The Worst of Times

Israel’s right to exist is now debatable, according to Op-ed page editors at the New York Times, where, it seems, no column excoriating Israel is too extreme or factually flawed to pass muster.

Michael Tarazi’s October 4 piece entitled “Two Peoples, One State,” calling for the dissolution of the Jewish state was particularly shrill and mendacious.

Certainly as a legal advisor to the PLO, Tarazi’s argument in favor of terminating Israel is of interest. The problem is that the argument relies on patently false assertions. In a publication that claims to be committed to accuracy, not only in its news coverage but on its opinion pages as well, the falsehoods should never have gotten by editors –– and would not normally do so.

Invoking the most odious comparison in the modern lexicon – to apartheid South Africa – Tarazi’s premise, stated and restated, is that Israel is a racist country that oppresses non -Jews, blocking them from citizenship rights, and as such is morally illegitimate and should be done away with and transformed into a bi-national state. There, presumably, all people would be treated equitably.

The South African smear is a standard trope among European Israel-bashers and radical campus agitators but has generally remained in the fever swamp fringes of American debate. Its recent emergence in opinion writing in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and other mainstream publications is a matter of note.

So receptive are they to the Israel-as-South-Africa allusion that Times editors ignore such obvious refutations of the slur as the fact that 23% of the country is non-Jewish, mainly Arab Muslims and Christians, that they are the freest “non-Jews” of the Middle East, and that members of these communities serve in the Israeli parliament, the armed forces, and the Supreme Court.

In his indictment of Israel, Tarazi makes various false statements, including the following:

“More than 400,000 Israelis live illegally in more than 150 colonies, many of which are atop Palestinian water sources.”

‘Israel is offering “independence” on a reservation stripped of water and arable soil…”

“[West Bank and Gaza] Palestinians must drive on separate roads, in cars bearing distinctive license plates, and only to and from designated Palestinian areas. It is illegal for a Palestinian to drive a car with an Israeli license plate. These Palestinians, as non-Jews, neither qualify for Israeli citizenship nor have the right to vote in Israeli elections. In South Africa, such an allocation of rights and privileges based on ethnic or religious affiliation was called apartheid.”

All these statements (and others) should have raised alarms for Times fact-checkers, but none did.

Beginning with the first, “colony,” of course, is another modern curse word implying an alien community established in foreign territory by an imperial power. None of this applies historically, legally, or logically to the Israeli presence. Yet the Times apparently believes it does, and concurs that the Old City of Jerusalem – including the ancient Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, as well as the Mount of Olives, Hebrew University, and Hadassah hospital on Mt. Scopus – are part of illegal Israeli “colonies,” for all are in areas of eastern Jerusalem whose residents are encompassed in Tarazi’s reference to 400,000 Israelis living in illegal “colonies.”

Tarazi’s various references to water use are also factually erroneous, including his charges that Israeli communities in the West Bank and Gaza sit “atop Palestinian water sources” and that Israel is “strip[ping]” Palestinian areas of water.

Jewish settlements, which have been built almost without exception on uninhabited land, are not “atop” private or town wells belonging to Arabs. The PLO writer evidently refers here to a familiar propaganda charge that Israel is appropriating Arab water from aquifers under the West Bank.

The geological facts and Israel’s actual policies, which were of no interest to the Times, are relevant. Rain water that falls on the mountains of the West Bank and percolates through porous surface rock into the aquifer far below then naturally flows downwards toward the Israeli coastline. There, as has been the case for generations, water collects, rising close to the surface in natural springs, such as Rosh Ha’ayin, inside Israel. Even in the 1950’s – before Israel controlled the West Bank – it used 95 percent of the Western Aquifer’s water, and 82% of the Northeastern Aquifer’s water, because it was in Israel that the waters were easily accessible.

Nor is there a rationale on legal grounds to suggest Palestinian ownership of such West Bank water. Israel’s development of the water resources, including the draining of swamps where such water accumulated at ground level, and its long prior use of the water give it rights in the same way Egypt has internationally recognized rights to the waters of the Nile, which flow from and through Ethiopia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Sudan, and a half dozen other nations before reaching Egypt. Is Egypt stealing Ethiopian water? By Tarazi’s reasoning, yes.

Equally ludicrous is Tarazi’s charge that Israel is offering Palestinians “independence” (he mocks the notion with scare quotes) on a “reservation stripped of water…” Not only has Israel not stripped the West Bank and Gaza of water, it has greatly augmented water for the Palestinian Arabs, connecting hundreds of villages to the Israeli water system, digging or authorizing the digging of wells and directly pumping millions of cubic meters of water from Israel into both areas. In the period from 1967 to 1995 West Bank Palestinians increased their domestic water use by 640 percent, from 5.4 MCM to 40 MCM.

When the Palestinian Authority gained control of the territories, rampant uncontrolled well-drilling ensued, severely damaging water resources in Gaza and the Jenin area. While it is understandable that Tarazi would be silent about the dereliction of the Palestinians, preferring to blame Israel, the question is why the New York Times was a partner in this.

