Comply with Oslo or face the consequences. That was the Israeli message to its Palestinian negotiating partner when it issued a detailed account of the Palestinian Authority's stunning failure to adhere to the landmark accords.
The response from the world press was convulsive – and distorting. Correspondents and editors thunderously deplored the Israeli position, characterizing the insistence on Arab compliance as an outrageous injection of new demands and tough conditions.
Nowhere did the ire take a more revealing turn than in the pages of the New York Times. There Oslo has long been transmuted into a manual of Palestinian entitlements – with Israel regularly admonished for footdragging and exhorted to be forthcoming, while Arab breaches of the agreements are passed over in silence. The newspaper has never provided readers a full accounting of compliance by the respective parties.
Bureau Chief Serge Schmemann's front-page story of January 14, 1998, announced:
The Israeli Cabinet decided today that Israel would make no further withdrawal from the West Bank unless the Palestinians satisfied a series of stringent conditions. The conditions included some – like extradition of Palestinian prisoners to Israel – that Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is most unlikely to accept.
"Stringent conditions" Arafat is "most unlikely to accept"? The Palestinian leader explicitly did accept the obligation to extradite those involved in anti-Israel violence when he signed Oslo 2! That Schmemann would not know this, or would deliberately misrepresent it, is striking indeed. Moreover, the Israeli Government Press Office has consistently disseminated to Israel-based journalists passages of the Oslo agreements related to the extradition issue along with lists of names of Palestinians implicated in terrorism and sought for trial by Israel. (Palestinians involved in bombings and in murders of individual Israelis roam freely in Palestinian autonomous areas and some are actually members of the Palestinian police forces.)
Most startling in Schmemann's article was the correspondent's extraordinary factual blunder. At one point the reporter disputes a government statement regarding the "Note for the Record," an official document that accompanied the Hebron Protocol – agreements governing Israel's January 1997 withdrawal from the city of Hebron. Israeli officials had cited the Note as the most recent legal restatement of major obligations of the Palestinians. But the Times reporter apparently believed he knew better; he claimed that although Israel had issued "a long series of demands," in fact "...the 'note for the record' signed by Warren Christopher – who was Secretary of State at the time – included none of these requirements."
Warren Christopher's letter and the Note for the Record, which was signed by American envoy Dennis Ross, not Christopher, are, in fact, two different documents. Indeed, Christopher's letter does not list the outstanding obligations of the Palestinians, but the Note most certainly does.
The error is telling. The Note for the Record has been cited endlessly by governments and reporters. It takes some effort to be as ignorant of its contents as Schmemann evidently was. His January 14 account is rendered largely unintelligible – not to mention false – by the wrong assertions about the Note. For example, he writes, "The position adopted by the Cabinet today was that the note – appended by the United States to the agreement signed a year ago on an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank City of Hebron – spoke of 'reciprocity.' The Cabinet said any further Israeli withdrawals were therefore conditional on the Palestinians' fulfilling what Israel described as their `commitments' under the American note."
It was not some "position adopted" by the Israelis to require reciprocity or to invoke Palestinian commitments to the accords – this was the specific language of the Note for the Record, which states that, "...the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to implement the Interim Agreement on the basis of reciprocity..."
Why, in any case, whatever the language of the Note, would Schmemann insinuate fault in Israel's expectation of reciprocal fulfillment of the Oslo/Hebron agreements?
At issue here is something more than journalistic oversight. It is a blunt turning away from the truth, and the same posture is apparent in the assertions and actions of Times editors in New York who oversee the reporter's work. A "correction" was issued one day after the gaffe, but it actually injected new error. It read:
An article yesterday about an Israeli Government declaration setting conditions for a further withdrawal from Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank misidentified the diplomatic document cited by Israel as authorization for such conditions. The document, a "note for the record," was prepared a year ago by Dennis Ross, the Clinton Administration's chief mediator for the Middle East, as an attachment to an accord on a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron. It includes general obligations that the Israelis now say will be met if the Palestinian Authority complies with the new, specific demands. Another document issued at the time of the Hebron accord – a letter signed by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher – clearly does not authorize such demands and was not at issue.
The Times did not simply "misidentify" a document; it radically distorted the content of the Note for the Record and the respective obligations of the Israelis and Palestinians described therein. From that error flowed all kinds of nonsense about Israeli actions. Moreover, consistent with the Times perspective that only Israel has formally incurred specific obligations under Oslo and related accords, the correction erroneously claims the Note "includes general obligations that the Israelis now say will be met if the Palestinian Authority complies with the new, specific demands."
There are no "new, specific demands." For the Times to assert otherwise is sheer deception. Yet, neither in the original article nor in the correction does the Times report to readers the fundamental fact that the Note itemizes specific Palestinian obligations. These include completing revision of the Palestinian Charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, strengthening security cooperation, preventing incitement and hostile propaganda, combatting terrorism and terrorist infrastructure, apprehending, prosecuting and punishing terrorists, acting on Israeli requests for transfer of suspects and defendants, confiscating illegal arms, and restricting PA police levels to those agreed on.
The vilification of Israel for documenting massive Palestinian violations of its sworn commitments reflects the bowdlerizing of Oslo routinely purveyed by the New York Times. Reporters and editors appear to believe the agreements are a sham, an expedient cover for Israel's ceding land to the Palestinians as quickly as possible and doing so regardless of Palestinian conduct. When Israel resists such thinking and calls instead for attention to the actual letter and spirit of the agreements, the New York Times Bureau Chief distorts the documents, and his colleagues in America collude.
For America's "newspaper of record" it is a sorry record indeed.