Fact-Checking a Fact Check: ThinkProgress Fails on Netanyahu “Falsehoods”

Shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Center for American Progress last week, a blog affiliated with the advocacy organization purported to have found “10 falsehoods” in Netanyahu’s comments.

“ThinkProgress, an editorially independent news site affiliated with the Center for American Progress, fact-checked his discussion,” an article says of Netanyahu’s remarks, “and found a number of false claims.” 

This statement is followed by a list of “claims” by Netanyahu, each coupled with a “fact” that ThinkProgress co-authors Igor Volsky, Aviva Shen, Jack Jenkins, Victoria Fleischer, and Tara Culp-Ressler frame as a rebuttal to the prime minister’s supposed falsehoods. But their rebuttals often failed to contradict what Netanyahu said, often explicitly supported his assertion, and sometimes included falsehoods of their own.

What follows is a fact check of ThinkProgress’s fact check.

1. Settlements aren’t a core issue affecting the peace process.

CLAIM: Netanyahu claimed that the settlements are not a “core issue” in the stalled peace talks. He defended the statement by dating the violence between Arabs and Jews in the area to a time before the settlements existed. “This is 50 years, 47 years, from 1920-1967. Half a century. What’s the problem? … It can’t be the territories because there weren’t any.”

The ThinkProgress “rebuttal” rehashes various allegations that settlements are illegal, cites Palestinian criticism of the Jewish towns, and mentions that the United States position that settlement growth “hurts the peace process.”

But was Netanyahu factually wrong in any way? Asked by the moderator to comment on concerns that “settlement expansion is actually something that is making peace more difficult,” this, in part, is what the prime minister said:

I think that it’s an issue that can be resolved but I don’t think it’s the core issue. The reason it’s not the core issue — it wasn’t a core issue in Gaza, either. So what’s the problem?
The problem — look, my grandfather — I always say this: I think, I date the conflict back to 1920. My grandfather came in a boat in 1920, landed in Jaffa, went to the immigration people. The Jewish immigration office in Jaffa. That office was hit a few months later by Arab attackers, they killed 6 or 7 Jews including a famous writer, Brenner. Great writer. And then we had riots and attacks in 1921, 1929 on the ancient Jewish community of Hebron. 1936 to 1939. Three years. And 1947 of course. And 1948. The partition. There was no territories. The was no settlements. And then this continued until 1967, when we had a noose of death placed around us. This is 50 years, 47 years, from 1920 to 1967. Half a century. What’s the root cause of this? Can’t be the settlements, because — can’t be the territories, because there weren’t any.

Now we [inaudible] in there, and we leave Gaza, and they keep on attacking us. And I’m telling you that the real issue is whether — the Palestinians are divided. One half living in Gaza, overtaken by the militant Islamists. Openly calls for our destruction. And the other half, in the West Bank, refuses to confront them. And when I say to Abu Mazen, when I say okay, for god’s sake recognize the Jewish state already as I recognize the Palestinian state. And for god’s sake let’s talk about long-term security arraignments so we have those two anchors for real peace, he won’t do it. The settlements can be resolved within that context. Easily. Well, not that easily, but not that hard either.


In the specific confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what is driving the conflict, and unfortunately still drives the conflict, is the persisent refusal to recognize a nation state for the Jewish people in any boundaries. That remains the problem. If you want to solve a problem, address the problem. Don’t address what is not the problem, address that problem. It is not settlements, it is the persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state.

In other words, Netanyahu was laying out his opinion about “the core issue” between Israel and the Palestinians and “the root cause” of the conflict. His assertion — “I don’t think it’s the core issue” — is not a falsehood. It’s a viewpoint. And it is one that, considering Netanyahu’s (accurate) reminder that the conflict started before Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan and before it built, and rebuilt, Jewish communities there, is firmly grounded.

Do some believe that settlements should be considered a central issue to be addressed in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, along with borders, refugees, and security measures? Yes. But Netanyahu isn’t speaking to whether settlements should be discussed in negotiations or resolved as a final status issue. He is describing his view of the fundamental core of a conflict.

2. No new settlements have been built for two decades.


Netanyahu frequently says that no new settlements have been approved in the past 20 years, and repeated this claim on Tuesday.


