In Coverage of UN Speeches, New NY Times Bureau Chief Peter Baker Follows Old Pattern

The New York Times would have you think there was a neat symmetry between two recent speeches by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom spoke at last week’s opening of the UN General Assembly.

In his article on the speeches by the Middle East rivals, Times Jerusalem bureau chief Peter Baker evoked a split screen, with Netanyahu on one side and Abbas on the other, saying the same things and going through the same motions. The New York Times reporter began:

They took the stage, one after the other, two aging actors in a long-running drama that has begun to lose its audience. As the Israeli and Palestinian leaders recited their lines in the grand hall of the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, many in the orchestra seats recognized the script.

“Heinous crimes,” charged Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. “Historic catastrophe.”

“Fanaticism,” countered Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. “Inhumanity.”

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu have been at this for so long that between them they have addressed the world body 19 times, every year cajoling, lecturing, warning and guilt-tripping the international community into seeing their side of the bloody struggle between their two peoples. Their speeches are filled with grievance and bristling with resentment, as they summon the ghosts of history from hundreds and even thousands of years ago to make their case.

It was all very balanced, calibrated to allow for Baker’s tidy (or some might say lazy) narrative technique of equating parallel speeches.

Were the Two Speeches Equivalent?

A glance at the transcripts of the two speeches shatters the illusion created by the reporter. Abbas’s reference to “historic catastrophe” and “heinous crimes” targeted Israel’s legitimacy, the transcript shows. It was essentially a restatement of the Palestinian nakba narrative that views Israel’s creation as an inexcusable horror.

According to Abbas, the Balfour declaration, a document that set the stage for formal international recognition of Jewish rights to a national home in the Holy Land, was a “historic catastrophe” that must be remedied, and is responsible for “the most heinous crimes.” That portion of Abbas’s speech, in other words, was a direct attack on Israel’s foundation and a delegitimization of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s reference to “fanaticism,” meanwhile, addressed not the Palestinians specifically but rather “the forces of militant Islam” that have been responsible for terror attacks in the U.S., France, Israel and beyond. “The heaviest price of all,” the prime minister added, “has been paid by innocent Muslims.” And Netanyahu’s reference to “inhumanity” was explicitly directed at Hamas, an openly anti-Semitic group whose responsibility for terrorism is formally recognized by the United States, European Union, Canada and others.

In short, Abbas’s slurs were a delegitimization not of specific Israeli policies, settlements, or wars, but of the very creation of the Jewish state; Netanyahu’s comments were about ISIS, Hamas and other terrorists. These are not equivalent, notwithstanding the New York Times framing.

Indeed, Baker’s entire construct of synchronized speeches seems forced. He insists, for example, that because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a “side show” after so many years of dominating the General Assembly’s opening, Netanyahu and Abbas are left trying to “compete for attention against seemingly more urgent crises.”

But as Walter Russell Mead points out, Baker neglects to note that Israel in fact welcomes the redistribution of global attention, which its leaders feel has been disproportionately heaped on the Jewish state:

The piece [by Baker] presents both Netanyahu and Abbas as irrelevant. They used to command the world stage, but now nobody is interested in their interminable quarrel.

What the piece doesn’t say is that this situation is exactly what Israel wants, and is a terrible defeat for the Palestinians. Abbas is the one whose strategy depends on keeping the Palestinian issue front and center in world politics; Bibi wants the issue to fade quietly away.

Indeed, Netanyahu in his UN speech specifically criticized the international body’s “obsession with Israel.” Rather than begging for renewed attention, the Israeli prime minister surely welcomes what he views as a more appropriate placement of global priorities.

Which Leader Was “Brash”?

Abbas’s speech was notably strident. Because security forces in Israel have succeeded at stopping some of the Palestinian attackers seeking to stab Israelis, Abbas accused Israel of “extrajudicial executions.” He accused Israel of “provocations against the holy al-Aqsa Mosque,” “atrocities,” and “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in the West Bank, though that population continues to grow at a particularly rapid rate. These are not only inflammatory charges, but also ones that have helped fuel the ongoing wave of Palestinian attacks.

Yes, Netanyahu in his speech held the Palestinian leadership responsible for refusing to recognize the Jewish state. That is something Abbas proudly owns up to. And the Israeli leader charged the Palestinians with incitement. The phenomenon is likewise acknowledged by US State Department. Perhaps most importantly, Netanyahu’s complaints about Palestinian rejectionism and incitement don’t inspire Israelis to take to the streets and stab Palestinian civilians — unlike Abbas’s dangerous rhetoric about supposed Israeli executions and desecration of holy ground, which has fomented Palestinian attacks.

Notwithstanding Baker’s attempt to impose an equivalence between the two speeches, then, there was a qualitative difference between them. But readers of The New York Times were provided with only one hint of a difference between the two leaders. This came in a separate set of articles, also by Peter Baker, published online shortly before the two leaders gave their speeches. The opening sentence of one piece made clear it was about “Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.” That’s straightforward enough. By contrast, the opening sentence of the other piece signaled it was about “Benjamin Netanyahu, the brash prime minister of Israel.”

CAMERA has previously drawn attention to the newspaper’s habit of editorializing by employing derogatory adjectives in news stories about Israelis. In one month in 2013, for example, supposedly objective news reporters charged Israeli leaders with being “shrill,” “stubborn,” “cynical,” “strident,” “abrasive,” and “derisive.”

And now Peter Baker does the same, gratuitously inserting the word “brash” into the Israeli prime minister’s title, but refraining from such subjective language when describing the Palestinian leader. (If he wanted to, Baker could surely find plenty of observers who describe Abbas with unflattering adjectives.)

Whether wiping out actual distinctions in speeches, or imposing particular opinions when characterizing the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, recent reporting by the new Jerusalem bureau chief has left those hoping for a more evenhanded approach by the New York Times continuing to wait for an improvement.

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