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New Site Aims for Mideast View, in English

Al Monitor features Bush friend, ex-‘Newsweek’ editor, ex-Politico reporter

Marc Tracy
May 10, 2012
Negotiators Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili last month in Istanbul(TOLGA ADANALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Negotiators Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili last month in Istanbul(TOLGA ADANALI/AFP/Getty Images)

After last month’s talks between the P5+1 nations and Iran in Istanbul—the most substantial such negotiations in quite some time, whose limited success is widely credited with tamping down the war fever that was running high through much of the winter and early spring—observers learned the crucial detail that Iran’s lead negotiator had pushed hard for a delay of a planned European Union oil embargo, only to be rebuffed, not from the New York Times or the AP but from a news outlet still in beta that had only launched two months before.

Over the past couple months, Al Monitor has been punching above its weight in reporting from and about the Middle East. In has hosted original reporting and commentary by authors like Laura Rozen (a Tablet Magazine contributor and the author of the above-mentioned piece), Barbara Slavin, and Bruce Riedel. Yet perhaps its most unique aspect is its partnerships with more than a dozen outlets from several countries in the region—including Turkey, Egypt, and Israel—whose work it translates. Its Israeli partners include Yediot Ahronoth and Maariv. The overall result is reporting on the region in English that pointedly doesn’t travel through a Western prism.

The founder and chairman is Jamal Daniel, a Syrian-born businessman with ties to the Bush family as well as several Arab governments.

Al Monitor also represents the next big project for Edward Felsenthal, who had been executive editor at Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast for four years and before that had founded the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” supplement. He is overseeing the site’s launch and editorial development on a consultant basis. “The mission is to bring news from 17 international media partners and to develop original reporting and video in order to enhance understanding of the region and its massive changes,” said Felsenthal, who is also working on a project in local news.

Jamal Daniel, the Syrian-born Texas investor, is also behind The Levant Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “the furthering of knowledge about Middle Eastern culture and history and the complex interrelations of the three monotheistic religions born in the Middle East.” Daniel additionally helped bankroll the feature film Amreeka, which depicts Palestinian Christians who move to the United States, and owns a stake in the Lebanese newspaper As-safir.

Daniel, who was not available for comment, is, according to one news report, a close friend of Neil Bush, President George W. Bush’s younger brother; he hosted Neil Bush’s wedding in 2004. In 2003, the Financial Times reported that Neil Bush was co-chair of Crest Investment with Daniel at the same time that Daniel advised New Bridge Strategies, a Bush-linked company created, it said, to “take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.” Subsequently, the FT reported that Daniel and another businessman used Bush family connections to try to land business in the Middle East. They also reported that Daniel’s parents were involved in the founding of the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties and remained connected to Syria’s despite being expelled when Hafez Assad came to power (they were Christians). It also said Daniel still has ties to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Syria (although this was nine years ago, before the current civil war).

Al Monitor board members include the dean of Georgetown’s foreign service school, the president of Rice University, and a top Arab League ambassador.

There is scant evidence of the sort of agenda you might expect from the project of a man with ties to the Bushes. Regular contributors include Rozen, a former national security reporter for Politico and Yahoo!, who reported from last month’s Iran talks from Istanbul and will report on this month’s from Baghdad; and Barbara Slavin, who has worked at The Washington Times, The New York Times, and USA Today. Commentators like Bruce Riedel and Daniel Serwer have published original content for the site, which has also published interviews with the likes of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and the Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti.

The site’s perspective is less political than temperamental: earnest, comprehensive, and vaguely do-gooder (take this video interview with the authors of the optimistic Another Israel Is Possible). One could imagine news junkies and bloggers following it; one could also see it being attractive to business people whose interest in understanding the region is more plainly pragmatic.

Rozen, who said Felsenthal recruited her to cover the Istanbul talks, described her reporting, which includes a blog, as “doing basically what I have always been doing in several past iterations at Foreign Policy, Politico, and Yahoo!—basically covering foreign policy, with a kind of insider perspective.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.