Last week, Israeli commandos boarded a relief ship attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip and, during a clash with pro-Palestinian activists, shot nine people to death. It was an old-fashioned, bona fide "international incident," a fiasco that raised alarming questions about the current trajectory of Israel's security, the wisdom of its government, as well as the fate of Obama's Middle East policies and U.S. security in general.
Within a few days, though, the Washington media's "Israel narrative" abandoned those questions and focused instead on the ugly words and sudden retirement of cranky 89-year-old White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Somehow, the debate shifted from Israel behaving badly to Helen Thomas behaving badly.
I'm not going to defend Thomas -- what she said was deeply offensive. But in the overall scheme of things, it was a trivial incident, and DC's sudden obsession with it -- to the exclusion of a lot of other, more important things -- is especially ironic given the parlous state of the Israeli situation.
The Washington media universe may not have set a new speed record here for spinning itself, Tasmanian devil-style, from grave and difficult to trivial and ironic. (That seems, after all, to be what it does nearly every hour of every day.) But it did set a kind of distance record for leaping the moral gulf between important, complex issues and easy, knee-jerk ones.
If you withhold judgment for just a moment on Israel and the Palestinians, all you see are difficult issues, stark moral choices, no-win scenarios. The appalling economic conditions in Gaza, the awful paradox of a democratically-elected Hamas, the unintended consequences of Israel's unyielding military and diplomatic posture, the blowup with Turkey, potential impacts for terrorist recruitment, Iran, ad infinitum. But American politicians flee from these issues. Instead they fell over one another defending Israel for doing something indefensible. (Yes, of course the blockade-running is a provocation. But if you're smart, you don't kill provocateurs.)
The media and punditocracy follow the politicians. And pretty soon you've got Liz Cheney denouncing Turkey -- our ally -- for all but countenancing the destruction of Israel. Add Helen Thomas into this combustible mix, and a serious engagement with these issues (never a likelihood, but still) becomes impossible.
There are two problems here: The default media posture for hard issues is he-said-she-said, and when you try that with the Middle East all you get is people hurling accusations back and forth. That might work for cable chat shows, but not for understanding what's really going on in the Middle East. Worse, few in the media are smart or brave enough to weigh these issues. If they were, we might get more pushback on the vacuous political debate on Israel here in the United States. For instance, read Peter Beinart's carefully-argued piece on the failure of the American Jewish establishment in the New York Review of Books. Beinart's arguments are alarming. But he is simply too reasonable and nuanced to get much of a hearing in a media that feeds on outrage and is dealing with a situation that is a bottomless BP well of outrage. Reasonable won't cut it when you're arguing with Liz Cheney.
This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.