The 20 years claim holds up only by using superficial definitions of “settlements.” The government has long given settlers a long leash by allowing new construction in the vicinity of older settlements to be defined as “neighborhoods” and “outposts” when they are, in practice, new settlements, sometimes on Palestinians’ private land. In fact, the American Religious Right has bankrolled settlement construction, as ThinkProgress’ Jack Jenkins has reported.

Settlement unit construction has continued steadily throughout the past decade despite Netanyahu’s claim that “there have been no new settlements built in the last 20 years.” Last year, as Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to broker a peace, Netanyahu’s government endorsed 13,851 new settlement housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — four times the amount of previous years.

Clearly, neither funding by the religious right nor “settlement unit construction” — the word “unit” refers to buildings, not towns — are relevant to the question of whether Netanyahu is correct in saying there have been no new settlements.

But what of the claim that Israel has built no new settlements? At the very least, it is technically true, as ThinkProgress basically acknowledges in the first sentence of its rebuttal. Per the definition of the state, under Israeli governments left and right, Israel has built no new settlements (though it has retroactively legalized three outposts that were built illegally).

Even ThinkProgress’s own rebuttal makes clear they are quibbling with interpretation, not fact. The authors want people to regard “new construction in the vicinity of older settlements” as new settlements, and not new neighborhoods. Although an article they link to for substantiation describes the new construction as often being just “several hundred meters” away from an established settlement — by way of comparison, the walk from  6th Avenue to 8th Avenue in Manhattan is about 550 meters — and although it is generally the case that towns accommodate population growth by growing outward instead of upward, ThinkProgress is nonetheless entitled to advocate for its particular re-interpretation. But it is simply false to call Netanyahu’s statement a “falsehood.”

3. Israel gave Gaza completely to the Palestinians.

CLAIM: “Netanyahu claimed that Israel ‘took away all the settlements, took them apart’ and ‘even disinterred people from their graves’ in Gaza.”

FACT: While Israel did withdraw its settlements from Gaza, it still retains control over Gaza’s airspace, sea shore, and the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings. The Israeli government has routinely shut down those two border crossings, citing safety concerns. International humanitarian groups warn that the constant closures cut off Gaza from humanitarian aid and has created an economic catastrophe for Palestinians.

The third “falsehood” listed by ThinkProgress requires no exegesis. Israel of course did evacuate every single settlement from Gaza, as even ThinkProgress acknowledges, and it did relocate graves. There was nothing false in this statement by Netanyahu.

4. Palestinians name public squares after murderers, but Israelis don’t.


The prime minister argued that Palestinians celebrate terrorists while Israelis do not. “We do not name our public squares after mass murderers,” he told Tanden. “On the few occasions we have had mass murderers like Goldstein, we condemned it, from the right to the left. But the public square — is named after a killer who murdered hundreds of innocent Jews. There is a difference in values. They glorify these people. We do not.”


As the Jewish Daily Forward has pointed out, Netanyahu is overlooking several streets in Jerusalem named after Israeli assassins and freedom fighters. “Nearly all the streets in East Talpiot are named after Jews convicted and hanged as terrorists by the British before 1948,” J.J. Goldberg writes. That’s because those labeled terrorists are often celebrated as heroes once a country has won its independence.

The commemoration is not limited to Jerusalem. Goldberg points out: “Elsewhere in Israel are streets named for Hirsh Lekert, hanged in Vilna in 1902 for trying to assassinate the tsarist governor; Sholom Schwartzbard, who confessed to assassinating Ukrainian rebel leader Simon Petlura in Paris in 1926, but was acquitted by a French jury.”

It is telling that ThinkProgress would equate murderous suicide bombers who target cafes, dance clubs, and pizzeria’s filled with children with, for example, Sholom Schwartzbard, who killed a Ukrainian leader and military commander believed to be complicit in pograms that claimed the lives of 50,000 Jews or more. (Schwartzbard was acquitted by a French court.) The comparison raises serious questions about the moral compass of the ThinkProgress authors. (They initially compared Palestinian terrorists to a Jew who killed a Nazi in 1938, before eventually deleting that reference from the article.)

