It's a common, almost clichéd observation that the American media is less critical of Israeli policy than the Israeli media. In mainstream American depictions of the ceaseless misery of the Middle East, Israeli righteousness and Arab violence are routinely emphasised. The reality of Israeli settlements and Palestinian suffering have been, at best, a footnote.
Conservatives often complain that the news isn't even more biased toward the Jewish state - or the most hawkish elements within it - but such carping both obscures and reinforces the real distortion in American Middle East coverage, serving as a pre-emptive warning to any outlet that might show too much sympathy for the Palestinians. (The crudeness of Israel's most vociferous detractors on the far left doesn't help, since it further marginalises criticism of Israel as the preserve of cranks who can't see a difference between Dachau and Jenin.)
Slowly, though, something is changing. As Israel pulverises Gaza, questions and doubts about Israeli policy are becoming more prominent in the American media. The failure of the war in Iraq and the attendant discrediting of neoconservatism has opened up new space in the American conversation. With the American right dejected and weakened, there's less pressure on the press to display the kind of boorish one-sidedness that self-congratulatory conservatives like to call "moral clarity". Israel's disproportionate retaliation in Gaza is increasingly recognised as both brutal and, in all likelihood, ultimately futile. In destroying Gaza, Israel is also destroying the American taboo that has ensured the country such unstintingly favourable media coverage.
On December 31, CNN took on the contentious question of whether Israel or Hamas broke the ceasefire, precipitating the current fighting. First, the network aired a clip of the liberal Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti saying: "The world press community or media community is overwhelmed with the Israeli narrative, which is incorrect. The Israeli spokespersons have been spreading lies all over. The reality and the truth is that the side that broke this truce and this ceasefire was Israel. Two months before it ended, Israel started attacking Rafah, started attacking Hamas and never lifted the blockade on Gaza." Ordinarily, TV journalists would follow such a clip - if they even aired it in the first place - with one of Israel making its case, and would stop at that, leaving an audience already predisposed against the Palestinians to sort out the truth. Instead, anchor Rick Sanchez did something that should be commonplace, but sadly is not: he endeavoured to find out who was right.
"And you know what we did? I've checked with some of the folks here at our international desk, and I went to them and asked: 'What was he talking about, and do we have any information on that?'" said Sanchez. And he reported that his sources confirmed that Barghouti was right.
Since then, questioning and outright condemning Israeli actions have become increasingly common in the establishment press. On January 8, the op-ed page of the New York Times ran three opinion pieces critical of Israel. "When it is shelled by its neighbour, Israel has to do something," wrote columnist Nick Kristof. "But Israel's right to do something doesn't mean it has the right to do anything." Last week, a new issue of Time magazine appeared, its cover showing a star of David behind rows of barbed wire and the headline "Why Israel can't win". The extremely conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page ran a piece by George Bisharat with the headline "Israel is committing war crimes". "Israel's current assault on the Gaza Strip cannot be justified by self-defence," it began. "Rather, it involves serious violations of international law, including war crimes. ... Hamas fighters have also violated the laws of warfare, but their misdeeds do not justify Israel's acts."
No doubt, some of Israel's most aggressive partisans are going to be alarmed by this sudden shift in the American discourse. They're used to dismissing the world's criticism of Israel as the mutterings of antisemites and bien-pensant third-worldists. The US has been a cocoon that protects Israel and its advocates from facing harsh judgments. But Israel has been ill served by America's endless indulgence. What is happening in Gaza endangers, first and foremost, the benighted people who live there and who are dying by the hundreds. It also endangers Israel itself, pushing already elusive prospects for peace ever more out of reach.
An American media that turned a blind eye to Israeli expansionism and human rights abuses ultimately made the Jewish state less, not more, secure. Without the US putting pressure on Israel to dismantle the settlements and loosen the blockade in Gaza, leaders there had neither the incentive nor the political cover to do so. Now that the American press is displaying a bit of courage in facing an unfolding catastrophe abetted by American leadership, perhaps our politicians will have room to do the same.