Naji Tilley

‘There is every reason’ that soundbite culture poisons debate on Israel

Last week, a vast amount of UK media analysis of Israel’s campaign in Gaza was notable for its focus on certain remarks made by US President Joe Biden in an interview with TIME Magazine – a focus which all too well shows how the “soundbite” culture of modern news cycles is a poisonous way of seeking to understand any issue.

The words in question from President Biden were, very simply, that “there is every reason to draw that conclusion”. The conclusion he was referring to was a proposition just put to him by the interviewer that “Netanyahu is prolonging the war for his own political self-preservation”.

Now, as soundbites go, this was a real treat for any journalist. But, as soundbites often do, this one masked the whole picture.

If you really wanted to know Biden’s conclusive thoughts on why this war persists, you need look no further than the very same interview. Just a few seconds earlier, Biden was asked this: “And whose fault is it that that deal, the ceasefire for hostages—has not been consummated? Is it Hamas or Israel or both?”

Biden’s answer to this question was crystal clear: “Hamas. Hamas could end this tomorrow… and then done, period.” He then said that the last offer Israel made for a hostage and prisoner exchange was “very generous” and that “Bibi is under enormous pressure on the hostages, and so he’s prepared to do about anything to get the hostages back.” 

There is a serious problem, then, with how the wider media and public fell for this pithy summary of Biden’s views on the permanence of this war. Not just because it’s a fundamentally incomplete conclusion to draw from the interview. But because – as Biden’s words just a few seconds earlier made clear – it’s far from the whole story. 

Of course Netanyahu is not opting to end the war yet. It is trite to anyone paying attention that it’s in Netanyahu’s political interests to carry on this war without a clear end-game in sight. Not just that the departure of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich would collapse his government if he were seen to be ending this war prematurely without all stated objectives being achieved. Not just that he will almost certainly step down to find criminal charges of corruption awaiting him. But because this whole episode in Israel’s history is an episode whose destiny he owns. It is only natural for Netanyahu to want to end it in the best possible way so as to claim, in his ensuing legacy, some form of redemption for everything that led to the horrors of October 7 under his watch.

So, yes, it is a factor in the equation. But it is no more than that – and to attribute it as a “reason”, even the reason for this war persisting is to misunderstand how we got here. Substitute any other realistic candidate for Israeli Prime Minister in for Netanyahu, and that leader faces the same fundamental live questions any Israeli Prime Minister would still face, even if they had no immediate prospect of losing power and no criminal charges waiting for them. To assume such a leader would immediately end the war on day one simply because they are not Benjamin Netanyahu, is to deliberately ignore every single other factor that got us here in the first place. 

Make no mistake, it is a purely asymmetrical analysis of a conflict being fought by two sides, which it is still in neither side’s willingness or interests to end under current conditions. To assume Hamas were to stop fighting if Israel were to suddenly change leader to one who isn’t under domestic pressure is a grave error. Hamas’s conditions for a ceasefire and the return of hostages remain deeply unpalatable to any credible Israeli Prime Minister. Hamas’s agreement to a ceasefire has repeatedly been a call for an end to a war which they began. Hamas have said they will not cease attacking Israel, until Israel stops attacking Hamas for having attacked Israel. That they will not stop firing rockets into Israeli land, until Israel stops destroying Hamas’s rocket-launching capabilities. That they will not return Israeli hostages, until Israel stops fighting them for having taken Israeli hostages (and to assume all hostages would return by ending the war is already fallacious because, by Hamas’s own admission, they don’t actually know where all of them are). 

In other words, if it weren’t blindingly obvious already, this is a two-sided war. And none of these dynamics change in a two-sided war if the Israeli side suddenly changes its leader with virtually all of its war objectives still unachieved. To pretend otherwise is intellectually lazy and worse, utterly disingenuous and dangerous.

And so, while it is clearly in Netanyahu’s personal interest to carry the war on, it is deeply irresponsible of any media organization to put the full stop right there.

And yet that’s exactly what many did. Swathes of media headlines swarmed only on Biden’s “every reason to draw that conclusion” comment. The long list includes The Guardian, CNN, NBC, Axios, Politico, Al Jazeera and The Hill. LBC’s James O’Brien fell for it last Wednesday, hinging an entire hour of a radio phone-in on this part of Biden’s interview when, had he bothered to read or listen properly, all the assumptions he made were dispelled elsewhere in the same interview. O’Brien said the US is now “describing the continuing killing of innocent Palestinians as entirely – entirely – a consequence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own purposes”. That “Biden [is] saying the *only* reason the war is continuing is for Netanyahu’s own purposes”. That Netanyahu is “wanting the carnage to continue solely, solely, so that he can keep his job.” And he then asked his listeners about what that (deeply flawed) analysis means for how the war ends. Unsurprisingly, none of them disagreed. How can you disagree, when the premise for your debate has already been set for you on the basis of such incomplete information?

The Israel and Hamas war will continue to be fiercely debated for decades to come, but I have enduring concerns about the terms in which that debate is being covered. Not because of the number of reports in favor of one side vs. those in favor of the other. But because in our digital and social media age, reasoned debate is being eschewed by reductive, soundbite media analyses that give its consumers false impressions that the answer to the world’s most complicated and painful conflict is easier than it truly is. The future of civilized debate in a democratic society depends on us standing up against this.

About the Author
Naji Tilley is a trainee lawyer based in London, UK. He holds two Law degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Birmingham, both with Distinction/First Class Honours, and the Legal Practice Course (LPC), also with Distinction. Naji had his Bar Mitzvah and was married in Israel, and has led various trips to Israel for school and university students, as well as trips to Poland and Ukraine. Naji's current interests are in the ways in which the Israel and Hamas war is debated, covered by the media and litigated in domestic and international courts. All views expressed are Naji's own, and not those of his employers past or present.