ThinkProgress argues guy who killed Nazi officer is terrorist just like Arabs who blow up pizza shops filled w/ kids https://t.co/FtKXO1jQcT

— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) November 10, 2015

For all the hand-waving, though, it is absolutely correct that Israel has not named streets after the Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of innocent Palestinians. On the contrary, it forcibly condemned him, just as it has forcibly condemned the fortunately small handful of others who have engaged in lethal attacks targeting Palestinian civilians.

Moreover, nowhere among the many words of the Forward article ThinkProgress cites does author J.J. Goldberg give a specific example of an Israeli street being named after a Jew who took part in the indiscriminate murder of men, women, and children. (He lists just one example of a street named after a man who “unsuccessfully” attacked a civilians bus in 1938, and who was executed by the British despite not having killed anybody.)

5. Settlements make up just a tiny fraction of land.


Netanyahu insisted that settlement construction has made up a tiny “fraction” of built u
p land and is restricted to “existing communities.” He repeated a common claim, saying, “the addition, if you look over time, it is maybe a fraction, maybe 1/10th of 1 percent.”

Specifically, Netanyahu said that “the total amount of built up land is just a few percent.”

He is not wrong. In fact, ThinkProgress’s supposed rebuttal again acknowledges that Netanyahu was correct. Its “Fact” paragraph begins with the admission: “Technically settlements’ built up land makes up 1 percent of the West Bank….”

6. Palestinians won’t recognize Israel.


The prime minister told Tanden that he’s still waiting for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — also called Abu Mazen — to recognize Israel. “When I say to Abu Mazen, for God’s sake, recognize the Jewish state already, as I recognize the Palestinian state, and for God’s sake, let’s talk about long-term security arrangements, so we have those two acres for real peace,” he said. “He will not do it.”

Yet again, the rebuttal section affirms rather than disproves Netanyahu’s statement. “Abbas has refused to ‘accept the Jewishness of Israel,'” ThinkProgress admits. They could have quoted Abbas more completely: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I will never recognize the Jewishness of the state, or a ‘Jewish state,'” the Palestinian leader has said.

7. All Netanyahu wants to do is talk to Palestinian leaders.


“My throat has become hoarse, inviting him again and again and he refuses,” the prime minister said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas. “Conversation fertilizes thought.”

Did Netanyahu call on Abbas to talk peace, or did he not? Again, ThinkProgress admits in its rebuttal that he did: “Netanyahu has said that he is ready to resume talks with the goal of establishing an independent Palestine.”

And he has done so again and again. In May, for example: “I think the only way to move that is through direct negotiations. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has moved away from these negotiations.” In June: “I call on President Abbas to return to talks without preconditions.” In September: “I am ready to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no conditions whatsoever to enter negotiations, and I’m willing to do so immediately.” And in October: “I’m willing to meet him, he’s not willing to meet me.”

8. Violence against Palestinians is forcefully punished.


Netanyahu objected to Tanden’s claim that settlers’ attacks on Palestinians were treated leniently, saying, “That’s not true.” “What is illegal is illegal,” he said. “We prosecute even if somebody paints graffiti or takes down all of trees, it is a crime, but I would not put it on the same level as Duma,” referring to the recent arson attack that killed three Palestinians.


A surge of violence against Palestinians erupted recently in the West Bank, as settlers have reportedly attacked Palestinians and vandalized their homes and businesses. Yet only 1.9 percent of cases of settler violence result in prosecution.

Here, ThinkProgress actually spreads a falsehood. In substantiating their “rebuttal,” the authors link to a Twitter post by an anti-Israel activist who has promoted the conspiracy theory that Israel planted a knife near a wounded Palestinian who was clearly seen on video wielding a knife. But even the activist, Yousef Munayyer, does not say what ThinkProgress claims he does.

“Only 1.9% of instances of settler violence end up in conviction,” Munayyer claims, not in “prosecution,” as ThinkProgress alleges.

A much higher percentage of investigations resulted in an indictment being served, according to an NGO that tends to be critical of the Israeli government. (Due to the high number of cases closed for reasons of “perpetrator unknown” or “insufficient evidence,” the percentage of investigations resulting in indictment is still below 10 percent, according to the NGO. “This suggests investigators’ failure to locate suspects or to collect sufficient evidence for serving an indictment against suspects.”)

