Study: Washington Post Op-Eds: A ‘Wide Range of Commentary’?

(For the introduction and methodology of this study, which also includes analyses of the Los Angeles Times and New York Times Op-Ed pages, click here.)

Washington Post Arab-Israeli commentary by outside writers is overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, or both.

Yet in an Op-Ed column headlined “The Goal of These Pages” (Feb. 5, 2006), the Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, wrote that “in an era when the Web allows readers to read only commentary that they agree with, we continue to think there’s value in an opinion page that offers a wide range of commentary.”

The Problem

Hiatt was defending publication of “What Hamas is Seeking,” a Jan. 31, 2006 opinion piece by Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy political bureau chief of Hamas. The editorial page editor acknowledged that a

torrent of e-mails objected …. Readers said we should not give space to a terrorist organization, especially for a piece of “propaganda” that obscured Hamas’ long-standing commitment to the destruction of Israel.

Hiatt concurred that “Hamas is a terrorist organization.” But, he added,

it is now the elected majority party of a Palestinian parliament. U.S. and other officials are trying to decide what policy to take toward a new government, as experts debate the same question. In that context, the party’s platform and intentions are newsworthy – including Marzook’s soft-pedaling of Hamas’ position on Israel, his plea for continued aid and his suggestion that Hamas does not favor the creation of an Islamic state.

Is that credible? Readers will come to their own judgement – informed, we hope by further commentary we publish on the same subject.

Leave aside the fact that policy makers need not depend on Op-Ed promotion pieces by terrorists to know their platforms and intentions; intelligence data, the terrorists’ publications, broadcasts, and Web sites, and, of course, news reports of their deeds provide that information. Consider only Hiatt’s hope that Washington Post commentaries made for informed judgment.

The Slant

Abu Marzook’s Jan. 31 piece was the third Op-Ed on Israeli-Palestinian matters since the start of 2006, and neither of the earlier columns were pro-Israel or seriously critical of Palestinian behavior. Neither could be paired with the Hamas leader’s commentary to balance or contradict it. Nineteen months and the publication of 20 more related Op-Eds later – including two additional columns by Hamas leaders – it appears that Hiatt’s position is not credible. Though a wide range of well-informed, fact-based commentary would be valuable, when it comes to opinion on Israeli-Palestinian matters from outside contributors, the Washington Post offers too little of it.

Were Abu Marzook and his colleagues soft-pedaling Hamas’ genocidal positions on Israel and the Jews, easing off the organization’s call for a Palestinian Muslim theocracy, as Hiatt put it? Whether they were or not, Post readers – contrary to the editorial page editor’s professed intentions – would find it difficult to make an informed judgment based on the arguments of other outside contributors.

Were Israeli counter-terrorism efforts effective? Were Jewish settlements in the West Bank legal? Was the status of that land disputed, or Palestinian? Was the United States wise in trying to isolate Hamas and support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, or creating additional problems? Post Op-Ed contributors generally offered one side of the argument, the side more sympathetic to Palestinian claims, more critical of Israeli actions. These columns often included factual errors and/or logical fallacies not countered in subsequent commentaries.

The Statistics

From Jan. 1, 2006 through July 31, 2007, the newspaper’s Op-Ed pages published 23 primary commentaries on Israeli-Palestinian issues by outside contributors. Seventeen advocated – often vigorously and deceptively – positions held by Palestinian leaders, sometimes those of Hamas, sometimes those of Fatah, and/or were essentially critical of Israeli policy or U.S. policy in support of Israel.

Four offered an Israeli perspective or were critical of Arabs. These were “Give Hamas Nothing for Free,” by Dennis Ross; “The Rules of War,” by Moshe Yaalon, “A Cease-Fire Reality: Dealing with Syria,” by Ross, and a “A Two-State Solution, Palestinian Style,” by Martin Indyk.

Two columns were, overall, neutral. “What Use Were All The Wars?” by Eltahawy, an expatriate Egyptian journalist, was flawed by a factual error (that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “has never visited Israel”), and the false Arab mantra about “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land” (the land’s status is disputed, pending negotiations). However, the commentary mainly featured something rare on the Post’s Op-Ed pages – thoughtful criticism of intra-Arab behavior and Arab actions toward Israel. Also neutral was Steven Cook’s “Don’t Blame Democracy Promotion.”

