Professional journalists are ostensibly governed by a code of ethics requiring them to report fairly and accurately about events and issues that shape the world. Not only news reporters, but political columnists as well, are obligated under well-known standards to stick to the truth. The most persuasive opinion writers are those who lay out verifiable facts and interpret their larger meaning for readers, persuasively but dispassionately, without emotion.
Time Magazine‘s political columnist, Joe Klein, however, is clearly not amongst this group. Klein’s May 26th column, “What Bibi Gains by Misrepresenting Obama’s Middle East Policy,” written after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put forth Israel’s negotiating position in Congress, overflows with burning hostility toward Netanyahu and his stance on Israel’s borders. Of course, Klein did not acknowledge his own animosity toward his subject matter; he attributed this instead to President Obama:
…it wasn’t hard to imagine smoke jetting from the President’s ears as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, willfully misinterpreted Obama’s statement about the need to renegotiate Israel’s borders…
But it was quite obvious whose ears were jetting smoke, and that smoke clouded the factual accuracy of his column.
Far from “wilfully misinterpreting” Obama’s statement, Israel’s leader was objecting to the president’s departure from previous US administration policy, which had always avoided publicly delineating baseline borders and thereby leaving little room for negotiation and compromise. Arab-Israeli peace negotiations have always been based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which did not envision Israel returning to the June 4, 1967 (i.e. 1949 armistice) lines, as they were considered indefensible. While Obama later sought to justify his public declaration that “1967 lines”would serve as a starting point for negotiations, by indicating his reference to “mutually agreed swaps,” columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out the weakness of that argument :
“Mutually” means both parties have to agree. And if one side doesn’t? Then, by definition, you’re back to the 1967 lines. Nor is this merely a theoretical proposition. Three times the Palestinians have been offered exactly that formula, 1967 plus swaps — at Camp David 2000, Taba 2001, and the 2008 Olmert-Abbas negotiations. Every time, the Palestinians said no and walked away. [“What Obama Did To Israel,” May 27, 2011]
The policy shift by the American president was hardly unremarkable, or “the equivalent of saying many Jews and Arabs eat hummus,” in Klein’s dismissive characterization. By spelling out what he envisioned as final borders (with any changes subject to Palestinian approval), President Obama had deviated from the previous administration’s assurances to Israel, as put forth in the Bush letter, as well as from President Clinton’s approach to facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
And this is not the only change in the U.S. Middle East policy indicated by the president’s speech. Perhaps most importantly, and what Klein studiously avoided mentioning in his column, was that the president made no demands whatsoever of the Palestinians. Unlike previous presidents, Obama did not discourage Palestinians from seeking resettlement of Palestinian refugees and their descendents within Israel – a demand that Palestinian negotiators have hitherto refused to relinquish and which would eventually spell the end of a Jewish state. Also a departure from prior formulations was the president’s putting the future of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees and their descendents on hold until after Israel completes making territorial compromises.
Instead of pointing out all the facts, Klein chose to condemn what he erroneously described as Israel’s “illegal” construction of settlements. While there is debate both for and against building settlements on Israel’s ancestral homeland outside of the 1949 armistice lines, there is no obvious consensus about the legal status of settlements, with international jurists weighing in on both sides of the question. (See “The Debate About Israeli Settlement“) An ethical and fair journalist would either explain both sides of a dispute, or remind readers about the controversial nature of an issue, but would not present a disputed claim as accepted truth.