Media

The Washington Post Uses Bad Social Science to Push Anti-Israel Propaganda

From left: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani prior to signing the Abraham Accords with President Donald Trump at the White House, September 15, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
In two recent pieces, the paper touts surveys relying on biased academics and institutions.

The phrase “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” probably was not coined by Mark Twain, as is often claimed, but the Washington Post can claim this update on it: Today, there are four kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, statistics, and opinion polling. Just as polling can be corrupted by, for example, the wording of questions, journalism can be corrupted by “scientific polling,” particularly when it substantiates a publication’s anti-Israel bias. Two such cases appeared in the pages and website of the paper that warns on its front page, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Shine the light on these two egregious stories:

“What do ordinary Arabs think about normalizing relations with Israel?” by Dana El Kurd, October 26, 2020, citing the Arab Opinion Index

“Here’s how experts on the Middle East see the region’s key issues, our new survey finds,” by Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, February 16, 2021

Both columns were published by the Washington Post on its Monkey Cage blog, which is intended for academics and political scientists. The formerly independent blog signed a hosting agreement with the Washington Post in 2013 and now sits behind the Post’s paywall.

Propaganda Polling
What is the Arab Opinion Index, cited by El Kurd in the Post? It is an annual survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar. That organization runs the Arab Center Washington DC, which publishes a stream of Qatari-oriented material and analyses distributed to Washington policy-makers and thought leaders. One recent example is an attack on Egypt’s Sisi regime, which overturned Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime. (Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood live in Qatar.)

“The vast majority of Arabs probably oppose normalization and express a high degree of support for Palestinian statehood and rights,” the think tank concluded, according to El Kurd, a researcher for the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and an assistant professor at the Doha Institute. Another “scientific” conclusion was that “respondents were reluctant to answer direct questions. These findings suggest many Saudi respondents reject the idea of normalization with Israel but remain afraid to say so.”

That such a poll was produced by a Qatari organization and published by the Post is troubling. It appeared soon after the United States sealed the historic “normalization” agreements between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan. The pacts were harshly criticized by Iran, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority, and Obama-administration veterans. “The UAE and Bahrain . . . are among the most repressive governments in the Middle East,” El Kurd writes in the Post. “The UAE and Bahrain were not included in our survey, but we can get a sense of public opinion” (emphasis added). How serious is a poll that presents conclusions with terms such as “probably,” “suggest,” “we get a sense of public opinion”?

When the Post editors accepted this propaganda screed, did they also know that the director of the Qatari think tank is Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab and former member of the Knesset who fled Israel before arrest? He visited Lebanon and Syria in 2006 soon after the Second Lebanon War. Israel suspected him of treason and espionage for Hezbollah. He fled to Qatar, where he heads the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

From Qatar to the Washington Monkey CageOn February 16, the Post reported on its survey of “experts on the Middle East,” looking specifically at American attitudes toward Iran, Israel, the Palestinians. The authors, Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, are themselves “Middle East experts,” so they naturally sought to poll their colleagues. Lynch is a professor at George Washington University (GWU) and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Telhami is a professor at the University of Maryland. More on that pairing later.

The two surveyed 521 scholars from members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the Middle East section of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and GWU’s Project on the Middle East. “The vast majority speak regional languages,” the authors note, “have spent significant time in the Middle East, and have dedicated their professional lives to the rigorous study of the region and its politics.”

The survey results, meant to provide counsel to President Biden, showed overwhelming Arab hostility to Israel. “A strong majority, 59 percent, describes the current reality for Israel and the Palestinians as ‘a one-state reality akin to apartheid,’” Lynch and Telhami write. “Without a prospect of a separate Israel and separate Palestine, 77 percent expect to see a one-state reality akin to apartheid.”

Seventy-five percent of the respondents said that “the United States returning to the Iran nuclear agreement (the JCPOA) as it is currently written would make it less likely that Iran would get a nuclear weapon within the next decade.” The scholars “overwhelmingly” opposed the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”

The survey of political scientists and “experts,” however, is a blatant fraud disguised as a scientific endeavor. Virtually all the sample’s members are plagued with the same anti-Israel virus. A survey marred by such bias is fittingly termed a “self-selected listener opinion poll,” or “SLOP.”

The keepers of the Monkey Cage blog did not divulge that APSA and MESA are strong anti-Israel advocates and major promoters for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement against Israel. In 2019, APSA considered a resolution that “Israeli academic institutions are complicit in Israel’s settler colonization of Palestine” and “in the attendant ethnic cleansing, dispossession, military occupation, and apartheid policies that constitute this colonization.”

The Middle East Studies Association has crusaded for several years for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. “Hundreds of individual Middle East studies scholars . . . signed on to the academic boycott movement as individuals,” Inside Higher Ed reported in 2015. “MESA members approved [in February 2015] a resolution affirming ‘the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of the annual meeting and other forums.’” MESA’s boycott proponents explained that the anti-Israel measure was a tactic for putting international pressure on Israel, a “rogue settler-colonial state.”

A Troubling PartnershipTelhami is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, one of three organizations that published A New U.S. Strategy for the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, a 69-page progressives’ handbook for the Biden administration. Many of the recommendations are from the virtual playbook of the Obama administration and Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign wishbook.

This survey conducted by Lynch and Telhami is another link in a chain of public-relations presentations to create daylight between Washington and Jerusalem. In other recent work, Telhami presented a survey of American attitudes to claim that Israel has too much influence “on American politics and policies.” In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Lynch referred to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as “putative” U.S. allies “who have often worked openly against American policies. The Washington Post’s selection of “academic” essays represents a journalism more akin to the dark days of Pravda, ironically proving the Post front-page banner prescient. Democracy dies in darkness.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated part of Marc Lynch’s affiliation. 

Lenny Ben-David, a public-affairs consultant, writer, researcher, and historian of early photographs in the Middle East, has served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.

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