Warrior of Peace or Politics?
By Erin Gordon
The Israeli- Palestinian conflict has never been simple and neither have representations of its’ major players. In September this year one of Israel’s founding fathers, Shimon Peres died at the age of 93. Like the conflict he so tried to end, Peres was a complicated man- a backroom dealer and a self-proclaimed hawk turned dove, who held nearly every major political office in the country from Prime Minister to President. He is most famous for winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 as foreign minister with Israeli Prime Minister of the time Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their role in the Oslo Peace Accords. In his move from military hawk to peacemaker, Peres was one man to his fellow Israelis and another to the rest of the world. Thus, in the wake of his death it is interesting to see how his legacy is evaluated in the media and the ways his representation is caught up within pre-conceived notions of the conflict.
Hard news reports such as CNN’s piece ‘Shimon Peres: Israel’s Warrior for Peace Dies’ by Oren Liebermann tend to focus on the peace efforts he was most known for when reporting his death. Whereas opinion pieces such as Al Jazeera’s ‘Shimon Peres obituary: Peacemaker or War Criminal?’ by Jonathan Cook, tend to evaluate Peres’ entire history and to a greater extent focus on his previous hawkish background. The various focuses are impacted by what the medium of hard news/soft news requires and the type of media organisation it originates.
Hard news tends to characterise Peres as a man of peace by defining him by or focusing on his Nobel Peace Prize. Multiple publications refer to Peres as a former President, Prime Minister or Nobel Prize winner. Liebermann’s lead describes Peres as ‘The Israeli elder statesman who shared a Nobel Prize for forging a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians’. The UK Telegraph’s headline does a similar thing ‘Shimon Peres dies: Barack Obama leads tributes to Israel’s former President and Nobel Prize winner”. Many hard news stories refer to his Nobel Prize as not only is it Peres’ most well-known achievement but the connotations around the prize as exemplary provide context and evaluation with little additional description required.
This is related to language used to describe Peres, which positively evaluates his achievements. Liebermann describes him as “well-respected”, “veteran”, “dove” and someone “who never stopped believing in peace”. This positions the reader to view and evaluate him ethically in light of his peace efforts rather than his hawkish background. The audience is positioned not only by the obvious evaluative language but also the dulling of language and use of euphemisms when discussing potentially contentious issues in his history. Liebermann describes the nuclear program Peres allegedly founded as ‘shrouded in secrecy’ instead of undeclared. This is common amongst articles focusing on his peace efforts. The Telegraph describes Peres’ role in obtaining arms for the new Israeli army in 1948 as ‘circumventing arms embargoes’ rather than illegal importation. What this language suggests is the authors trying to muffle audience response and distract from ethical quandaries surrounding Peres’ role in the founding of Israel.
Hard news is not about convincing an audience but rather objectively reporting the facts to give the reader a chance to make up their own minds. As no one could deny Rupert Murdoch has a leaning, it is important to note that media organisations have an agenda and a purpose, thus, when less subjective terminology is used it is subtle choices that determine what the author is directing their audience to think. Liebermann’s article and many other hard news reports on Peres rely on appeals to authority to justify and legitimise their claims of Peres as a man of peace. It is the specific choice of quotes and authorities that demonstrate the leanings and intentions of the author. Articles referred to quotes from various international leaders, people who garner a lot of respect and celebrity.
Liebermann used emotive quotes from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton:
“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves.” –Barack Obama
“He was a genius with a big heart who used his gifts to imagine a future of reconciliation not conflict, economic and social empowerment not anger and frustration.”- Bill Clinton
The choice of emotive quotes, many of which make reference to personal relationships with Peres simultaneously humanize and canonize him. They reflect an assumption that the audience are followers of these international leaders and they believe western international leaders are valid sources of authority.
Another choice of authority is leaders or politicians from the Arab world or from a different perspective to Shimon Peres. The Jerusalem Post uses a quote from Bahrain’s Foreign Minister and Liebermann uses a quote from Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erakat:
“When I met him 25 years ago, I was a young professor… I was angry about something and he looked at me and said, ‘Saeb, negotiation in pain and frustration for five years is cheaper than exchanging bullets for five minutes.”
By providing quotes from different international perspectives it provides the article’s claims with a sense of legitimacy and the media organisation a sense of neutrality.
The authorities used in a news report from Al Jazeera vary greatly. The article ‘Shimon Peres, former Israeli President, dies at 93’ refers to quotes from world leaders but focuses on quotes from current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and authorities such as Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and Middle East analyst Yehia Ghanem that describe Peres as a “war criminal”.
In this case they are taking the same facts and re-wording them with different authorities to lead audiences towards their view that Peres was not a man of peace but rather another hawk, without any explicitly subjective verb choices. The adjective choice, however, provides more explicit ethical evaluations that contrasts Liebermann’s through negative terms such as ‘massacre’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘occupied’ and ‘undeclared nuclear program’.
The tributes from International leaders such as Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are just a distraction to the author’s implicit main claims, used to create a sense of neutrality. The comparatively lower amount of references to western leaders over Middle Eastern sources reflects the author’s intended audience of Al Jazeera which according to a study by Allied Media Corp is 96% Muslim of which 40 million viewers are from the Arab world.
Hard news reports tend to focus on once facet of Peres, whether good or bad. However, opinion pieces tend to delve more into an evaluation of the complexity of Peres’ legacy. We can see this firstly through headlines from all sides of the media spectrum from Jonathan Cook’s article for Al Jazeera ‘Shimon Peres obituary: Peacemaker or War Criminal?’ to a New York Time’s op-ed entitled ‘Not Just a Man of Peace’.
