Direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been frozen, and replaced with debate over which side is to blame for the impasse. The Palestinians insist Israel’s settlement policy is the reason for the derailment of talks. Israel responds that, unlike the Palestinians, it wants direct talks to resume immediately, and that the issue of settlements, like other areas of dispute, can only be solved by way of peace talks. Meanwhile, the New York Times, which is expected to report this news in an impartial manner, has instead become a participant in the blame game.
One could argue that fault is in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, since the Palestinians are the ones who refuse to talk, direct responsibility for the stalemate clearly lies with them. But because Palestinian leaders condition the resumption of face-to-face negotiations on an extension of Israel’s settlement moratorium, something which Israel has resisted doing, then from the Palestinian perspective it is Israel’s stance that indirectly prevents talks.
By that logic, though, the ball was returned to the Palestinian court when Israel suggested it would resume the moratorium in exchange for Palestinians recognition of the Jewish state. The Palestinian refusal to do replaced Israel’s refusal to extend the settlement moratorium as the indirect reason for the continued stalemate.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the parties’ respective positions, the diplomatic maneuvering is not unexpected from diplomats whose job is to pursue what they see as their national interest. The New York Times, on the other hand, is expected on its news pages to report on the maneuvering without advocating for one side’s position. This it hasn’t done.
In a series of news stories about the state of negotiations, the newspaper has promoted the idea that Israeli settlements — and not, for example, Palestinian obstinacy or their refusal to recognize the Jewish state — are primarily at fault for the stalemate.
Since September, the month during which direct talks both started and stalled, the Times published no fewer than five headlines or subheadlines fingering only Israeli building as being responsible for “stymying,” “snagging,” or “clouding” peace talks.
A Sept. 3 headline insisted that “Settlements In West Bank Are Clouding Peace Talks.” On Sept. 23, another headline announced, “Palestinian Man Is Killed in Jerusalem While Peace Talks Hit Snag on Settlements.” And five days later, a subhead argued that “West Bank Settlements Remain Obstacle.”
The next month began with an Oct. 2 headline charging, “Settlement Issue Stymies U.S. Envoy’s Mideast Effort.” And on Oct. 16, the large font told readers that “Israel’s Plan to Build in East Jerusalem Clouds Peace Negotiations.” (These are headlines from the print edition. Online headlines may differ.)
While there is certainly room for different views about the utility of settlements, it is clear that these headlines promote the Palestinian narrative about the breakdown of peace talks. The article “Settlements In West Bank Are Clouding Peace Talks” is a case in point. The headline, cloud analogy and all, seems to come directly from a point argued in the article by a Palestinian negotiator. Nabil Shaath, described by the Times as the Palestinian foreign relations commissioner, is quoted saying that “the cloud is still there” because “the Israelis gave absolutely no hopeful signs that they will continue the [settlement] moratorium.” (Unlike the headline writer, Shaath acknowledged that the emphasis on building is part of the Palestinian “point of view.”)
The text of the article likewise put the onus on Israel to compromise, and not the Palestinians. Abbas and Netanyahu, it asserted, “did not confront the one issue that could sink these talks in three weeks: whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will extend a moratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”
As noted above, would be at least just as true, if not more precise, for the newspaper to describe the issue that could sink talks as whether Abbas will continue to refuse compromise on the issue of negotiations and settlements. It is, after all, the Palestinian leader who decided to break from the status quo with a new demand that Israel freeze building; for years the two sides had negotiated, with some success, without any ban on Israeli building across the Green Line. But the article says no such thing about Abbas’s lack of flexibility. (It does, though, make sure to charge that Netanyahu “has not offered any hint of a compromise.”)
The other articles are marred by the same bias. The Oct. 2 story, for example, opens with the argument that peace talks “have run aground on Israel’s decision to allow a freeze on West Bank Jewish settlement construction to expire.” Again, the newspaper’s language neatly corresponds with Palestinian talking points quoted in the same article. “The key to direct negotiations,” argued Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, “is in the hands of Netanyahu.” It is, of course, in the Palestinians self-interest to put the ball in Israel’s court while deflecting from their own responsibility for preventing direct negotiations. But it unethical for the New York Times to do the same.
And what about Netanyahu’s offer, which put the ball back in the Palestinian court? After the Prime Minister indicated he would freeze settlements in exchange for Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state, no New York Times headlines announced that Abbas’s rejection of this offer “clouded” peace talks. Instead, the newspaper questioned Netanyahu’s motives. “Netanyahu’s New Offer Doesn’t Sway Palestinians or Shed Light on His Motives,” read the headline to an Oct. 12 story. The Israeli offer, according to the article, was meant either to keep talks alive while assuaging Netanyahu’s coalition partners, or to “shift the burden of failure to the Palestinians and escape blame should the talks wither and die.”
It seems that, just as the Times struggles with attributing responsibility to the Palestinians for the negotiations impasse, the newspaper also has trouble imagining that the Palestinians, too, are capable of trying to “shift the burden of failure” with their negotiating tactics. Nor does the newspaper consider that Israel might see Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state as a key confidence building step, one that would convince skeptics who doubt Abbas’s commitment to the concept of two states for two peoples.
As a whole, then, the newspaper’s handling of the negotiations impasse is marked by the same one-sidedness evident in so much of the newspaper’s Arab-Israeli coverage.