In addition, the Post ran five tangential Op-Eds, two of which were neutral, and three of which were critical of Arabs.

The Writers

Diversity among writers was even more narrow than the range of opinion presented. Hamas leaders wrote three and former U.S. State Department official Aaron David Miller – who minimized Palestinian terrorism, irrendentism and violation of agreements while blaming Israel for “peace process” difficulties and Washington for allegedly missed opportunities – contributed three. Miller co-authored two of his efforts with Robert Malley, a former National Security Council staffer who repeatedly has misrepresented the 2000 Israeli-American offer of Palestinian statehood in exchange for peace to argue that Yasser Arafat was right to reject it. Malley, with Miller, now recommends some sort of de facto if not de jure U.S.-Israeli accommodation with Hamas.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter offered nothing new, providing two predictable apologias for the Palestinians and Hamas while erroneously criticizing Israel.

Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who uses reasonable sounding language to promote an unreasonably one-sided, erroneous Palestinian line, contributed two commentaries, including one insisting that Hamas-Fatah “unity government” could be a force for progress.

Also getting the Op-Ed pages’ equivalent of soccer’s two free kicks on goal was Gershom Gorenberg, a long-time Israeli critic of Israeli settlements and settlers, whose damning-with-faint-praise political obituary for Ariel Sharon and a criticism of Olmert’s disengagement plans that almost completely ignored its concessions and risks were both selected by Post editors.

Like Palestinian prime minister Haniyeh but unlike Israeli premier Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuoad Siniora got space on the Op-Ed page. In a long piece illustrated with two photographs – one of an Israeli air strike, the other of grieving Lebanese women – he blamed Israel for his country’s internal and intra-Arab problems.

There were no Op-Eds by Israel’s prime minister or other current senior government officials or diplomats.

In Denial

Publication of the third Hamas-originated public relations piece, “Engage With Hamas; We Earned Our Support,” by Ahmed Yousef, June 26, 2007 generated the same sort of criticism the Post received 17 months earlier over the Abu Marzook commentary – criticism again informed by a CAMERA alert. Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt’s justification this time, relayed by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell in her July 8 column, “To Readers, Terror and War Underplayed,” was:

We frequently run Op-Eds from people with whom we disagree, sometimes vehemently. Sometimes we even run Op-Eds that express views we find repugnant. I think it can be useful for readers to get a sense of how people in the news think – or how people in the news want to be perceived. I think our readers are smart enough to evaluate a Hamas piece in that light.

This explanation fails on at least three counts, as illustrated above:

1) The Washington Post rarely publishes outside commentary by Israelis in the news, or their supporters, whose views contradict those of Palestinians like the terrorists Yousef, Haniyeh, or Abu Marzook; or those of Palestinian apologists like Kuttab, Miller and Malley or anti-Israel polemicists like Carter;

2) The Post, in periodically running anti-Israel commentaries by outside contributors, is not just publishing “Op-Eds from people with whom we disagree, sometimes vehemently,” in Hiatt’s words. Rather, it repeatedly allows Palestinian writers to advance, with only rare contradiction, erroneous arguments – violating the paper’s own guidelines that commentaries, like news articles, should be factually based; and

3) It denies readers the “useful” opportunity “to get a sense of how people in the news think” if those people happen to be Israeli policy makers and usually does so regarding others well-versed in and sympathetic to those policies.

So, if the newspaper’s readers “are smart enough to evaluate a Hamas piece” in light of point-counterpoint Op-Eds, it is not because they’ve been reading outside contributors to the Post.
Data List
Primary Op-Eds: Neutral
1) July 26, 2006 – “Don’t Blame Democracy Promotion” – Steven A. Cook: Claims more democracy, not less, in the Middle East would have prevented the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

2) July 28, 2007 – “What Use Were All These Wars” – Mona Eltahawy: Argues that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land has caused no end of misery, poverty, and frustration for Palestinians.” But also blames the Arab states because they “have subsumed so much into the Palestinian cause.” Of the Arabs and their wars against Israel, she adds, “What were they all for? It’s time to move on.”

