Evasion and Incoherence: How the NY Times Muddies the Peace Process

After nine months of Mideast peace talks and their ultimate collapse, what will Times readers take away from the thousands of words the paper has devoted to this issue, online and in print?

Among other issues, there is the question of blame, determining who was responsible for the death of this effort to forge two states in Palestine-Israel. Readers heard the answer in a variety of ways during the final weeks of coverage. On April 2 a front page headline pointed the finger at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the culprit (“Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter”). A week later the Times was writing that Secretary of State Kerry appeared to lay the blame on Israel.

But finally, in its “how it all went wrong” piece on April 29, the Times came down on the side of a familiar claim: Both sides are to blame. “Washington cannot force an agreement,” it reported, “if the parties are unwilling.”

In taking this stance, the Times implies that we have two equal sides here. Nowhere does it acknowledge the huge imbalance of power between the occupier, endowed with overwhelming military might, and the occupied. But the facts on the ground are there, and this creates a tension between what the Times wants to avoid saying and what it is forced to include.

For instance, there are the settlements, an issue that was front and center during the talks from the beginning. Israel had refused to freeze settlement building, and it continued to announce new plans throughout, coming up with nearly 14,000 new units over the nine months of negotiations.

The Times duly reported this, but there was little comment on the implications of settlement building, on the fact that Palestinian farmers would lose still more of their fields, water sources and grazing land. There was little said to indicate that settlements would force residents of East Jerusalem out of homes they had occupied since arriving there as refugees in 1948 or 1967 or that settlements further fragment Palestinian land, making it that much harder to create a contiguous state rather than a string of isolated cantons.

The Times would rather not go into the implications of the fact that Israel builds settlements at will, in defiance of the United States and international opinion. If they did, it would underscore who has the upper hand in these negotiations. And so the Times strives to portray the talks as meetings between two equal sides, while the facts on the ground show a different reality.

Likewise, the Times is quick to speak of Israel’s security needs, but at the same time it gives prominence to Israeli alarm over Palestinian plans to join the International Criminal Court. If Israel is the victim of Palestinian terrorism, why should this be a threat?

Readers who give the question some thought may come to see that Israel is vulnerable to charges of war crimes under international law in Gaza and in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the perpetrator of war crimes would find it difficult to maintain its claim of victimhood.

Instead, Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren buys into the terror threat claim when she gives us this assessment: “The talks helped contain violence in the West Bank and hold back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions.”

In fact, violence was rampant in the West Bank. It’s just that this violence was directed against Palestinians, and thus, in the Times’ Israel-centric view, it was of little account.

During a press briefing, which Rudoren attended, PLO member Mustafa Barghouti reported that over the nine months of talks, settlers attacked Palestinian villages 660 times, 3674 Palestinians were arrested, 61 were killed and 1054 were injured; the military carried out 4500 attacks against Palestinians, and Israel destroyed 508 Palestinian homes.

Readers would have a different impression of how well violence was contained if the story had included these data.

As for the statement that the talks “held back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions,” this is credible only among those who rely on the Times to present the news in full.

In January, at the midpoint of the peace talk timeline, print and television news in Israel highlighted major stories about the negative effects of the boycott movement. And during the nine months of the negotiating process, the boycott, divestment and sanctions effort racked up several triumphs.

The following are just a few: The Dutch pension fund PGGM divested from five Israeli banks, Europe’s largest teachers’ union and the Royal Institute of British Architects endorsed the boycott call, a Norwegian singer cancelled his appearance in Tel Aviv and academic groups continued to join in the movement. (See here for lists and links to news stories.)

The Times has also failed to tell readers that the Hamas-Fatah unity deal (presented as the coup de grace for the peace talks) has the support of the European Union, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the group of global statesmen known as The Elders and Arab states. It quotes U.S. and Israeli sources on their opposition to the deal but ignores the international reaction, which doesn’t conform to the Times’ preferred narrative.

Rudoren also deliberately distorts the Arab view by saying that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ patron, while she omits the fact that Egypt helped broker the agreement and other states have spoken their approval.

More than once Rudoren refers to the situation in Israel-Palestine as an “intractable conflict.” We need some context for this. We need to know when it began and why, and we need some reference to international law. The Times (and Israel and the United States) would rather not go there. Hence the lack of historical narrative, the call for peace without a similar appeal for human rights and the alarm when Palestinians join international treaties.

