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Israel expulsion: What the Arab press is saying

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COMMENTS

25 May 2010 17:33

Monty Pounder is graduate student at the University of Sydney and an intern in the Lowy Institute's West Asia Program.

Among the criticisms leveled at the Government's decision to expel an Israeli diplomat yesterday in response to the use of forged Australian passports in the February assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhuh, the most intriguing is the assertion from Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and former Foreign Minister Downer that the move is designed to curry favour among Arab states for Australia's Security Council bid.

Former Australian ambassador to Israel Ross Burns dismissed the notion this morning, and Michelle Grattan in The Age found it unconvincing too.

If improving Australia's credentials in the Arab Middle East was a factor in the decision, then judging by Arab press coverage, it hasn't worked very well. Coverage has been unremarkable outside the UAE.

The story received little coverage in the two major pan-Arab dailies, al-Hayat and a-Sharq al-Awsat. Al-Hayat ran a short translated AFP article. A-Sharq al-Awsat's similarly brief article quoted, interestingly, 'unofficial Israeli sources' who dismissed the expulsion as a populist move motivated by domestic politics.

The exception among the top pan-Arab dailies was the Palestinian-owned al-Quds al-Arabi, which gave the story front page coverage and followed it with a fierce editorial, stating that 'the punishment was meek in face of the scale of the crime.'

The BBC Arabic website carried a story on its front page for a period, but it didn't make the most-viewed list. 

In the UAE (where al-Mabhuh was killed) the coverage has been predictably high. The popular UAE daily Al-Khaleej led with the story on the front page of its website, with an article quoting Hamas figures praising the move as a 'good step' but 'not enough.' The other major UAE paper, al-Ittihad, also ran a front page piece.

Outside the UAE, in the GCC countries that are Australia's most likely Security Council seat supporters, coverage appears to be minimal. The highest circulation Saudi newspaper, al-Riyadh, carried an unremarkable translation of a Reuters article on its website, which didn't make today's print edition.

Another major Saudi paper, al-Okaz, appears to have missed the story altogether. Two other main national papers, Bahrain's Al-Wasat and Qatar's Al-Watan, also appear to not have covered the story. Outside the GCC, the top Egyptian daily, al-Ahram, ran a short piece off the wires.

The overall lack of reporting beyond the general news section is difficult to interpret. One might argue that, in the Middle East news cycle, a diplomatic tiff between Australia and Israel isn't particularly newsworthy. On the other hand, Israel's apparently unconditional Western support is a bête noir of the Arab press, and in this sense yesterday's events represent a major development.

The level of coverage (so far) would suggest that the expulsion is not regarded as significant, at least in comparison to the similar British expulsion of an Israeli diplomat in March over forged passports.

At the diplomatic level, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith's decision and remarks will not go unnoticed. Whether they will help build Australian credibility in the Middle East or secure votes for a Security Council seat is open to debate.

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