Following the arrival of Howard Schneider as the Washington Post's new Jerusalem bureau chief, the newspaper's Arab-Israeli coverage has been more comprehensive and objective so far, at least than it was under a series of predecessors. Representative Israeli sources are cited more appropriately, and the newsworthy diversity of the Jewish state is no always forced through the filter of Palestinian allegations (for example, "A Morning-to-Dusk-to-Dawn Walk Through Tel Aviv; On It's 100th Birthday, Modern Israeli City Revels in Its Openness and Vibrancy," April 13, 2009).
But simultaneously, in response to Binyamin Netanyahu's return as prime minister, the Post's opinion pages may be tilting back to a reflexive anti-Israel bias in evidence before the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006.
1) On March 28, the Post published an Op-Ed by Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat ("Israel's Step Back From Peace)" that attempted to paint the new Israeli government in Hamas colors. This rhetorical jujitsu was as clumsy as it was predictable. Less predictable was that it would be echoed in a Post editorial three days later.
The paper let Erekat claim that Israel's commitment to a negotiated peace and "two-state solution" is in doubt and the Palestinian side his Fatah-led PA must be reassured. Hmm. On March 17, the Jerusalem Post reported that in an interview on official PA TV, Muhammad Dahlan, the former Fatah security commander and now a special adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, clarified his view of the Fatah/PA commitment to a negotiated peace:
The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] did recognize Israel's right to exist, but we are not bound by it as a resistance faction .... For the one thousandth time, I want to reaffirm that we are not asking Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist [as a condition for a Fatah-Hamas unity government]. Rather we are asking Hamas not to do so because Fatah never recognized Israel's right to exist.
That wasn't the only inconvenient development the Post permitted Erekat to avoid. On March 25, Palestinian Media Watch briefed members of Canada's parliament on PA communications media and school curriculum since the 2007 Annapolis conference. Annapolis was called to do what Erakat says Israel now must, "reinvigorate" diplomacy. That might be difficult when PA TV repeatedly describes Israeli cities like Haifa, Tiberias and Ashkelon as part of "Palestine," charges that Israel spreads AIDS among Palestinian Arabs and targets pregnant women for stabbing. The Ottawa Citizen called PMW's report "jaw-dropping."
PMW found that "In Arabic the Palestinian Authority, Fatah leaders and the Abbas-controlled official PA media are no more peaceful towards Israel than they were during the Arafat era," continuing "intense demonization of Israel" and "open denial" of its existence.
Erekat insisted, via the Post, that "restoring credibility ... is vital" for Israel. Though the PA evidentially has a credibility problem of its own, the newspaper's March 31 editorial adopted Erekat's theme.
In the Post's own Words
2) "Israel's New Government; Will the Obama administration accept Binyamin Netanyahu's dodge on Palestinian statehood?" (March 31) rests on a case of mistaken identity. A la Erekat, it sees Israel's new government as threatening a "two-state solution" when it is the Palestinian Arabs who continue to do so.
The Post grants that "some of the angst" over the new Israeli government "is surely overblown" - but then overblows:
Since the Palestinians are currently weak and divided, the temptation for the administration will be to tacitly tolerate Mr. Netanyahu's position [not endorsing a sovereign West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian state] and focus on Israeli negotiations with Syria, which could benefit U.S. interests even if they don't succeed. The problem with that course is that it could deliver a fatal blow to the two-state solution, which most Israelis recognize as the only way to preserve a democratic Jewish state.
Israelis - starting with Mr. Netanyahu - need to get the message that acceptance of a two-state solution has become a prerequisite for normal relations with the United States.
The Post needs to get the message that perhaps it's the Palestinian side that has not and does not seek a two-state solution let alone that it would if "strong and united" in a Fatah-Hamas unity government. Listening to what Palestinian leaders say and their media inculcate might help.
