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.
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.
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.