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.]