“Twenty-four hours a day of rolling news to fill,’’ lamented the senior producer of an all-news radio station recently, “and only two hours of actual news to fill it.’’
But his problem is minor compared to that of people condemned to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where there is now almost nothing new to report at all.
There is plenty of incident, of course. More than 200 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip against nearby Israeli towns in one week recently. Some were a new, longer-range version that reached Ashkelon, a large town that had never been hit before. One Israeli was killed, and several were injured.
Israel retaliated with massive raids on the northern Gaza Strip by land and air. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, and about 120 Palestinians. Israel says 90 per cent of the Palestinian casualties were fighters; Palestinian sources say half were civilians, including 22 children.
Given the crowded living conditions in the Gaza Strip, the latter estimate is more plausible, although it would make no sense for Israeli forces to target civilians deliberately.
Then, on March 6, a Palestinian walked into Mercaz HaRav religious school in Jerusalem and killed eight young Israelis before being shot down himself. All of these events were extensively covered in the rolling news, but in what sense was there anything new about them?
It was also the same old stories on the diplomatic level. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose influence only extends to those parts of the West Bank not directly controlled by Israeli soldiers or settlers, declared that he would not take part in further “peace talks’’ with the Israelis until they agreed to a ceasefire that included the Gaza Strip.
The shaky coalition that governs Israel was undismayed by this, since any concessions to Palestinians in the peace talks, should they occur, would ignite internal quarrels that would bring down Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the region as part of her untiring quest to create a legacy for the Bush administration, insisted that both sides show willingness to negotiate.
So Olmert said the Mercaz HaRav killings would not make him break off talks with Abbas, and the latter said he would resume talks – until Rice left town, after which he reverted to saying that there could be none until there was a ceasefire in Gaza.
But Abbas has no control over Gaza. Hamas, which does, said nothing but smiled quietly. This is all so familiar that the media would not report it in any detail if there were something more exciting to hold the ads apart.
The Palestinian-Israeli quarrel has re-entered one of those lengthy phases when neither side can agree on what terms it would be willing to offer the other for a peace settlement.
From Washington, it is possible to conjure some flimsy optimism: “Ten months is a long time. There’s plenty of time to get a deal done,’’ said President Bush last week.
But no deal is going to happen while Bush is still in office. Whether it might happen under another administration is another question, but not one that is likely to have a happier answer.
Imagine that at this time next year President Obama, President McCain or President (H.) Clinton decides to spend some political capital in the Middle East. Could it achieve anything?
Unless there’s been a political earthquake in the meantime, there will still be two rival Palestinian governments, one of which is formally committed to waging relentless war against Israel (even if the reality is a little more negotiable). Israelis will have every right to claim that there is nobody to negotiate with.
The two Palestinian authorities will still be struggling to gain the upper hand in the internecine power struggle, which means that neither party can afford to make significant concessions to the Israelis.
So nothing can happen until Fatah re-establishes control over the Gaza Strip (unlikely) or Hamas dominates a reunified Palestinian Authority that includes the West Bank.
Even if that happened, Hamas would still have to decide that it really wants to negotiate with Israel, and the Israelis would then have to decide that they were willing to talk – and not only that, but to offer serious territorial concessions.
None of that is at all likely. There will be no substantive peace talks this year, and there will be none next year either. It’s all just diplomatic posturing punctuated by killing. Both sides hate the phrase “cycle of violence,’’ because it implies that both sides are responsible for it. But it is the correct phrase, and “cycles’’ aren’t news.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.