Just as false as Tarazi’s allegations of Israeli colonizing and theft of natural resources was the brazen claim of apartheid-like discrimination against Christian and Muslim Arabs of the West Bank. The argument is breathtaking. In a column offering not a hint about the Palestinian terrorist onslaught originating from the West Bank that prompted Israel’s erection of checkpoints and intensified screening of Palestinian travelers, the PLO writer claims the differing license plates of citizens of Israel compared to those of Palestinian residents of the West Bank demonstrates racist separation of non-Jews from Jews.

The Times was untroubled by conflicting information, such as the fact that, except in emergencies, Palestinian Arabs moved freely in the West Bank on virtually any road and even across the Green Line prior to September 2000, which marked the launching of the new terror campaign ag ainst Israel.

Nor did the paper see a contradiction in the fact that Muslim and Christian Israelis driving vehicles with Israeli license plates have been among the victims of attacks on West Bank roads since 2000.

But the nub of Tarazi’s charge regarding Israeli apartheid is the claim that Palestinians of the West Bank live in a “de-facto” state with Jews yet, “as non-Jews,” cannot vote and receive citizens’ benefits.

Of course, they are denied these rights not because of their religion or ethnicity but because they are not citizens. The territory on which West Bank Palestinians live remains in dispute pending negotiations and agreement on “secure and recognized boundaries” under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 242. Extending citizenship to the Palestinians would constitute annexation of the territory.

Israelis living in the West Bank, most of whom moved there in the context of bolstering Israel’s claim to particular strategic locations, which tended to be locations sparsely populated by Arabs, retain their citizenship rights just as Israelis do who move to Rome or Los Angeles.

If and when an agreement is reached, including on borders, Palestinians living in Israeli areas might opt for Israeli citizenship or choose the status of resident aliens who are citizens of the Palestinian state. Jews living in areas that fall under Arab control would likely move to Israeli territory. In an ideal world, they would also have the option of remaining in their present homes as either citizens of the Arab state or resident aliens, but the Palestinians have made clear that in the context of a two-state solution all Jewish residents would have to leave, just as all Jews were expelled (or killed) in areas that came under Arab control after the 1947-48 war.

Yet notwithstanding the gravity and falsity of Tarazi’s accusations, his ultimately genocidal prescription for the Jews of Israel, and the many letters sent to the Times editor, expressing outrage, the paper initially ran only four replies. Of these, just one brief letter rebutted Tarazi while the others were laudatory or non-responsive to the errors, half-truths and distortions in the piece.

Nor, when contacted by this author, would the newspaper itself correct the false statement that “as non-Jews” the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza were denied the rights of Israeli citizenship.

When a letter was then submitted citing just a few of the factual problems, the Times refused to publish it if the words “error,” “distortion,” “deceptive,” or “incendiary” were not removed. These were words, a Times editor argued, that were not “in accord with the tone of the letters page.” However, in the weeks immediately preceding, numerous Times letters had included many examples of these adjectives, as well as other strong criticism. Most of these were directed at the Bush administration, corporations or other entities.

A letter submitted without these words was then scrutinized closely by the Times Letters department for accuracy, with particular focus on my verifying the percentage of Israelis who are “non-Jews.” The scrutiny continued even after the letter was published, when the Times responded to a reader’s request by asking me for proof that Palestinians had been allowed to use the roads of the West Bank along with Israelis.

The contrast in fastidiousness about the facts is striking. Why is a piece by Michael Tarazi that overflows with unfounded and extreme accusations against Israel readily published, while a letter responding to only a few of his falsehoods is subjected to rigorous “fact-checking”?

The answer seems all too obvious, especially in light of the Times‘ readiness to publish other op-eds of similar virulence. Noam Chomsky’s tirade against Israel in February 2004 flung the apartheid charge and repeated similar claims about alleged Israeli water policy. Although Chomsky has long been favored in radical circles, his appearance in the Times is a troubling barometer of anti-Israel extremism on the opinion pages.

A piece by Jimmy Carter in November 2004 contained various factually absurd, anti-Israel distortions, including the claim that after the Oslo Accords there was “an absence of serious violence by either side” until “a Jewish nationalist assassinated Mr. Rabin.” This would come as quite a surprise to the many families of Israelis slain in bombings and other acts of unprecedented terrorism between September 1993 and November 1995, families that considered the slaughter of scores of innocents “serious” indeed.

Carter’s statement was patently false and should have been challenged, but the error was never corrected by the Times and was only addressed – without mention of the word “error” – in a reader’s letter.

It’s true the Times has in the last year published columns by Israel’s defenders and former officials, such as Benjamin Netanyahu. But none of these were venomous and fallacious. There can be no claim that accurate commentary in defense of Israel “balances” propagandistic and false commentary assailing that nation.

The pattern is obvious; the Times has chosen to suspend the norms of fact-checking in op-eds attacking Israel, and in doing so has all too often allowed its editorial pages to be used as a crude anti-Israel propaganda sheet.

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