‘Palestinian Narrative’: Washington Post Week with Journalistic Tar Baby

Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s attempts to advance international negations over Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program and Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy early in November provided a window into what The Washington Post does, and doesn’t, report.


Case one


In “Israel objects to Iran talks; ‘A Very Bad Deal,’ Netanyahu Says; U.S. ally points to possible security risks” (November 9, page one), paragraphs two and three said that “backed by bipartisan supporters in Congress, Israel is casting a pall over what the White House had hoped was good news—a bargain for Iran to suspend most of its uranium enrichment for six months in exchange for a temporary easing of sanctions. Before meeting … Kerry on Friday, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the agreement would give up too much too early and that it threatened Israel’s security.”


The article, by diplomatic reporter Anne Gearan and Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth, quoted the Israeli prime minister saying his country “utterly rejects” the proposed deal between the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany with Iran. “The angry Israeli response threatened a return to the more tumultuous U.S.-Israeli relationship that characterized much of Obama’s first term.”


Accurate—Israel was angry and did reject the deal as outlined. But did it “cast a pall” over good news, or insist the news was not good? In terms of hard news coverage instead of editorial commentary, Israel “cast doubt,” not a funereal pall.


The report claimed Netanyahu linked Iran diplomacy to Israeli-Palestinian talks promoted by Kerry that “are already in a rocky phase.” The article’s conclusion was given to Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She claimed Netanyahu was making unrealistic security demands—unspecified by The Post—with a “neighborhood bully” attitude toward talks with Iran.


Ashrawi has no credibility. She has: alleged falsely that Israel assassinated many “Palestinian political leaders;” backed an organization called MIFTAH that attributed to Israeli leaders fraudulent quotes endorsing mass murder of Arabs; and falsely insisted that two Israeli soldiers lynched in Ramallah early in the second intifada were members of a “death squad.” And so on, endlessly. (See, for example, “Ha’aretz Gives Hanan Ashrawi a Makeover,” March 3, 2005 and “Hanan Ashrawi’s Propaganda,” Nov. 8, 2000 among others.


That The Post still cites her without qualification suggests a) failure to verify sources; b) unwarranted acceptance of “the Palestinian narrative”; or c) that Ashrawi’s fluent English exempts her from scrutiny.


Case two


In “Kerry: Talks might be last chance for peace between Israelis, Palestinians; Chief U.S. diplomat is in the region to bolster shaky negotiations,” (November 8) The Post quotes the secretary of state making sweeping predictions but adds no context or countervailing responses. Kerry says “if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of de-legitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis.”


If The Post asked what negative consequences the secretary feared for Palestinian Arabs if they failed to do their part in achieving a peaceful outcome, his reply went unreported.


According to correspondent Karen DeYoung, Kerry warned that “if we don’t resolve the question of settlements and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have, if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually in the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.” Palestinian Authority leaders and media deny Israel’s legitimacy and regularly incite violence but The Post leaves it to an Israeli reporter, near the end of the article, to question the secretary’s premise.


As for “settlement and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have,” The Post fails as always either to quote Israeli legal arguments or provide readers with context, information provided to it by CAMERA repeatedly, on this key issue. In fact, Article 6 of the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate and upheld by Chapter XII, Article 80 of the U.N. Charter, recognizes Jews’ right to settle the land west of the Jordan River.


Neither does the paper provide background noting that Palestinian rejection of “two-state solution” offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008 might have something do with Israeli soldiers’ “perpetual presence” on the West Bank. The Post quotes the secretary saying “the alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential for chaos. I mean, does Israel want a third intifada.” It apparently fails to ask the chief U.S. diplomat if he thinks Palestinian leadership wants a third intifada, or would bear any responsibility for it, or mention that it did for rejecting previous two-state proposals and launching the second intifada.


Referring to “final status” issues for Israeli-Palestinian talks, the newspaper mentions “Jewish settlements in
Palestinian territory.” There is no “Palestinian territory.” Not yet, not according to negotiations required by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement or the 2003 international “road map.” If the territories were “Palestinian,” rather than disputed, or contested (as The Post recently has described not only Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, but also eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights), there would be no reason to negotiate—Israel would just have to withdraw. That negotiations are required to reach an agreement indicates the status of the land in question is disputed, not Palestinian.


Case three


Same day, page one, “Iran is offered deal for freeze,” by Joby Warrick, a Post national security reporter and Booth, the Jerusalem bureau chief, is only secondarily about Israel, Still, a direct reference to the Jewish state is curious:


“The prospect that Iran could be granted even partial relief from sanctions brought protests from Saudi officials as well as Israel’s conservative-led government, and Israeli officials attacked the Geneva proposal as seriously flawed.” Saudi officials are just officials. They are not officials of a reactionary Saudi government, or of a government influenced by Wahhabism, a puritanical, anti-Western school of Sunni Islam.