Primary Op-Eds: Arab Perspective/Critical of Israel

1) Jan. 6, 2006 –  “The Bulldozer” – Gershom Gorenberg: Notes Sharon’s contradictory status as political father and partial liquidator of settlements, and urges leaders who succeed the “bulldozer” to avoid “his tragic flaws.”

2) Jan. 24, 2006 – “The Palestinians’ Crisis of Leadership” – Aaron David Miller: Argues that the Palestine Liberation Organization is not responsible for terrorism and blames small, supposedly unrepresentative factions instead. Miller acknowledges irresponsible Palestinian leadership, and insists that leadership never had a coherent strategy.

3) Jan. 31, 2006 – “What Hamas Is Seeking” – Mousa abu Marzook: Ties Hamas’ election victory to America’s traditional support for democracy, implies that his movement stands for women’s rights and inter-religious equality, and talks nice about renewed Middle East diplomacy.

4) Feb. 20, 2006 – “Don’t Punish the Palestinians” – Jimmy Carter: Warns the United States and Israel against withholding funds or doing anything else that might “disrupt” the transition to a Palestinian government led by Islamic radicals. Contradicting Hamas’ platform, declares the movement’s disavowal of violence and recognition of Israel is “inevitable.”

5) May 9, 2006 – “Muslims and Jews: Common Ground” – Robert Eisen: Implies that Israeli perceptions of Arab threats are, if not unrealistic, somehow beside the point. Faced with resurgent Islamic fundamentalism, he argues that clergy need a greater voice in diplomacy.

6) May 15, 2006 – “For Israel and Hamas, A Case for Accommodation” – Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller: Claim the Kadima Party-led Israeli coalition and new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority governments “have more in common these days than either would care to admit.” Advocate more Israeli West Bank withdrawals and believe “an informal truce for both appears within reach,” while urging Israeli and U.S. restraint.

7) May 18, 2006 – “Israel’s Half-Plan” – Gershom Gorenberg: Dismisses Olmert’s “convergence” plan for major West Bank withdrawals as insufficient, claiming Olmert’s desire to retain several major settlement blocks (on less than 10 percent of territory) would create “an artificial Bosnia of hostile ethnic entanglement.” Asserts there is a “strong majority support for a two-state solution and recognition of Israel” by Palestinians.

8) July 11, 2006 – “Aggression Under False Pr etenses” – Ismail Haniyeh: Compares the Palestinian anti-Israel struggle with colonial Americans’ fight against Great Britain. Claims Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip against terrorism condoned and abetted by Hamas are “only the latest effort to destroy the results of free and fair elections ….”

9) Aug. 1, 2006 – “Stop the Band-Aid Treatment; We Need Policies for a Real, Lasting Middle East Peace” – Jimmy Carter: Equates Israeli leaders with Arab-Islamic extremists, says Israel’s holding of prisoners is “a repetitive cause of violence,” charges that Palestinian “remnant territories” have been “reduced to little more than human dumping grounds surrounded by a provocative ‘security barrier’ that embarrasses Israel’s friends and that fails to bring safety or stability.”

10) Aug. 3, 2006 – “An Appeal for Leadership; Why Hasn’t the World’s Lone Superpower Stopped This Tragedy?” – Abdullah Gul: In this counter-point to Moshe Yaalon’s same-day column, Gul implicitly blames Israel’s war against Hezbollah for tarnishing America’s standing in the Middle East and implies Israel is the destructive force in this clash.

11) Aug. 7, 2006 “A Bad Status Quo: We Must Address the Roots of the Mideast Crisis” – John Waterbury: Decries lack of “the oft-trumpeted confidence building” in the past decade, but attributes it to a “status quo” of Israeli military superiority. Lists “real issues” such as safe and recognized borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the occupied territories including the Golan Heights, refugees, and nuclear arms.

12) Aug. 8, 2006 – “End This Tragedy Now; Israel Must Be Made to Respect International Law” – Fouad Siniora: Blames Israel for Hezbollah actions and their consequences.

