Editorializing the “Palestine Papers”

Al Jazeera and the Guardian made headlines this week after publicizing what they describe as previously secret documents detailing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Actually, they “made” headlines in more than one way. By being the first to publicize the documents, Al Jazeera and the Guardian‘s scoop was discussed in news stories across the world. But as the two organizations that broke the story, they also literally wrote the first headlines about the documents — and in doing so, they strikingly colored news coverage of the documents to reflect their own biased worldview.

Putting aside what the leaks mean for politics and diplomacy in the region, the “Palestine Papers” represent a victory for Guardian and al Jazeera spin, and a failure by some wire services and major news organizations that purport to engage in objective, sober journalism.

The headlines actually written by the Guardian and al Jazeera lay bare the organizations’ narratives. “PA selling short the refugees,” announced al Jazeera. The Guardian‘s was only marginally more subtle on the topic: “Papers reveal how Palestinian leaders gave up fight over refugees.”
Another al Jazeera headline asks, “Expelling Israel’s Arab Population?,” with the question mark, like a wink, serving as an unspoken admission that the leaked document described in the article really says nothing about expelling Arabs.
Not to be outdone, the Guardian matches with its own false headline: “Palestinian negotiators accept Jewish state, papers reveal.” But the article itself says no such thing. It states only that a Palestinian negotiator told Israel’s then-foreign minister, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” Far from being a revelation, this echoes a formula that has been publicly and repeatedly invoked by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. (For example, Abbas has said, “You can call yourselves as you like, but I don’t accept it and I say so publicly.”) The documents do, on the other hand, show that even behind the scenes, Palestinian negotiators “protest[ed] adamantly” when an Israeli negotiator said Israel and Palestine should each be “a homeland of its people and the fulfillment of all national aspirations for its people. Israel for the Jewish people, and Palestine for the Palestinians.”
In another telling headline, the Guardian proves unable to resist hyperbole: “Barack Obama lifts then crushes Palestinian peace hopes.”
Selling short! Gave up! Expelling! Crushes! The theme is clear: Palestinian leaders were too eager to compromise too much with Israel, which, along with America, is out to get the Palestinians. This might not be a surprising interpretation from two media outlets that are regarded as purveyors of advocacy journalism, and whose hostility toward Israel is so great that it apparently extends to Palestinian leaders who would dare negotiate with the Jewish state. But news organizations that purportedly shun advocacy journalism got caught up in the spin.
Agence France Presse echoed the al Jazeera / Guardian line more enthusiastically than most, titling one story, “‘Palestine Papers’ stir fury over bowing to Israel” (emphasis added). The piece opens by purporting there were “Palestinian offers of major concessions to Israel on Jerusalem and refugees,” and the reporter seemingly does not bother to independently examine the source documents, relying throughout on al Jazeera’s narrow assessments. (Assessments that, in the words of one Arab journalist, amount to a “show trial” of the Palestinian Authority.)
But contrary to AFP’s assertion, it appears that no documents released thus far describe an actual “offer of major concessions to Israel” on refugees. (Because al Jazeera has released hundreds of documents that have yet to be thoroughly reviewed we cannot yet say this conclusively.) What the documents do show is that Palestinian officials privately acknowledged to each other that realistically there could be no mass immigration of Palestinians to Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor likewise led its story with the narrative of Palestinian concessions and Israeli hesitations:

A trove of secret documents obtained by Al Jazeera shows that Palestinian negotiators offered far-reaching concessions on borders and Jerusalem in 2008, but that their Israeli counterparts balked.

It was only much deeper in the story that the reporter hinted the offers might not have been anything novel: “Many Israeli experts said the concessions that the Palestinians detailed to the Israelis were not new.”

The Washington Post, too, echoed the Guardian and al Jazeera’s spin, telling readers in the second paragraph of a story on the leaks that “the documents strongly suggest[] to the Palestinian public that their leaders abandoned core Palestinian positions in exchange for little from Israel,” according to unnamed “analysts.” Plural notwithstanding, the sole analyst quoted in the piece is Ed Abington, whom reporter Janine Zacharia describes merely as “a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and longtime American diplomat.” Remarkably, readers are not informed that after Abington left the foreign service, he was for many years gainfully employed as a lobbyist for, and consultant to, the Palestinian Authority under both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas — certainly relevant to reader understanding of a partisan “analyst” who excoriates Israel in the article.

The key issue, which goes well beyond this Washington Post dece ption-by-omission, is that as long as there is serious and reasonable debate about whether the leaked documents represent “far-reaching concessions” offered by the Palestinians and rejected by a recalcitrant Israel, news reporters who offer this opinion as fact are inappropriately editorializing.

And there certainly is serious and reasonable debate. The news coverage led Israeli historian Benny Morris to ask, “Whatever happened to the image of the hardboiled, cynical journalist, who believes no one and questions everything?,” before concluding that, at least when it comes to the Palestinians, such journalists don’t exist.
Former negotiator Aaron David Miller put the selectively leaked documents into the context of how negotiations actually work, and seemed to conclude that they reiterate old news rather than reveal novel, major concessions:

Anyone who has seriously followed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for at least the last decade would not have been surprised by the positions ascribed to the Palestinians …. They have been in the public domain in one form or another since the Camp David summit of July 2000.

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl similarly concluded,

Anyone familiar with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the last decade will find nothing surprising about the supposed revelations in the “Palestine papers” published this week by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. …

Not only have the reported Palestinian compromise positions been widely (if quietly) accepted by Arab governments, they were broadcast years ago in the Geneva Accord, a model agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that was endorsed by Abbas, among others. Israel, for its part, responded with far-reaching compromises of its own: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a Palestinian state with sovereignty over Jerusalem and all but six percent of The West Bank. It was Abbas, not Olmert, who refused to go forward during those 2008 talks.

Or as Commentary’s Noah Pollack tersely put it, the papers are “99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News.”

And on a Los Angeles Times blog, journalist Edmund Sanders asserted (also citing unnamed “experts”):

Despite the spin by Al-Jazeera and critics of the Palestinian Authority, the documents released don’t show Palestinian negotiators giving away the store.

To the contrary, they’re depicted as taking a surprisingly hard-line stance against giving up massive West Bank settlements such as Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Har Homa and Ariel, which most experts have long presumed would be retained by Israel with little fuss or cost. …

And rather than give away the land in exchange for nothing, as has been widely reported in the Arab press, the documents suggest that Palestinians were demanding in return Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Ariel and most other settlements east of Highway 60.

That’s such a painful concession for Israel that you have to question whether the Palestinian offer was even serious.

To most Mideast experts, exchanging Jerusalem developments such as Gilo and French Hill for settlements such as Maale Adumim and Ariel sounds like a great deal for Palestinians and a non-starter for Israelis.

The blog post is entitled, “Leaks from peace talks don’t show Palestinians making shocking concessions.”

Sanders’ points also reveal the Washington Post assertion quoted above — that “the documents strongly suggest[] to the Palestinian public that their leaders abandoned core Palestinian positions in exchange for little from Israel” — to be, at best, dubious editorializing.

In the words of analyst Barry Rubin,

Note that the coverage fails to compare these materials to known major Israeli concessions that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced long ago in public and the PA never contradicted. In other words, since Olmert is on the record as having offered the PA big concessions … how can the media say now that Israel offered nothing[?]

To be sure, there certainly were journalists who reported on the documents responsibly, engaging with the story independently instead of parroting the Guardian or al Jazeera line. But even when only a few reports by news sources that strive for objectivity mirror the advocacy journalism of the two organizations behind the “Palestine Papers,” it is a few reports too many.

Comments are closed.