Times readers are left with misinformation, muddled reporting and inconsistent claims in the post mortem stories about the peace process. Without reading between the lines, they will buy into the notion that both sides are to blame, that joining international treaties is just as bad as building settlements, that Israel faces a security threat and that neither side really wants peace.

Readers should be asking the Times some questions of their own: If we are talking about two states, why can’t we see a map of the areas in question? Why is the Palestinian plan to join international covenants raising such alarm? Why don’t we hear some new voices in this story?

Barbara Erickson

[Some may also want to read an Israeli reporter’s fascinating interview with U.S. negotiators, who place the blame for the talks’ failure squarely on Israel. See here and here.]


“Balance” in The Times: A Smokescreen for Israeli Control

Ali Abunimah in the Electronic Intifada has caught The New York Times distorting its own reported facts. Although the newspaper said yesterday that former Secretary of State James Baker once challenged both Israelis and Palestinians to “get serious about peace,” the words he spoke 24 years ago were directed solely at the Israelis.

EI includes a video and the original Times reporting about the June 1990 incident, which took place at a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs committee. This evidence shows that yesterday’s page one story had it wrong, and Abunimah goes on to say that the newspaper appeared “to be rewriting history to make it seem more ‘balanced.’”

It is true that the Times pulls out all stops to appear “balanced.” The article by Mark Landler and Michael Gordon (“U.S. To Reassess Status of Talks On Middle East”) and an inside page analysis of the peace process by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren (“A Peace Process in Which Process Has Come to Outweigh Peace”) mutually take pains to show how “both sides” are at fault for the present crisis in the talks.

“Like Mr. Baker,” the front page story states, “Mr. Kerry is dealing with two parties that know what the outlines of a peace accord would look like but are paralyzed by intransigence.” Both stories are full of “on one hand” and “on the other hand” balancing acts, and this in itself is a distortion of the reality.

The peace process is anything but the meeting of two equal parties, but readers would not know this from the information provided here. Nowhere does either story acknowledge that Palestinians are living under military occupation nor that Israel is the occupier and acting in defiance of international law when it builds its separation wall, confiscates Palestinian land and water, demolishes homes and suppresses peaceful protests with deadly force.

The Times stories may be in response to a recent prodding by the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who sided with readers when they complained that a story last Wednesday (“Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter”) inaccurately placed blame for the crisis solely on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister.

But it is also true that the focus on “balance” serves the Israelis well. It gives the impression that they are facing a foe equal in strength to their own. In fact, Israel holds nearly all the cards in this game: It is fortified with the latest weapons, including nuclear arms; it has U.S. support in weaponry, funding and diplomacy; it controls all the borders, and its security forces enter areas under nominal Palestinian control at will.

An honest analysis of the talks would take a hard look at the U.S. role in the conflict, at the “special relationship with Israel,” where the United States has consistently blocked Palestinian efforts at the United Nations and vetoed proposals from the world community that would hold Israel to account under international law.

All this indicates that the United States is nothing like a neutral broker in the negotiations, but Rudoren merely notes that Palestinians are advocating “multilateral talks modeled on those employed with Iran and Syria.” She gives no context to their demand and no voice to their sense of betrayal.

When Abbas signed requests for membership in international treaties last week, he was exercising the only leverage available to Palestinians—their appeal to law and humanitarian consensus. Israel and the United States, on the other hand, reacted with threats to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority, cancellation of the last prisoner exchange, and “a list of possible punitive measures,” leading, no doubt, to more daily miseries for Palestinians under occupation.

Yet the Times would have us believe that the problem is simply one of getting two sides to agree. Landler and Gordon quote a U.S. official who says, “Insofar as we find fault here, it is in the inability of either side to make tough decisions.”

Somehow the Times has forgotten its earlier story where Abbas announced that he could agree to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley for three years. In the same way it apparently “forgot” to whom Secretary Baker’s comments were aimed—at Israel alone.

It takes selective memory to twist the peace talk narrative into a semblance of “balance,” but the Times has done it once again, all to the benefit of Israel and its expansionist claims on the land of Palestine.

Barbara Erickson

In Times Speak, International Law Is a “Poison Pill”

The New York Times has singled out the culprit in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and it is Mahmoud Abbas. The lead story in the print edition today states it clearly: “Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter.”