The Post editorial illustrated the problem highlighted by New York Post columnist Benny Avni the same day ("The 'Blame Bibi' Chorus; Pushing U.S. Away From Israel," March 31):
Israel isn't the problem. The outgoing Israeli government was fully committed to [President George W.] Bush's vision [of Israel and Palestine, adjacent, democratic and at peace]. [Tzipi] Livni, its foreign minister, endlessly negotiated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides to establish a Palestinian state. But Abbas' hold on power has been failing for well over a year, fast, while the absolutists of Hamas - who won't even pretend to want peace with Israel - are on the rise .... [Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] made a firm offer months ago" but left office still waiting for Abbas to answer.
Only by ignoring statements like Dahlan's and reports like PMW's can the Post editorialize that "it is vital that the United States and European governments insist on Israeli acceptance" of a two-state pact. The Post knows that though Netanyahu criticized the 1993 Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles and the Oslo accords, as prime minister in 1998, he negotiated the U.S.-sponsored Wye River agreement, meant to trade land for peace, with Yasir Arafat. It knows that Arafat ultimately refused, violently, two offers of a two-state solution, that not only Hamas but also PA maps still portray Israel as part of "Palestine," and that Netanyahu insisted that his new government is prepared to reach peace with all Israel's neighbors. Despite such knowledge, it echoed Erekat.
3) Though Erekat's column and the Post's editorial reinforced each other, they weren't part of a one-two punch. They were the second and third blows in a one-two-three combination.
On March 26, Post syndicated columnist David Ignatius ("A Tax Break Fuels Middle East Friction") wrote that "private organizations in the United States continue to raise tax-exempt contributions for the very activities [building Jewish communities in the West Bank] that the government opposes." Ignatius noted that "critics of Israeli settlements" question the tax breaks and quotes one, a spokesman for "Americans for Peace Now, a lobbying group that opposes settlements: 'Every dollar that goes to settlements makes Middle East peace that much harder to reach.'"
The columnist paraphrases "a senior Jordanian official" that "Israeli pro-settlement groups ... are seeking to transform the demographic character of East Jerusalem so that a two-state solution with Jerusalem shared by Israeli and Palestinian governments will be impossible." Ignatius also notes that the United States "regards the West Bank as occupied territory." Finally, "U.S.-Israeli friction over settlements is likely to increase" since Netanyahu has chosen Avigdor Lieberman, who resides in a Jewish community in Judea, as foreign minister.
The column demonstrates that a writer can be accurate and misleading at the same time. Omitted is the fact that Israel has evacuated and dismantled settlements as a result of a negotiated peace (with Egypt, 1979), and unilaterally done so in the Gaza Strip (2005) which led to more Palestinian terrorism, not less. This might indicate that settlements weren't the main problem after all.
Ignatius notes that Lieberman lives in a settlement. The columnist omits that Lieberman has said he would relocate if giving up his home were part of a genuine peace.
That the Palestinian leadership might not be committed to such an outcome was suggested by a Palestinian leader even before Dahlan's interview. Last December, former PA prime minister and then-chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei declared that "peace can be achieved only if Israel withdraws to the last centimeter of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967" and no Jewish communities or settlers remained.("'Qurei: No room for Jews in the West Bank,'" Jerusalem Post, Dec. 13, 2008). A Washington Post Op-Ed or editorial on the insistence that a West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem "Palestine" must be free of Jews while more than one million Arabs enjoy equal rights as citizens of Israel usefully might illuminate Palestinian notions of equality and peace.
Ignatius correctly writes that Washington views settlements as "an obstacle to peace." But he omits that it does not believe they are illegal. Unsaid is the fact that the League of Nation's British Mandate for Palestine, continued by the United Nations, recognized the Jewish people's ties to the territory and called for "close settlement" by Jews on all the land west of the Jordan River. Also avoided is U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), foundation for subsequent successful Arab-Israeli diplomacy. The resolution calls for Israeli military withdrawal from some but not necessarily all the territory as part of a regional peace settlement.
These evasions make it possible to write simply that the United States regards as "occupied territory" the West Bank, when it also regards it as disputed territory in which both Jews and Arabs have claims. Ignatius' column, while correct in what it does say, doesn't say nearly enough. It violates Einstein's advice that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but no more so."