New York Times Struggles with Good Middle East News

Good news for Israel seems to prompt teeth-gnashing for some at the New York Times. The announced intention of the United Arab Emirates to normalize peaceful relations with the Jewish state was a diplomatic breakthrough cheered far and wide. But it triggered Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger to let loose a fusillade of ad hominem smears of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. (August 13, 2020, “Netanyahu Drops Troubled Plan for Economic Gain”)

The reporter’s coverage notes, reasonably enough, the switch in national priorities from extending Israeli sovereignty in areas of the West Bank to, instead, suspending that effort in favor of opening relations with an Arab nation that had been an adversary. But the thrust of the story is not just that Netanyahu made a politically expedient shift or, less cynically, that he seeks a positive outcome for Israel and the region. Halbfinger attacks the leader’s demeanor, conduct and even his alleged inner feelings.

He insists to readers that Netanyahu is focused on himself and his legacy, saying the leader “craved a historic achievement to cap his tenure,” that he “exulted in a potential legacy,” and that he “saw as securing his legacy” the “annexing [of] West Bank territory.”

Undisclosed is how the reporter reads the mind and heart of the leader and distinguishes between exhilaration over this important breakthrough making Israel stronger and safer and the narcissistic, narrow motives Halbfinger discerns.

David Halbfinger

Halbfinger also sees a “rabbit-in-the-hat quality” in Israel’s detente with the UAE, terming it “vintage Netanyahu.” Actually, the diplomatic achievement was years in the making. Here too the editorial comment is belittling.

Seeming particularly incensed by the Prime Minister’s confident manner, he describes a “swaggering solo news conference” at which the leader ostensibly “crowed to Israeli journalists” about the nation’s breakthrough with the UAE. He claims Netanyahu “rhapsodized about his mastery of power geopolitics, boasting of his meetings with leaders in Oman and Sudan.”

A journalistically professional characterization of the Israeli leader’s encounter with a generally raucous and unfriendly Israeli press might have said Netanyahu clearly relished recounting the successful UAE events to the highly adversarial Israeli media who regularly criticize him. That would have revealed more about events and less about Halbfinger’s own peevishness.

Notably, no other Middle East leader, however brutal to his own people or menacing to the region, is subjected to this kind of personal assault by the Times

Another Emirates story (August 14: “For Palestinians, Israel-U.A.E. Deal Swaps One Nightmare for Another”) was no better in terms of impartiality and clarity for readers. It depicted Palestinians as innocents suffering an “additional blow,” as well as “humiliation” and a “nightmare” – due to the impending friendly relations between Israel and an Arab nation.

In a deeply false framing of the story, Palestinian recalcitrance and rejection of peace with the Jewish state are elided or distorted in favor of a tale of blameless victimization. It’s the Big Omission – exclusion of the central fact that Palestinian leaders have previously and repeatedly rejected genuine peace proposals, walked away from negotiations and continued to reject coexistence with a sovereign Jewish state.

Thus the first Palestinian quoted, Husam Zumlot, a Palestinian Authority spokesman in the UK, declares the UAE normalization is “damaging to the cause of peace” because “it takes away one of the key incentives for Israel to end its occupation.” But Israel has repeatedly sought to end the “occupation” – long before the new detente with the Emirates. The reporters allow that deceit to go unanswered.

Nor was there any counterpoint to Zumlot’s false claim Israel intended “illegal theft of Palestinian land” with the possible extension of sovereignty. The Times itself, as well as many other media outlets, has corrected the false reference to West Bank land in Area C – the areas recently under discussion – as “Palestinian.” Those areas are disputed territory and historically never “Palestinian.”

Indirect, dismissive language, is often employed by the Times when details favoring Israel’s perspective are included, as was the case in a muddled allusion to Palestinian foot-dragging on a peace settlement. The Times wrote:

“The conservative-led Israeli government has long viewed the Palestinians as intransigent, and unwilling or unable to compromise on long-held principles that Israel sees as inflated demands, casting them as serial quitters of peace talks.”

In this rendition, vital facts of modern history involving repeated refusal of Palestinian Arabs to accept a Jewish state of any configuration and to establish their own neighboring state, beginning in the 20th century and extending into the 21st – facts known to the reporters – are excluded. The Big Omission allows the fundamental truth of Palestinian agency and responsibility for their own fate to be avoided in favor of the themes, in this instance, of yet another “nightmare” of victimization.

Palestinian intransigence is a fact of history – but it’s couched as a viewpoint of a “conservative-led” (read: tainted) government. Likewise, the reporters are ducking their role to report in saying Israel is “casting” Palestinians as “serial quitters of peace talks.” The Palestinians have cast themselves by their actions and it’s for journalists to state the facts.

And those “long-held principles” not spelled out here that Israel supposedly “sees as inflated demands” would include the Palestinian “principle” of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian Arab “refugees.” Israel sees these not as “inflated” demands but as impossible and irreconcilable with peace – a potential existential threat. Connected to this is the Palestinian “principle” of never recognizing and agreeing to live side by side with an independent Jewish state, a position vehemently articulated by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and many others. That rejection of Jewish rights, history and sovereignty is imbued daily in Palestinian children and throughout the culture.

Distancing, obfuscating and blurring the facts about Palestinian responsibility for their own plight allows reporters to avoid giving offense to Palestinians, including those cited in this story. In addition to Zumlot, head of the Palestinian mission in the UK, the story also references Nour Odeh, identified as a “Palestinian writer and analyst” who is actually a former Palestinian Authority spokeswoman, and Saeb Erakat, identified as secretary general of the PLO Executive and its “veteran negotiator.”

Erakat is noted elsewhere – not, of course, in the Times – for fantastical lying, including claiming in 2002 that Israel had killed 500 Palestinians in Jenin. (The dead in that showdown during Yasir Arafat’s terror war numbered 52, mostly combatants.) Times reporters never find noteworthy that or other outlandish Erakat lies, such as his bogus claim that Palestinian Arabs preceded Jews in the land of Israel, being the descendants of Canaanites.

Although the Times did run other stories that gave solid overviews of the geopolitical developments in the important Emirate story, the serious bias in the coverage noted above taints the newspaper’s presentation of the realities. Unfortunately, biased pieces vis-a-vis Israel remain standard fare at the Times, straightforward reporting the exception.