Media Skepticism Greets Bush in the Middle East
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
So just there's a little bit of the news coverage of the president's trip to the Middle East. Let's see how the trip is playing in the Middle Eastern media.
We turn to Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon and a regular guest on this program.
Welcome back, sir.
Professor RAMEZ MALUF (Journalism, Lebanese American University, Lebanon): My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Are people closely watching the president's visit?
Prof. MALUF: It's receiving adequate coverage. It's not leading the news, but it's obviously on the front pages. But it's not really seen as the most important news item on the news broadcast or on the front pages.
INSKEEP: Would that be because few people, at least in the Middle East media, seem to expect much substance to come out of this visit?
Prof. MALUF: Yeah, exactly. It's being met with a lot of skepticism. In fact, Al-Ahram, which is Egypt's largest newspaper and it's owned by the state, describe him, in Arabic, using the expression lame duck president, unable to muster serious support for any initiative within his own country so he would like to (unintelligible) advance in the peace process, Al Ahram says. But he, himself, must recognize that this comes at the wrong time. The Israeli government cannot deliver any difficult decisions and neither can George Bush. So I think that's the overall climate.
INSKEEP: That's what's being written in an Egyptian newspaper owned by the government of Egypt, which is, at least…
Prof. MALUF: Right. This is the…
INSKEEP: …nominally an ally of the U.S.
Prof. MALUF: Yes, it's owned by the government. And I think this is the, you know, overall feeling. I think no one here really expects much out of it.
INSKEEP: Now, the president has, in addition to his other statements on this trip, made some statements that could be seen as critical of Israel. Yesterday, he held a press conference inside Israel. He was asked about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And he criticized small settlements, which, he said, were an impediment to peace. Has that received any coverage in the Arabic language media?
Prof. MALUF: Yes, it has. The Jordanian newspaper Rai points that out - that this, you know, favorable statement, something they appreciate - and so did (unintelligible) today in Lebanon. But even Al Rai, which, again, is also partially state-owned newspaper in Jordan, is critical with the visit and thinks that nothing much is going to happen as a result of it. It says George Bush does not have serious interlocutors in Israel, that Prime Minister Olmert is unpopular. And the Palestinians are divided among themselves, so they cannot deliver anything either.
INSKEEP: Has Iran come up very much in the coverage of this trip so far?
Prof. MALUF: Yes, let me give an example. Now, one of the newspapers that is very frequently quoted, albeit that it has a small distribution is Al-Kabas - says that one of the purposes of this visit is to show support for his allies against Iran, meaning, of course, both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
And he has used this opportunity, right from the start, want to threaten to Iran. And further more, to affirm the Jewish character of Israel, as he did yesterday. That means - Atwan(ph) wrote in his editorial today - that he has closed the door on any discussion on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and has reinforced the doctrine that the Middle East should be an area governed by religious governments, rather than by democratic governments as he claims he would like to see.
So I think one of the marked statements of George Bush in this visit is the affirmation of Israel as a Jewish state. A lot of people have taken note of that.
INSKEEP: Amid all this skepticism and doubt about the president's motives, do you see any signs in the Arabic language media of, well, the United States building up any good will as a result of this effort?
Prof. MALUF: To be honest, I haven't seen anything. I have looked at a number of newspapers or Web sites and television, a lot of people think this is coming too late - and in his tenure as a president.
You know, the rise of (unintelligible) tied to the Letter of welcome to President Bush, writer Salahadin Hafas(ph) said Mr. Bush, who was thankfully now in his last year in office, was welcomed to our land of which he knows little about - knows nothing about its history, knows nothing about its culture or the depth of its civilization and misunderstood its patience in front of decades of oppression until it finally blew in the face of its oppressors. So this is what I have been reading, both from state-owned public media and commercial media.
INSKEEP: Ramez Maluf is professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
Prof. MALUF: My pleasure.
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