiguities,” which seeks to reconcile the paradox of depictions on film of Israeli power and heroism, with what he perceives to be contradictory realities on the ground.
Specifically, Hastings notes that Israeli perseverance has of late been depicted in works such as “The Spy” (2019, about an Israeli who for years infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian government), “Tehran” (2020, about spy operations in Iran), “Valley of Tears” (2020, about the 1973 Yom Kippur War), and the upcoming “Golda” (about Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir). Yet, the author argues, in the five decades since the Yom Kippur War, “the world has seen Israel exploit its military dominance to treat the Palestinian people with a harshness that cannot be justified merely by rehearsing the wickedness of terrorism.”
Under closer scrutiny, Hastings’ assertions turn out to be rather specious.
Referring to the words of a former Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) chief from the film “The Gatekeepers,” Hastings concludes that “since the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, successive Israeli governments had made no serious political attempt to secure peace, relying instead on the army and intelligence services to hold down the occupied territories.”
Yet it was five years after Rabin’s assassination that the Camp David Accords were convened. Mediated by US President Bill Clinton, the parameters of the proposed deal offered sweeping concessions to Palestinian demands: an independent state on nearly 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza with a road connecting the two territories, eastern Jerusalem as their capital with control over the Temple Mount, and a formula for the “Right of Return,” the claim by Palestinians that refugees and their descendants should be allowed to resettle in Israel.
Yet while Jerusalem accepted these terms, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected the peace offer.
In 2002 and 2003, a “Roadmap for Peace” was proposed by US President George W. Bush. Israel threw its support behind the initiative, as it allowed for unprecedented security cooperation between Ramallah and Jerusalem. However, the roadmap was ultimately abandoned as Jerusalem claimed that Palestinian authorities were failing to prevent terrorist activity against Israelis.
Talks ramped up again from 2006 to 2008, during which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met 36 times. Although the two leaders were, according to Olmert, closer “than ever in the past to complet[ing] an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinian,” the talks faltered when Hamas rockets prompted the outbreak of the 2008 Gaza War.
Direct negotiations were again resuscitated in 2010 and 2013. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly had to overcome the “reluctance of the Palestinians to come to the table,” even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had offered conditional support for a Palestinian state.
Another significant blow to the peace process came in 2017, when Abbas cut diplomatic ties with Washington after the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Between the intermittent negotiations, Palestinians have continually rejected peace gestures from Israel. In 2019, for example, the PA boycotted the “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop in Bahrain that was attended by Israel and Arab states.
As a contrast to the heroism and morality shown in Israeli films, Hastings writes that he “recoil[s] from the systemic ruthlessness epitomized by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and reflected in the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements across the West Bank.”
But while media outlets have repeatedly lambasted Jewish communities in the West Bank for allegedly continuing this “relentless” expansion (see here, here, and here), it is crucial to note that before 2017, Israel had not approved new settlements for more than 20 years. After 2017, no settlements were constructed, but some long-established communities in the West Bank were retroactively legalized.
Indeed, population growth in 2017 remained stagnant for the third year in a row at 3.5 percent. Still, the demand for new homes caused by natural population growth continued to outpace the supply of living space. In the eyes of the Israeli government, this necessitated the construction of additional homes.
Furthermore, this building has taken place within communities of considerable size that are widely expected by key international players and Palestinian leaders to remain part of the Jewish state following the conclusion of final status peace talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah. As such, any development within these Jewish communities does not change the conditions necessary for an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In contrast, the Palestinian Authority has adopted policies that reduce the chances for peaceful coexistence.
Palestinian officials continue to reject the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
Moreover, the PA has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to convicted terrorists and their families. The Palestinian Budget Book states that payments must be made to killed or imprisoned Palestinian terrorists and their families from a “Martyrs Fund” because the recipients constitute a “fighting sector.” Notably, the amount paid out increases in proportion to the severity of the crime.
“Israel’s Filmmakers Take Aim at the Nation’s Moral Ambiguities” is a well-researched, well-presented piece that provides an interesting account of how Israelis have come to represent the history of their country which, at multiple points, came very close to annihilation. And cinema is a powerful educational tool. Indeed, the media have long and uncritically regarded Palestinian cinema as a legitimate way to teach the public about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As such, it makes sense to view Israeli cinema as a window into the aspirations and anxieties of Israelis.
But Hastings’ media critique veers into political grandstanding in certain spots. And by perpetuating common mischaracterizations of crucial aspects of Israeli history, Hastings confuses fact with narrative.
Charles Bybelezer is the managing director of HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared — and whose staff worked together on this report.