Former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee famously declared that “news is the first draft of history.” In that case, historians will have to treat the Post’s first- and second-day coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Jan. 4 stroke skeptically.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler’s analysis, “Bush at Risk of Losing Closest Mideast Ally” repeatedly misrepresents U.S.-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The Post’s editorial commenting on Sharon’s incapacitation is superficial and mistaken. Correspondent Scott Wilson’s news articles, despite accurately updating readers on the prime minister’s health, mislead them on fundamentals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Kessler’s Jan. 5 analysis claims that Sharon’s cerebral hemorrhage cast “doubt on President Bush’s pledge to help create a Palestinian state before the end of his term.” In fact, Bush himself already had cast doubt on that pledge.
In 2002, the president committed the United States to work for a West Bank and Gaza Strip “Palestine,” democratic and at peace with Israel. He anticipated establishment of such a state by the end of 2005. But Palestinian Authority refusal to begin to eradicate anti-Israel terrorism as required by the diplomatic “road map” forced Bush to postpone the date to 2007. After his reelection in 2004, the president forecast establishment of a West Bank and Gaza state before the end of his second term in January 2009. Bush acknowledged further slippage after meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas last October, saying only that he still advocated a two-state solution and would work for it in or out of office.
Kessler reports that Sharon won from Bush “a written pledge that appeared to acknowledge that Israel could keep large settlements on the West Bank” but omits the fact Bush later told Abbas that final Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should take the 1949 armistice lines as their point of reference. The armistice lines do not include the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) or its post-1967 Jewish communities.
The reporter says that while
Bush frequently reiterates his goal of creating a Palestinian state .... Sharon’s goal appears to be [emphasis added] something less than that –– Palestinian areas bordered by a fence and crisscrossed by roads and tunnels to well-protected Israeli settlements.
In fact, Sharon spoke repeatedly of the “painful concessions” Israelis would have to make in allowing establishment of a West Bank and Gaza Strip state. Sharon’s government realigned the route of the West Bank security barrier, for example, so it would encompass between seven and eight percent of the disputed territories, not 15 percent as originally planned. What appeared to be something less to Kessler certainly looked like a full-blown Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip state to Sharon’s many critics in his former Likud Party.
The analysis also claims that Sharon let the road map “become moribund while he crafted his ideas to withdraw from Gaza.” Actually, continued failure of the PA to meet its anti-terrorism “road map” requirement helped convince Sharon that the authority was not a serious negotiating partner. He then began to plan for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip instead. Omitting necessary context manipulates cause-and-effect, leaving the implication that Sharon rather than the PA is to blame for “moribund” diplomacy.
Finally, Kessler recalls that Bush referred to Sharon in 2002 as “a ‘man of peace’ during an especially tough crackdown on the Palestinians.” Again, necessary context is withheld. After a series of Arab massacres of Jewish civilians, the Israeli military reoccupied Palestinian population centers. As a result, the number of Israeli victims of terrorist attacks dropped. The crackdown was not “on the Palestinians” generally but specifically against terrorists. And considering non-combatant casualties when Algerian, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and other Middle Eastern regimes’’ suppress internal violence, it was not “especially tough.”
The newspaper’s Jan. 6 editorial, “Israel’s Loss,”dispenses with Sharon’s 55-year military and political career in one sentence, summarizes current developments from a pro-Palestinian tilt, and signs off with a cliche.
The Post declares that Sharon’s incapacitation “greatly reduces the possibility that his country will take significant steps toward a settlement with Palestinians during the remainder of President Bush’s administration.” How can it know? Post editorialists two years ago would have scoffed at the assertion Sharon would unilaterally withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip or –– his re-election likely –– nevertheless bolt from the Likud Party he helped found.
The editorial refers to “the occupied West Bank” and “the occupied territories” but not at all to “the disputed territories” –– which is their legal status. Echoing Kessler’s analysis, the editorial alleges that “it was never clear whether [Sharon] was willing to give up enough, in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to make possible an enduring settlement.” The editorial does not ask the same question of the Palestinians though it also applies to them.
The paper does not acknowledge that if Sharon –– or any other Israeli leader –– thought he or she had a reliable peace partner in the Palestinian leadership, he would attempt to reach “an enduring settlement.” Yitzhak Rabin tried through Oslo, Benjamin Netanyahu likewise in the Wye Plantation agreements, and Ehud Barak at Camp David. Sharon offered Abbas cooperation at Sharm el-Sheik during the latter’s tenure as prime minister under Arafat, and again after Abbas’’ election as president a year ago. But Abbas could not or would not deliver.
The editorial notes Palestinian responsibility for perpetuating the conflict in a single sentence: “The growing violence in Gaza and the likelihood of a strong finish by the Islamic movement Hamas in Palestinian elections clouded the prospect for an Israeli-Palestinian accord well before” Sharon’s illness. Its misleading description of Hamas indicates the blinders through which The Post sees Palestinian Arabs. Hamas is not merely or primarily an “Islamic movement” –– it is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Its electoral strength doesn’t just “cloud prospects” for an accord; it suggests an accord may not be what many Palestinians want.
The editorial concludes that with Sharon’s stroke, “once again Israel’s future is up for grabs.” The orderly transition of governing authority indicated that was not the case. Up for grabs, as intensifying intra-Palestinian chaos in the Gaza Strip and West Bank illustrated, was Palestinian capability and desire for self-rule and state-building.
