Times Magazine Profile of Livni Mangles Key Issues

A New York Times Magazine profile of Israeli politician Tzipi Livni (Her Jewish State”) included numerous misleading and inaccurate assertions by writer Roger Cohen, a former foreign editor at the Times. Repeatedly in the July 8th article Cohen falsely portrayed Israel as violating U.N. resolutions, and falsely portrayed the Palestinians as opposing suicide bombings and favoring a two-state solution.

Cohen, for example, wrote:

Livni brought out a map to make her point that a return to the precise 1967 lines – as U.N. resolutions and the Arab peace plan reiterated this year in Riyadh demand – was impractical.

There may be UN General Assembly resolutions calling for Israel to return to the pre-1967 lines, but as General Assembly resolutions they are merely advisory, and there are no such Security Council resolutions. In particular, the Times has corrected previous assertions that the key Security Council resolution, Resolution 242, calls for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. On Sept. 8, 2000, for example, the Times ran the following correction:

While Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 Middle East War, calls for Israel’s armed forces to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” no resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territory, including East Jerusalem, occupied in the war.

Thus, as the Times itself has previously acknowledged, and contrary to Cohen, the relevant “U.N. resolutions” do not “demand” a return to the “precise 1967 lines.”

Cohen was also misleading when he wrote that:

… the United Nations declared in Resolution 194: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

This phrase was certainly part of General Assembly Resolution 194 – it’s taken from Paragraph 11. But the main purpose of Resolution 194 was to create a Palestine Conciliation Commission that would bring the parties together to negotiate peace. The central provisions of the resolution called for the creation of the Conciliation Commission and:

… establishment of contact between the parties themselves and the Commission at the earliest possible date … to seek agreement by negotiations [and thereby reach] a final settlement of all questions between them. (Paragraphs 4 and 5)

But the Arab countries all voted against 194, because it amounted to recognizing Israel, and because it did not, in their view, establish a right of return. The Arab countries, not surprisingly, torpedoed the PCC process, refusing even to meet fact-to-face and negotiate with Israel. Having violated the fundamental provisions of Resolution 194, the Arab side is in no position to demand that Israel implement Paragraph 11. (And they are especially not in a position to demand that Israel implement the very distorted version of Resolution 194 that has become commonplace in the Arab world.)

In legal terms, even if Resolution 194 had been more than merely advisory as a General Assembly resolution, under the principle of estoppel the refusal by the Arab side to accept the resolution and to implement their obligations under it, have obviated any parallel Israeli obligations.

It was therefore very misleading for Cohen to quote one short passage from 194 while ignoring the fact that Arab actions had rendered the entire resolution moot.

Just as misleading was Cohen’s framing of the basis for the conflict, as if Israel in 1948 had attacked the Arabs and the Palestinians to destroy or prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. To quote his words:

The mother of all conflicts — the 59-year-old battle for the same land of Zionist and Palestinian national movements — has become even more tangled. It has been dragged into the wider crisis of Islamic civilization that daily spawns fervid death-to-the-West jihadists. To a Palestinian national struggle for a homeland, there is an answer, at least in theory.

An answer “in theory”? It was more than theory. Have Mr. Cohen and his editors forgotten that UN General Assembly Resolution 181, the partition resolution, called for a division of the land into a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine?

Instead of rewriting history Mr. Cohen and his editors might have profitably reviewed a few basic facts about the conflict:

  • Israel accepted the partition resolution, but the Arab countries and the Palestinians rejected it, and in violation of the resolution and the UN Charter instead launched a war of annihilation against the newly reborn state.

  • Had the Palestinians and the Arabs chosen the path of peace there would have been a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel for the past 59 years, and there would not have been a single Palestinian refugee.

  • Even after the war, the Arab states and the Palestinians could have formed a country of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and could have decided to live in peace with Israel. But they refused to create a Palestinian state and instead continued to try to destroy the Israeli state.

And it was not just important Middle East history that Cohen mangled – contemporary matters fared no better. A photo in the piece, for example, captioned “A Great Divide The barrier that separates Israel, on the left, from the West Bank,” showed a jagged concrete wall. But in fact over most of its course the barrier is a far less ominous appearing fence. Why did Cohen and his editors choose a deceptive picture that seemed intended to portray Israel in the most negative light possible?

concrete fence
The Times‘ representation of the barrier –a jagged concrete wall. The actual appearance of the vast majority of the barrier – a fence with electronic sensors and a patrol road.

Similarly, Cohen’s interview with Palestinian politician and spokesperson Saeb Erekat was also quite misleading, as it seemed intended to portray the Palestinians in the best light possible, by once again ignoring basic facts. Cohen quoted Erekat as saying:

“But amidst all this, something else is developing. There are 70-percent-plus of Palestinians who go with the two-state solution, even if nearly 50 percent of Palestinians voted for Hamas. Those same people condemn suicide bombing. Look, negotiations are over. It’s time for decisions!”

Cohen underscored Erekat’s assertions by writing, “He has a point.”

But does Erekat have a point? Do 70 percent, or even a slim majority of Palestinians, “accept the two-state solution” and “condemn suicide bombing?”

Unfortunately the answer is no, if recent Palestinian polls are any indication. The Jerusalem Media and Communications Center’s Poll no. 57 of February, 2006 for example, had this result concerning suicide bombings:

Q18. How do you feel towards suicide bombing operations against Israeli civilians? Do you support them, or oppose them?

Strongly support   22.4
Somewhat support   33.8
Somewhat oppose   24.3
Strongly oppose   16.4
No answer   3.1

That is, 56.2% of Palestinians favor suicide bombings, clearly contradicting Erekat and Cohen. And in all Palestinian polls that show majority support for the two-state solution, it is always with the proviso that the Palestinian version of the “right of return” be implemented (often phrased as “international legitimacy”), which is really the no state solution.

This is shown clearly in an even more recent poll from the The Palestine Center for Survey and Policy Research, PSR Poll # 23 of April 5, 2007. The poll underscored the fact that Palestinians oppose any agreement which modifies even slightly their maximalist version of the “right of return”:

41-3A With regard to the refugee question, both sides agree that the solution will be based on UN resolutions 194 and 242 and on the Arab peace initiative. The refugees will be given five choices for permanent residency. These are: the Palestinian state and the Israeli areas transferred to the Palestinian state in the territorial exchange mentioned above; no restrictions would be imposed on refugee return to these two areas. Residency in the other three areas (in host countries, third countries, and Israel) would be subject to the decision of the states in those areas. The number of refugees returning to Israel will be based on the average number of refugees admitted to third countries like Australia, Canada, Europe, and others. All refugees will be entitled to compensation for their “refugeehood” and loss of properties.

1) Certainly agree   4.3%
2) agree   38.4%
3) disagree   45.0%
4) Certainly disagree   8.8%
5) DK/NA   3.5%

That is, even a partial restriction on the right of return to Israel was opposed by a majority of 53.8% Palestinians.

Thus these Palestinian polls directly contradict Erekat’s claims that 70 percent of Palestinians support a two state solution and that a similar number oppose suicide bombings.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Cohen misled readers on these key issues, especially since doing so only harms prospects for peace. Palestinians will not be willing to truly join Israelis at the peace table if they support suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism, and if they honestly believe they have a legitimate “right of return” that Israel or other parties are somehow usurping.

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