UPDATED: Journalists Veer Off ‘Road Map,’ Crash Into Cease-Fire

It seems that some members of the media are having a tough time differentiating the terms of the American brokered “road map” from Palestinian unilateral demands on Israel. Namely, while Palestinians have conditioned their cease-fire on the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons (among other demands), the “road map” plan, drawn up by the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, has nothing at all to say about Palestinian prisoners. Even so, as a goodwill gesture, Israel has agreed to the release of hundreds of prisoners. Yet, some journalists are painting Israel as the spoiler of peace prospects by supposedly not fulfilling the terms of the plan.

The Fatah “Hudna” Declaration, distributed in Arabic and English and made available by Associated Press June 29, calls on Israel “to release all the prisoners and detainees from the Israeli prison.” Likewise, June 30 on Doha Al-Jazirah Sattelite Channel, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a part of Fatah, made clear that its adherence to the cease-fire is conditioned upon a number of demands, including the release of prisoners: “Releasing all the prisoners and detainees held in the occupation prisons, particularly brother leader Marwan al-Barghuthi.”

While the Palestinian “cease-fire” spells out that the release of prisoners is a critical condition for maintaining quiet, the “road map” is entirely mute on the release of prisoners. (The “road map” document is available on the State Department’s Web site.)

Many journalists, however, have confused the cease-fire’s prisoner condition for a requirement of the “road map.” The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times seemed the most confounded about this point, at times reporting that a prisoner release is part of the “road map,” and at times reporting that it isn’t. Thus, Laura King of the Los Angeles Times erroneously reported today that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas:

had been scheduled to meet today to discuss ongoing steps under the peace plan known as the “road map,” including the release of some Palestinian prisoners and Israeli troop pullbacks from more cities in the West Bank.

Strangely enough, at the same time, Megan Stack, King’s colleague at the Times, reported the exact opposite:

Prisoner release isn’t mentioned in the peace plan, but Palestinians have said they can’t go forward unless Israel frees thousands of detainees.

In a July 7 article entitled “Israel to Free Some Palestinians,” King made the same mistake:

Along with prisoner releases, the next important element in moving ahead with the ‘road map’ is the Palestinian demand that Israel withdraw from more of the West Bank.

And, on July 6, Tracy Wilkinson, the Times‘ former Jerusalem bureau chief who recently returned to the region after an absence of several months, reported:

Under the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the “road map,” Israel and the Palestinians have taken modest steps to end the hostilities that began 33 months ago. . . . The next steps toward long-term peace–such as the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel, dissolution of radical Palestinian groups and dismantling of illegal settlements in the West Bank–are far more controversial and difficult. (“Road Map Will Test 2 Premiers’ Leadership”)

The contradictory reporting has also made its way into another Tribune Company paper, the Chicago Tribune. Special correspondent Uli Schmetzer erroneously wrote July 5:

Israel is obliged under the peace process to release prisoners, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in a bind. (“Mideast peace plan moves forward”)

Schmetzer’s colleague Joel Greenberg got it right and reported the opposite two days later:

Although a prisoner release is not mentioned in a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan known as the road map, it is an important issue for many Palestinians and a top priority for Abbas . . . (“Israel agrees to free some jailed Arabs”)

Reporter Margaret Coker, who is syndicated through Cox International, made a similar mistake:

The Israeli Cabinet agreed in a contentious vote Sunday to release a limited number of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, a move that highlights the difficulty the two sides face in tackling issues key to the so-called “road map” to peace.

 The Atlanta Journal and Constitution fell for this misrepresentation, choosing to print the Cox story under the consistently misleading headline: “Israelis Agree to free some Palestinians: Contentious vote keeps peace ‘road map’ alive.”

To his credit, Dan Ephron of the Boston Globe quoted Dore Gold, an Israeli official, who made clear that a prisoner release is not part of the “road map”:

“The prisoner release isn’t even mentioned in the road map. The whole process has gotten caught up on an issue that may be important to Palestinians but it isn’t a demand made of us in the peace plan.” (“Prime minister quits Fatah panel,” July 9)

NBC Nightly News fared even better, stating as fact that the prisoner release is a step not outlined by the “road map.” Jim Maceda reported July 6:

In a sign of how fragile the road map to Middle East peace will be, today Palestinian protestors in Gaza and Israelis in Jerusalem drew battle lines over an issue that does not even figure in the US-backed peace plan: the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Likewise, James Bennet of the New York Times was straight-forward in his article today entitled “Abbas in Clash Over His Stance In Peace Talks”:

Israel is not obligated by the peace plan to release any prisoners, a move that is as noxious to Israelis as it is appealing to Palestinians.

The bottom line: Although Israel is going beyond the call of duty by agre eing to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, its refusal to release thousands more to appease extremist demands is wrongly portrayed as a violation of a multilateral international agreement.

UPDATE:  Chicago Tribune Promptly Corrects, LA Times Stalls

CAMERA notified the Chicago Tribune of its July 5 error on Wednesday, July 9, and the newspaper commendably printed a straightforward correction the very next day. It stated:

A story in the main news section Saturday about the Middle East incorrectly stated that Israel is obliged under the peace process to release prisoners. It is not.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Times has thus far not printed a correction, even though it received notice on Wednesday from CAMERA about its repeated error.

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