The story by Jodi Rudoren, Michael Gordon and Mark Landler tells of Abbas signing requests for membership in 15 international agencies and goes on to quote both Abbas and United States officials. Israeli officials, who had remained silent about the move, are missing from the story.

Echoing U.S. and Israeli talking points, it states that this was “a move to gain the benefits of statehood outside the negotiations process” and that “the Palestinians’ pursuit of the international route is widely viewed as a poison pill for the peace talks.”

The Times does not say who views the move as a “poison pill.” It leaves the impression that the international community is against such actions, when, in fact, the world at large, voting in the United Nations, has supported such Palestinian efforts by wide margins. The 2012 Palestinian bid for non-member observer state status, for instance, won by 138 to 9 votes in the General Assembly.

In today’s story the Times says only that the U.S. voted against the 2012 bid and blocked an earlier effort in the Security Council.

The story fails to mention primary obstacles in the way of the peace process: continued settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, attacks that have left some 50 Palestinians dead since the talks began last August, and Israel’s claims on the Jordan Valley.

In fact, before Abbas held his signing ceremony yesterday, Israel announced plans to build another 700 housing units within occupied East Jerusalem. The Times omits this fact, although other media outlets give it prominence.

Some reports said that the first document Abbas chose to sign was the Geneva Convention. This treaty was mentioned briefly in the Times story but developed more fully in other publications.

In Reuters, for example, Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning write that “the convention lays down the standards of international law for war and occupation” and signing it “would give Palestinians a stronger basis to accede to the International Criminal Court and eventually lodge formal complaints against Israel for its continued occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war.”

It seems that the Times would rather not look too closely at international law when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It glosses over UN actions and worldwide support for the Palestinian cause, and in spite of the fact that the peace process has been faltering for months, singles out yesterday’s act as the “poison pill” responsible for it all.

Israel has been building settlements on confiscated land and killing Palestinians with impunity, but the Times avoids mention of these crimes. It would rather take aim at a man with a pen as he appeals to the dictates of humanitarian values and international law.

Barbara Erickson





Just Tell the Story

Today in the Times Jodi Rudoren writes that the peace talks have become “a dispute over a historical narrative that each side sees as fundamental to its existence.” It is because of this narrative, she claims, that Palestinians reject Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state.

But what is this narrative, and what are the details of the dispute? Rudoren never tells us. She refers to this narrative no less than seven times in the article and never sets out what precisely is at stake.

She writes that there are “conflicting versions of the past” without stating what these versions are and where they conflict. If Rudoren wants to claim that the crux of the dispute is two varying narratives, two different versions of history, we should be told what these two competing stories are.

In fact, there is little dispute today over what took place in 1948 when some 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their towns and villages to make room for Jewish immigrants. Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, have described this process of deliberate ethnic cleansing, and a new book by Ari Shavit, My Promised Land, also acknowledges some elements of this truth, describing a massacre in Lydda (which became Lod) and the expulsion of its Palestinian residents.

Likewise, no one here is denying the Holocaust or the ugly facts of European anti-Semitism. If these were at issue, no doubt the Times would say so.

Instead, we have vague references to competing narratives and no explanation about where the two histories might clash. It seems that Rudoren would rather avoid these details. They are not pretty, and the best Shavit and Morris can do with them is to say that they were unfortunate but necessary. Shavit writes, referring to those responsible for the crimes in Lydda,“I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born.”

Times readers should also revisit Roger Cohen’s op-ed column, “My Jewish State,” which ran yesterday. Here he makes clear that for Palestinians Netanyahu’s demand that they recognize Israel as Jewish state would “amount to explicit acquiescence to second-class citizenship for the 1.6 million Arabs in Israel” and “undermine the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees.” These are the main reasons they reject Netanyahu’s demand.

Israel is already Jewish, Cohen says, and Netanyahu’s demand is “a waste of time, a complicating diversion when none is needed.” He quotes an Israeli political scientist who says it is nothing but “a tactical issue raised by Netanyahu in order to make negotiations more difficult.”

Rudoren’s story fails to address the real difficulties for Palestinians in recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. This would require a closer look at discriminatory laws and practices directed against Palestinians within Israel today and the misery of millions of refugees made stateless by the founding of Israel.

Rather than do this, Rudoren and Times circle around an unsubstantiated claim that “competing narratives” are the sticking point in the present dispute.

Barbara Erickson