But Israel doesn’t have just a government, like Saudi Arabia just has “officials.” It has a “conservative-led government.” (The paper sometimes describes Iran’s theocratic rulers also as “conservative.”) A compulsion to label, when it comes to Israel, should be a warning flag to readers. Consciously or unconsciously, The Post applies to Israel assumptions and standards it does not use with other countries, especially Western-style democracies. That opens the door to editorializing into hard news coverage.


Case four


The front page “In Arafat mystery, Swiss investigators hint at foul play; Carefully worded report says polonium-210 may have caused his death” (November 7) refers to Yasser Arafat as “the flamboyant, autocratic and inscrutable chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization ….”


The article, by Booth, never mentions that the PLO under Arafat was probably the leading international terrorist organization of the 1960’s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It does not remind readers that Arafat had more civilian Jewish blood on his hands than anyone else since 1945 and even so was responsible for far more Arab than Jewish deaths.


It says he “spent his life battling the Israelis, first as a guerrilla fighter and later as a statesman.” He was neither. There is a distinction between a guerrilla fighting an organized military and a terrorist targeting noncombatants. There’s a distinction between a statesman and an inveterate betrayer—as Jordan’s King Hussein finally acknowledge of Arafat’s serial lies. Yet The Post romanticizes an antisemitic, embezzling murderer.


The article does note that theories of Arafat’s death have included assassination by rivals, his inner circle or Israeli agents. But it never mentions reports that the symptoms of his final illness were consistent with AIDS, perhaps not a fitting end for Arab and Islamic audiences to a person discordantly memorialized as “the Palestinian George Washington.”


The Post says “before his death in 2004—more than a decade after he signed the Oslo Accords, which offered a still-unfulfilled promise of peace—Arafat was confined to his Ramallah compound by the Israeli military. The second intifada, or uprising, was raging in Israel and the occupied territories as a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers was met with a fierce Israeli crackdown.” Good, as far as it goes. But who ordered the second intifada? Arafat. Yet another example of bias, inadvertent or otherwise, by omission.


The article says the exhumation and testing of Arafat’s body was done in cooperation with Al Jazeera satellite cable television network. But it doesn’t say that the rulers of Qatar, the owners of Al Jazeera, seem to have an interest in undermining the Palestinian Authority, as suggested by Al Jazeera’s earlier involvement in the “Palestine Papers.” That would have been intriguing, and useful for readers to know in judging which source, if any, to trust.


Case five


In “Kerry looks to prop up Mideast talks; Netanyahu, Abbas have told of rising tensions in closed-door negotiations,” (also November 7), the third paragraph contains a partial quote from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Post says he “accused the Palestinians of ‘continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to … run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace.”


The full sentence quoted in part by The Post’s DeYoung and Booth appeared in an Associated Press article in the same day’s The Washington Times. It had the prime minister saying “I’m concerned about their progress [the talks] because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises ….” For The Post, chronically, Palestinians are victims, Israelis victimizers. Palestinian aggression, particularly continued terrorism and incitement violating the original Oslo Accords, long has been minimized or ignored by the newspaper.


“The Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal,’ Kerry said after he met with Abbas. ‘The United States has said that … the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate.” The Post ignores—though CAMERA pointed
it out, again just before the article appeared—that Jewish communities in the disputed territories are not only not illegal but actually encouraged by international law. The newspaper reiterates that “most of the world considers the Jewish settlements illegal under international law,” ignoring another opportunity to explain why Israel disagrees or what international law actually says. Not only the League Mandate and U.N. Charter support the settlements’ legality, but so do the 1920 San Remo Treaty, the 1924 Anglo-American Convention and other documents instrumental to the creation of Mandatory Palestine and its designated role as the site of the re-established Jewish national home.


The article refers to the second release of “longtime Palestinian prisoners” but does not say they were all murderers (as The Post’s original coverage by Booth did), unrepentant and celebrated, including by Abbas himself. The newspaper says the releases, “intended to signal good faith … have been undercut, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, by new housing approvals ….” Palestinian actions that undercut any Israeli assumptions of good faith—from official honors for the freed killers to frequent anti-Israel incitement—go unmentioned. In The Post, the Arabs have grievances, the Israelis undercut U.S. peace efforts.


“Kerry said he wanted ‘to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree, as a matter of going into the talks, they somehow condone or accept the settlements.’” Without context such coverage amounts to historical revisionism. In the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreements the Palestinian side essentially did accept Israeli settlements, at least until a final agreement was reached. It did not insist on any construction halt as a condition for talks. Here readers have Palestinian leadership insisting on a rule change in the middle of the game, the U.S. secretary of state seeming to concur, and The Post failing to clarify fundamentals. 


