Book Review Inadvertently Decodes Washington Post Tilt

Cameron W. Barr is the Washington Post’s deputy foreign editor for Middle East news. His review of former Ambassador Martin Indyk’s new book, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East uses ostensibly neutral language to make a reasonable-sounding case for erroneous and/or extreme Arab positions. It provides a Rosetta Stone of sorts to help decode The Post foreign desk’s recurring anti-Israel bias.

In “Innocence Lost: A former U.S. ambassador recounts America’s missteps in the Mideast,” (Book World,  February 1, 2009) Barr charges Indyk with being “very nearly dismissive in rendering their [Arab] views.” If Indyk, a Clinton administration ambassador to Israel, is “dismissive” of Arab views, Barr justifies them, facts notwithstanding. For example:

* Attempting to rebut Indyk’s claim that “in peace negotiations, Israel’s leaders have been prepared to offer or agree to full withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines,” Barr states “Lebanon and Israel remain in disagreement over a border territory known as Shebaa Farms ….”

He is silent over the fact that the United Nations Security Council confirmed that Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000. He withholds from readers that Shebaa Farms — though described by Hezbollah as “Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory” as a pretext to retain its weapons, in violation of Security Council resolutions — is Syrian territory taken by Israel when it seized the Golan Heights in the ‘67 Six-Day War.

* Barr claims that “Syria was not offered the complete withdrawal upon which its late President Hafez al-Assad had insisted.” As if demonstrating Israeli intransigence, Barr states that “during Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt to broker an Israeli-Syrian accord, as Indyk himself writes, [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak sought to preserve control over a narrow band of territory so Israel would not have to cede any of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.”

Barr’s wording is correct, but his implication, especially given his omission regarding Shebaa Farms, is false. He omits the fact that what Hafez al-Assad demanded had not been part of the Syrian Golan Heights. The yards’ wide strip was on Israel’s side of the 1949 armistice line (likewise it was part of the British Mandate for Palestine, not the French Mandate for Syria as a result of a 1923 border drawn by London and Paris). What “Barak sought to preserve” was legitimate Israeli control separating its primary water source, by a few yards, from Syria.

* Attempting to use Indyk’s work to demonstrate U.S. and Israeli ignorance or dismissal of important Arab principles, Barr says “it bears noting that the Palestinians have never been offered full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, even though it is as much a matter of principle for them as it has been for other Arabs.” Barr forces the conflict’s important details through the funnel of Arab, in this case Palestinian, advocacy. What bears noting is:

Yasser Arafat co-founded Fatah (Movement for the National Liberation of Palestine) in 1959, and Fatah became the largest component of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 — before Israel gained the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem. The “Palestine” they meant to “liberate” was Israel. This intention was never formally disavowed, a pledge to Clinton to re-write the Palestine National Charter minus its many anti-Israel provisions having gone unfulfilled. Palestinian Arabs did not insist on any withdrawal, let alone full, when Jordan and Egypt held the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, from 1949 to 1967. And Israel, having gained the territories in a war of self-defense, is not obligated to withdraw from them completely.

* Without referring to it by name, and still invoking the importance of Americans and Israelis recognizing “the importance of principle … to Palestinians, Syrians and others,” Barr misrepresents U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. The 1967 resolution is the cornerstone of all successful Arab-Israeli negotiations since the Six-Day War.

The Post‘s deputy foreign editor observes that one of the U.N. resolutions the Arabs apparently are more committed to than Washington or Jerusalem “calls for Israel’s ‘withdrawal from territories occupied’ in 1967 and the end of belligerency as the bases for peace.” Resolution 242 does so, intentionally referring to “withdrawal from territories,” not “withdrawal from all territories” or “the territories” as its U.S. and British co-authors noted. That’s because the West Bank and Gaza Strip were not and are not the sovereign territory of a state but the remaining, unallocated five percent of the lands originally intended for the British Palestine Mandate (Jordan comprises 77.5 percent, pre-‘67 Israel 17.5). Arab, including Palestinian, insistence on “full withdrawal to the 1967 lines” is a de facto attempt to rewrite 242, rather than fulfill its call, reiterated in Security Council Resolution 338 (1973) for peace negotiations that will, among other things, resolve the status of the disputed territories.

* Barr insists on a distinction without a difference in claiming that Indyk “might be considered ignorant” if not arrogant for stating that Palestinian Arabs refer to May 15 as al-naqba (the disaster) “‘because it commemorates the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.’ It would be more accurate to say that Palestinians use the term to mark the experience of hundreds of thousands of their forebearers, who fled or were forced to flee their homes in what is now Israel.” He then recommends that Indyk tour a “refugee camp, where some of those 1948 refugees and many of their descendants live. They could tell him why May 15 is called the Naqba, and why principle matters to them.”

Before becoming a deputy foreign editor, Barr covered Israeli-Arab news. But his advice to Indyk evades examining the facts underlying the Arab “principles” of al-Naqba. These include: Arab rejection of the U.N.’s 1947 partition plan for two states, one Jewish, one Arab, west of the Jordan River and the 1948 – ‘49 attack by five Arab armies and Palestinian Arab “irregulars” to destroy Israel.

Arab rejection and war, not Israel’ s creation, created the Palestinian Arab refugees. Arab rejection and terrorism prolonged the “refugees'” status. Arab countries and Palestinian Arab leadership opposed U.N. resolutions in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s for repatriation and peaceful coexistence (the so-called “right of return”) or resettlement in Arab countries and compensation. They obstructed Israeli attempts to move refugees out of Gaza Strip and West Bank camps after 1967, including murders of some Gazans who participated. At Arab insistence, the U.N. perpetuated the problem by granting “refugee” status and benefits to descendants while Israel absorbed 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their (now) two million descendants.

Principle does matter, in journalism as well as diplomacy. That includes a principled commitment to reporting honestly the relevant facts in their proper context. Barr’s review of Innocent Abroad fails to uphold that commitment. But it does provide a useful guide to understanding The Washington Post‘s Arab-Israeli coverage, too often filtered through the Palestinian perspective.

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