Regardless, it is strange enough that ThinkProgress describes accurate statements as falsehoods, but it is all the more ridiculous for the blog itself to spread demonstrable falsehoods in a purported “fact check.”

9. Young Palestinians are terrorists.


“I am much more concerned on how to get to Palestinian young minds who want to disabuse these lives and to get them to accept the idea that we are going to have to live side-by-side in this small piece of land. And we we have to do it in peace and prosperity. That is a tough order,” Netanyahu said at Tuesday’s event.

ThinkProgress’s heading, suggesting that Netanyahu slurred young Palestinians as a whole as “terrorists,” is itself a dishonest slur. Netanyahu said nothing of the sort.

To sort this out, it is necessary first to get the quote right. (“Disabuse these lives” is nonsensical, and not a correct transcription. Did the authors even listen to the speech?) Here is what Netanyahu actually said, in a conversation about false anti-Israel rumors that spread throughout Palestinian society:

The internet is meeting militant Islam in the hearts and minds of children and teenagers, and driving them to believe this fantastic fabrication: We’re gonna tear down the al Aqsa Mosque. We’re gonna build … the third temple. I mean insane. It’s just insane.

So you say, well how can people believe that. Yeah, they believe that. If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes truth. And the truth is propagated — this false truth — is propagated in the young, in the minds of these people. When we have young minds poisoned, we take action. If we haven’t found the Duma people, it’ll take time, but we’ll get there. We are — I am much more concerned on how to get to Palestinian young minds, one, to disabuse them of these lies, and, second, to get them to accept the idea that we are going to have to live side by side in this small piece of land. And we are have to do it in peace and prosperity. That is a tough order, because I don’t think their political leadership is ready yet to embrace this.

Is this an assertion that young Palestinians are terrorists? Clearly not.

Meanwhile, ThinkProgress again misleads its readers in its “Fact” section:


Most Palestinians — including youth — appear to prefer nonviolent activism: 62 percent of people in the West Bank and 73 percent of Gazans say “popular resistance against the occupation” such as marches, demonstrations, and strikes are having a positive impact. A 2013 poll found that 73 percent of Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza say they do not belong to any political faction such as Hamas, Fatah, or otherwise. In addition, a Zogby survey found 45 percent of young Palestinians desire a two-state solution, only slightly fewer than results among older generations. But even that figure is misleading: far from harbingers of violence, increasing numbers of young Palestinians are calling for a one-state solution — one where they could, in fact, live side-by-side with Israelis in the same country, and thus finally be afforded rights regularly denied to them under Israeli occupation.

None of the polls ThinkProgress cites are current. The first poll, in which Palestinians “appear” to prefer nonviolent activism (but whose conclusions in fact are much more vague) was from June 2014. The other two polls, one from ARWAD and one from Zogby, are from 2013, and at any rate, based on how ThinkProgress describes them, are irrelevant to the question of Palestinian support for anti-Jewish violence.

But since ThinkProgress sees ARWAD polls as credible and relevant, why does it ignore the ARWAD poll released on Nov. 5, 2015? (This feels, at this point, more like a rhetorical question than anything else.) The current ARWAD poll found that 63 percent of Palestinians support a third “intifada,” or violent uprising, while only 33 percent oppose the idea. In response to another question, 43 percent of Palestinians said they “support most” the resumption of armed struggle, compared to 14 percent who picked non-violent protests.

Finally, it is also disingenuous of ThinkProgress to refer to the “one-state solution” supported by Palestinians as a utopian country in which equal rights are shared by all. In fact, according to the very June 2014 poll cited by ThinkProgress, the one-state solution preferred by Palestinian is explicitly not one in which Jews and Arabs share equal rights. Only 10 percent of respondents said they preferred that, while 60 percent selected an answer referring to an irredentist, “reclaimed” Palestinian state that made no mention of equal rights.
This fact check, which reaffirms more than it refutes, can  be many things. But it is certainly not a list of falsehoods, and it is dishonest for ThinkProgress (and J Street, which shared the article on Twitter) to pretended it was. 
Whatever one thinks of this or that policy by Netanyahu, and whatever one thinks of the views he promoted during the Center for American Progress discussion, his facts last week generally withstand scrutiny. ThinkProgress, though purporting to be the fact checker, doesn’t come off quite as well.

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