Case six


“Vocal bloc wants one Israel, not two states; Likud faction rejects Palestinian autonomy, eyes annexation instead” (November 6, page one), by Booth and his assistant, Ruth Eglash, could have run any time in recent months. Regardless of whether it was newsworthy, it hardly seemed to call for placement on the top left of the front page—except as a stage-setter and potential pitfall for Kerry’s diplomacy.


The lede advised that “As Secretary of State John F. Kerry resumes talks here Wednesday in the quest to create ‘two states for two people,’ a vocal faction in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is, more openly than ever, opposing the very idea of a Palestinian state—and putting forward its own plans to take, rather than give away, territory.” It notes that some cabinet ministers and leaders in Netanyahu’s Likud Party “are in revolt against the international community’s long-held consensus that there should be two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”


Unsaid by The Post was that the two-state consensus embodied in the 2003 U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russian “roadmap” stemmed from President George W. Bush’s “vision” the year before for two states, Israel and “Palestine,” side-by-side, democratic and at peace—with the new Palestinian country headed by leaders “untainted by terrorism.” The newspaper accurately could have reported that many Israelis, not only some members of Netanyahu’s coalition, see no signs of such an entity emerging under the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas.


At times, the article sways between uncritically echoing Palestinian sources and protecting them. For example:


“Palestinian leaders and members of their negotiating team say the ideas put forth by the annexationists reveal Israel’s true heart. Israeli leaders, they say, do not really want a deal and instead want to keep the land they won from Jordan in the 1967 war and have occupied since—land that Israelis want for security and because they believe that it is their ancestral home.


“Of course, the Palestinians have their own expansionists who would like to take all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has for decades waged a campaign of violence against Israeli military and civilian targets. In academic and activist circles, there is also support for a bi-national solution among Palestinians who have grown frustrated with a long-delayed peace process.”


These paragraphs more accurately could have been written “Israeli negotiators say ideas put forth by Palestinian Authority and Fatah leaders—on PA television and in affiliated newspapers, in West Bank curricula and from PA subsidized mosques—reveal their true heart. They claim Israeli cities like Tiberias, Beersheva and Akko as ‘Palestinian,’ celebrate terrorist killers of Israeli civilians as ‘heroes’ and deny the Jewish people’s well-documented religious and historic ties to the land of Israel. Palestinian leaders, they say, do not really want to negotiate a deal, hence their efforts to outflank the Oslo process and ‘road map’ by seeking U.N. statehood recognition and refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.


“Palestinians have their own expansionists, apparently a large majority, who by insisting on the ‘right-of-return’—which does not exist under any U.N. resolution—want both a West Bank and Gaza Strip state free of Jews and an Arab majority inside Israel. Even among Israeli academic and activist circles, a growing number point to Palestinian rejection of two-state offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and have become frustrated with a ‘peace process’ long delayed by Palestinian leaders.”


The article cites a survey finding 35 percent of Israelis favoring annexation of “all the land of Judea and Samaria—the biblical names some Israelis use to describe the West Bank.&#
148; Judea and Samaria are biblical names the same way Jerusalem, Beersheva, Galilee, Negev and many other modern Hebrew place names are. But The Post doesn’t feel compelled to point that out, or that British Mandatory authorities also used the terms Samaria and Judea in the 20th century, or that their Hebrew versions are used by most Israelis, including many left-of-center politically. It is “West Bank” that is a relative neologism, invented by Jordan in the 1950s during its illegal occupation (1948 – 1967) to convey legitimacy. Post wording implies, erroneously, that West Bank is a neutral, non-partisan description.


The paper calls “East Jerusalem” and the Golan Heights “contested territories.” But it doesn’t tell readers that the West Bank, and Gaza Strip in the absence of a negotiated settlement, likewise are contested. That’s why the CIA World Fact Book, for example, continues to note that what separates the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Israel proper are not internationally recognized borders but the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian armistice line and the 1950 Israeli-Egyptian armistice line, respectively. The status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and their borders, are yet to be determined. Post language choices implicitly deny Israeli claims in the latter two territories while affirming Arab claims in the former two areas.


On November 10, The Post’s lead “The World” section article was “Letter From Israel: Ultra-Orthodox brothers are rocking tradition”. A human-interest feature on two haredi guitar players and singers competing on Israel’s version of “American Idol” allows Jerusalem Bureau Chief Booth to report on both Israeli pop culture and society and one small, idiosyncratic bridge across the ultra-Orthodox-secular divide. Palestinian Arabs were absent and the article, if on the light side, was descriptively accurate.


The paper’s Arab-Israeli coverage frequently contains important information. But too often and for too long a Palestinian filter has screened context, resulting in reports not so much about the Arab-Israeli conflict but rather about Arab views of Israel in the conflict. That approach results in coverage neither balanced nor accurate. 


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