Post Jerusalem correspondent Scott Wilson’s first- and second-day coverage of Sharon’s stroke and concurrent events –– five separate articles –– showed more balance and detail than found in Kessler’s analysis or the paper’s editorial. Nevertheless, omissions of key facts and odd word choice combined in repeated examples of unfair coverage. For example:
Wilson writes that Sharon “redrew the country’s ambiguous border with the Palestinians” and, somewhat contradictorily, that he “intended to redefine Israel’s borders ....” But Israel never has had a border with the Palestinian Arabs, ambiguous or otherwise. The 1949 armistice line demarcating Israel from the West Bank has been and is a temporary boundary –– not an internationally recognized border –– pending a final Arab-Israeli settlement. The Gaza Strip-Israeli frontier may become a permanent border –– provided the Palestinian Authority establishes a state in accordance with Bush’s vision.
Another, and glaring, omission occurs when the correspondent reports that “Sharon is vilified in much of the Arab world” for ordering construction of the West Bank security barrier, intending to retain major Jewish settlements as part of Israel, and for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila “refugee camps” by Lebanese Phalangists allied with Israel. In fact, Arabs vilify Sharon for a lifetime of successfully defending Israel. Omitted highlights include Sharon’s anti-terrorist success as a young officer in the 1950s, as leader of a key Israeli army thrust in the Sinai in the 1967 Six-Day War, mastermind of Israel’s encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army west of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, architect of Israel’s ‘82 war against the Palestine Liberation Organization that shattered Yasser Arafat’s state-within-a-state in Lebanon, and Israel’s largely successful suppression of the “al Aqsa intifada.” Itemizing the full bill of particulars for which Arabs vilify Sharon would highlight their aggression that he so often successfully countered.
Critical omissions figure in Wilson’s use of Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi as a source. The news media long has overlooked Ashrawi’s blatant manipulation of fact, perhaps because she is an English-speaking woman always good for a sound bite. Wilson lets Ashrawi claim that Sharon was a “master of unilateralism,” which she defines –– in Wilson’s paraphrase –– as including “the many assassinations of Palestinian political leaders.” What ““Palestinian political leaders”? Israel, under Sharon and previous prime ministers, targeted Palestinian terrorists like Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. But Palestinian terrorists did assassinate Israeli cabinet member Rehavim Zee’vi. Wilson should have challenged and exposed Ashrawi’s Orwellian language rather than repeated it.
Ashrawi also is paraphrased as stating that Sharon’s plan
remained silent on the future status of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, who have demanded the right to return to their homes.
Here a critical omission lets readers infer from the phrase “the right to return” that one exists. But the Arabs voted against U.N. resolutions of the late 1940s and early 1950s that they now cite in support of an alleged right to return in part because these measures did not establish such a right. Rather, they recommended either return of Arabs willing to live in peace in Israel or compensation for and resettlement of them in the neighboring Arab countries. Also omitted, strangely, is the fact that neither Sharon nor previous Israeli prime ministers have been silent on the Arabs’ demand to “return”; all have rejected the scheme as a means to destroy the Jewish state demographically.
Essential cause-and-effect is omitted when Wilson refers to “land [Israel] first occupied in the 1967 Middle East War” and states that “Israel occupied Gaza and [the] West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.” Neither reference mentions that Israel acted in a war of self-defense.
Skewing by omission occurs also when the correspondent writes that Sharon “was attempting to settle the conflict” over land Israel gained in the Six-Day War. Palestinian communications media, educational curricula, religious instruction, and statements by officials in the PA and Fatah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad stress that the conflict is with Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, not just its control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Another omission basically echoes Palestinian propaganda: Wilson reports that
Rachel Corrie, 23, an American college student who was crushed to death in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer ... [is] considered a symbol of the Palestinian fight for statehood ....
Considered by whom? Readers aren’t informed that to many Corrie –– who died in a tragic accident –– was duped by the anti-Zionist International Solidarity Movement, which arranged for her presence in Gaza as a “human shield” to help ISM obstruct Israeli counter-terrorism operations.
Weird word choices
Of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, Wilson writes that it “cuts into land envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state.” “Envisioned” is preferable to previous Post usage of “designated,” but still vague and misleading. Envisioned by whom? He also writes of “the territories envisioned by Palestinians as part of their state.” This is an improvement but still not right; it allows readers to infer from “as part of their state” that a Palestinian Arab country already exists to which the land in question could be added. Why doesn’t the Post just write, accurately, of “territories envisioned by Palestinians as part of a new Arab state”?
Flawed word choice also leads to a serious mis-characterization of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Wilson reports that “... Sharon favored unilateral steps in dealing with the Palestinians, rather than the negotiations that they preferred.” This formula omits the reason Sharon, and many Israelis, “favored unilateral steps” –– years of Palestinian bad faith negotiations. “The negotiations they preferred,” in opposition to “Sharon favored unilateral steps” hides from readers that the Palestinians have kept none of their key obligations made in years of negotiations. These include eradicating the terrorist infrastructure, ending anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incitement, and preparing for peaceful coexistence.
Politicized word choice in several articles labels Israelis, while letting Arab terrorists off. Wilson refers to Sharon’s former Likud Party, Israeli politicians, and an Israeli think tank as “hawkish” six times. Sharon’s new Kadima Party or its likely supporters are called “centrist” three times, the Labor Party is termed “dovish” once. The terms are not defined. But none of four Palestinian terrorist groups mentioned –– including Hamas, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine –– General Command –– is so identified. Instead, Hamas is called a “radical group”and “the opposition”; the Popular Front also gets the “radical” designation; and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades becomes “the armed wing of Fatah.” So while right-of-center, non-violent, political Israelis get the generic label “hawkish” –– even though Post style calls for avoiding unhelpful or imprecise labels –– softer, imprecise terms are substituted when the accurate modifier, terrorist, is called for regarding Palestinian groups.
The Washington Post has the resources to cover and comment on Arab-Israeli news more comprehensively than almost any other American newspaper. But in the days immediately following Ariel Sharon’s Jan. 4 stroke, it failed to do so.