13) Jan. 18, 2007 – “A New Chance for Peace?” Jimmy Carter: Portrays Israel as aggressive, illegal occupier of Palestinians and Hamas as open to making peace, while lobbying for Iranian and Syrian “opportunities” to participate in “regional cooperation.”

14) March 26, 2007 – “Obstacle or Opportunity? How the Palestinian Unity Government Offers a Path to peace” – Daoud Kuttab: Argues that Hamas-Fatah “unity government” improves chances for Arab-Israeli agreement. Claims that government “prioritizes” non-violence, that Hamas is moving toward recognizing Israel within what are erroneously termed Israel’s internationally recognized 1967 “borders.”

15) June 19, 2007 – “West Bank First’: It Won’t Work” –Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller: Acknowledges the weaknesses of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement in the West Bank, and implies that teaming with Hamas would improve the situation.

16) June 26, 2007 – “Engage With Hamas; We Earned Our Support,” Ahmed Yousef: Argues that Israel and the United States need Hamas as a partner.

17) July 23, 2007 – “A Destination, Not a Road Map” –Daoud Kuttab: Misrepresents the Oslo diplomatic process, inverting cause-and-effect regarding Israeli security measures and Palestinian grievances and mangles the meaning and requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

Primary Op-Eds: Israeli Perspective/Critical of Arabs:

1) Feb. 5, 2006 – “Give Hamas Nothing for Free” – Dennis Ross: Argues that Israel and the United States must insist that Hamas recognize the Jewish state, cease violence and stop terrorism by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as well.

2) Aug. 3, 2006 – “The Rules of War” – Moshe Yaalon: Argues that “the conflict in the Middle East is about much more than Israel and Hezbollah, or even Hezbollah’s Syrian and Iranian sponsors. What is at stake are the very rules of war that underpin the entire international order.” Israel, he says, upholds civilized rules.

3) Aug. 17, 2006 – “A Cease-Fire Reality: Dealing With Syria” – Dennis Ross: Stresses that “the more determined Syria is to frustrate implementation of the [U.N. cease-fire] resolution, the more the international force will need a capability and a mandate to be aggressive in stopping efforts to get arms to Hezbollah and preventing its restoration as a fighting force …. ”

4) June 15, 2007 – “A ‘Two-State Solution,’ Palestinian-Style” – Martin Indyk: Asserts that Hamas’ purge of Fatah from the Gaza Strip has retarded efforts toward Arab-Israeli peace. Hamas created a “two-Palestine solution.” Indyk claims President Mahmoud Abbas connived in losing Gaza so he could gain strength – with U.S., Jordanian, and Israeli help – in the West Bank.

Tangential Op-Eds: Neutral

1) May 8, 2006 – “A Realistic Idealism; There’s a Right Way to Support Democracy in the Mideast” – Madeleine K. Albright: Argues that the U.S. must continue to promote democracy in the Middle East, but “we should keep a rein on our expectations.” She argues that in the debate between realism and idealism, “neither extreme is sustainable.”

2) Aug. 12, 2006 –  “Learning From Hezbollah” – Brian E. Humphreys: Contrasts unfavorably U.S. efforts in Iraq with “Hezbollah’s success as an effective practitioner of the art of militarized grass-roots politics.” Discusses the limitations Hezbollah’s coopting of Lebanese Shi’ites places on Israeli counter-terrorism.

Tangential Op-Eds: Israeli Perspective/Critical of Arabs

1) Feb 21, 2006 – “The Choice of How to Respond” – Ronald D. Asmus: Warns that Iran’s “growing bellicosity” against the West in general and Israel in particular must not be underestimated and suggests a closer Israel-NATO relationship.

2) April 5, 2006 – “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic” – Eliot A. Cohen: Charges that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” “systematically select everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews and equally systematically suppress any exculpatory information.”

3) Aug. 10, 2006 – “A Price of Fighting Terrorism” – David Bernstein: Points out that the modern tendency to recoil from televised warfare “is a major handicap against an Islamic extremist enemy that is all too aware of our w eaknesses . . . . the West will have to fight against an enemy that hides missiles in family homes and cynically exploits the inevitable results,” as Hezbollah did against Israel.

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