Cook characterises Peres as a political pundit through the use of appeals to precedent, ethics and consequences to both evaluate the ethics of Peres’ legacy and position his audience to question the ethics and respectability of Peres.
Cook creates that characterisation through descriptions of Peres that include: “Disciple of David Ben-Gurion”, “inculcated in the values of Labour Zionism espoused by Israel’s East European elite” and a “Beloved figure in western capitals, where he was feted as Israel’s peacemaker-in-chief”.
The language creates an imagery of Peres as a puppet to both the western world and the Zionist movement and acts as an appeal to ethics in itself, questioning the validity of Peres legacy. The author uses this language as he considers it as accepted or a given that his audience has some level of antagonism towards the Israeli government and a level of dislike or distrust to the west. The accepted position works in conjunction with Cook’s appeals to consequences.
“The testing of the first warhead in the late 1960s was probably at least as responsible for ensuring rock-solid US patronage in subsequent decades as Israel’s rapid victory against neighbouring Arab states in the Six-Day War.”
Cook is using that assumption to claim that Israel’s relationship to the US is a consequence of Israel’s nuclear program ergo a consequence of Peres. This is an informal fallacy and post-hoc argument as there are many reasons for the US- Israeli relationship and it can’t be solely attributed to Peres.
Cook refers to some of Peres’ more positive achievements in an attempt to appear less bias and to use them in counter-argument to discredit them. While Liebermann’s article uses Peres’ Nobel Peace Prize as justification of his central claim that Peres was a champion for peace, Cook refers to the prize as more of a backhanded compliment.
“His pivotal role in realising the Oslo Accords through a back channel in the early 1990s earned him- after frantic lobbying on his own behalf– the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, alongside Israel’s prime minister of the time, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.”
Cook is making excuses for the reason Peres received the award and using an informal fallacy in the form of an ad-hominem argument to say that because Peres lobbied for the award himself he did not deserve it. He is attempting to reduce the value of the award and rid the audience of potential connotations surrounding the prize. Thus, discrediting his oppositions arguments that a Nobel Peace Prize is a valued justification for their claims.
Articles that seek to question Peres’ legacy, including Cook’s tend to focus on Peres’ past rather than his beliefs and dreams as Liebermann’s article did. Cook uses appeal to precedent by carefully framing and placing ‘facts’ of historical precedent to ensure his article seems more legitimate and grounded compared to the opposing view.
“Peres plotted with these two fading colonial powers an attack on Egypt in 1956 that triggered the Suez Crisis.” Cook uses language such as ‘plot’ and ‘colonial’ to frame this precedent as evidence of Peres bad judgment. It also acts as an appeal to consequence stating Israel/Peres as the cause of a major international incident.
Cook uses historical incidents/issues that have significant controversy attached to them and incite strong opinions and emotions from readers. Specifically, his choice to declare Peres as a champion of settlements in the West Bank, a particularly contentious issue at the moment.
“Following the 1967 war, he championed the cause of the settlers, and used his role as defence minister in the 1970s to establish the first settlements in the northern West Bank. His slogan was ‘Settlements everywhere’.”
Cook is using settlements to appeal to his assumed audience and convince people who might support his peace efforts but have strong opinions on settlements to question the ethics of Peres. This precedent of Peres’ old policies is framed to avoid any further context on his stance of this issue post the 1970s.
The use of historical precedent is used in many opinion pieces in place of quotes and authorities. Opinion pieces from the National, The New York Times and CNN all fail to appeal to any authorities. Cook’s article refers to selective authorities; like Liebermann he is using authorities from a different side of the argument to increase the validity of his points. In this case he is using fairly damning quotes from Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli political analyst and editor of the website Challenge.
“His real obsession was with his own celebrity and prestige… What he lacked was political principle. There was an air about him of plotting behind everyone’s backs. He was certainly no Nelson Mandela.”
By choosing an Israeli source, particularly one that leans more to the left of the spectrum Cook is saying to his readership that this must be a legitimate argument, if even people from his own party/country are saying it. The quote is evaluating the ethics and credibility of Peres by explicitly evaluating his principles and characterising him as a political pundit and opportunist. This point encapsulates the challenge Peres faced in his political life in which he struggled to garner the same popularity at home as he had overseas. Using an Israeli source as an authority against the typical characterisation of Peres demonstrates the complexity of his legacy and representation in the media.
When Efrat states “He was certainly no Nelson Mandela” she is referring to Obama’s eulogy, in which he compared Peres and his humanitarian effort to that of Nelson Mandela’s. This is Cook using one authority to discredit another authority used by most of his opposition. The appeal to comparison, in the sense that Efrat believes there is no real comparison between Peres and Mandela, is an evaluation of Peres and his ethics. It is bringing to light the questionable nature of Peres’ history against the indisputable righteousness of Mandela’s legacy. Mandela is considered less of a politician and more of a human rights activist whereas this comparison characterises Peres as less of a champion of human rights and more of a backroom political dealer.
Both Cook and Liebermann’s articles provide very different perspectives on Peres and his legacy but use a few similar techniques in the argumentation in an effort to prevent an explicit view of bias. Both arguments whilst utilising precedent and authority are ultimately trying to convince and appeal to people’s ethics as is the case when talking about issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Very rarely does it come solely down to facts, it is about hawks and doves, war and peace. Peres as a founding father of the State of Israel and a leader for peace in the Middle East is destined to have his representation and his legacy’s bound by inherent notions of the conflict. He was a complex man and his characterisation is no different.