Updated: New York Times Spins the Story on Palestinian Bid for UN Membership

Sept.22, 2011

New York Times editors have a narrow and unswerving editorial stance where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned – Israel is always to blame. And, it’s increasingly evident, editors are allowing this skewed conception of reality to spill beyond the opinion pages into news coverage as well.

Take, for example, the Times’ coverage of the Palestinian bid for membership at the UN. Apparently, not all news on the subject is deemed “fit to print.” Missing from the newspaper are the facts that point to Palestinian responsibility for failed negotiations with Israel as well as information that allows readers to understand what is currently motivating Palestinian actions – the desire to avoid direct negotiations where compromises are expected.

Instead,  the New York Times spins the news to fault Israel for the Palestinians’ abandonment of a negotiated route toward statehood, and to suggest that U.S. support for Israel on this matter is wrong and harmful.

A Sept. 22 news article, “Obama Rebuffed As Palestinians Pursue U.N. Seat” by Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers, falls into editorializing that “expansions of settlements in the West Bank and a hardening of Israeli attitudes have isolated Israel and its main backer, the United States,” adding that “dissension among Palestinian factions has undermined the prospect for a new accord as well.”

But it is not merely Palestinian “dissension” that has undermined the prospect for a new accord. What about the Palestinians’ hardening attitudes and, more than that, their continued firing of rockets into Israel and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, their institutionalized incitement to hate and reject Israel and glorification of “armed resistance,” and, most tellingly, their consistent refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? 

What about the proclamations by Palestinian ambassadors that a future Palestinian state would be for Palestinians alone (in other words, a Jew-free state) but that Palestinians from anywhere in Palestine should have the right to relocate into Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries  —  i.e. the “phased plan” for Israel’s destruction that  PLO leader Yasir Arafat had always talked about?

Those are topics the Times prefers to conceal. That is why, it seems, another news story about President Obama’s speech to the UN, “Obama Says Palestinians Are Using Wrong Forum,” by Helene Cooper, avoids mentioning the president’s references to Arab actions that have obstructed the path toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Instead, the article spins Mr. Obama’s support for Israel as hypocritical and anti-democratic:

President Obama declared his opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood through the Security Council on Wednesday, throwing the weight of the United States directly in the path of the Arab democracy movement even as he hailed what he called the democratic aspirations that have taken hold throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the information glossed over or omitted from the Times’ coverage here.

Ever since US President Obama came to power and attempted to advance direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinians have done whatever they could to avoid them. The appeal for UN recognition of a Palestinian state is just the latest ploy in a series of attempts to bypass directly negotiating a peace settlement. When Mr. Obama first urged direct negotiations, the Palestinians announced preconditions: They would not discuss anything until Israel imposed an unprecedented freeze on settlement construction. But when, in November 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did agree to a 10-month moratorium on building in the West Bank, Palestinian President Abbas dismissed his gesture as inadequate and still refused to negotiate.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ignored Netanyahu’s repeated entreaties to him to join the negotiating process without any pre-conditions. When the Israeli prime minister extended his compromises further, risking domestic opposition to freeze construction within Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, Abbas would agree only to indirect shuttle diplomacy, adamantly refusing to be involved in direct talks.

The Palestinians issued one demand after another, insisting that Israel fulfill them all, before considering direct discussions: They insisted not only on a complete halt to building new settlements, but also to construction already underway within existing settlements. They demanded an end to construction in Jewish neighborhoods located in eastern Jerusalem. They refused to negotiate unless Israel agreed in advance to accept the 1967 lines as a baseline for the borders of a Palestinian state. And they insisted there would be no negotiations without an Israeli agreement to the deployment of an international force along those borders. Indeed, with all the pre-conditions demanded by the Palestinians, there was barely anything left to negotiate.

It was not until September 2010, when Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium was slated to end that the PA agreed to join Israel at the negotiating table. And despite all the pre-conditions that had been placed upon Israel, they were unwilling to accept even the most fundamental basis for a two-state solution – the concept of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.

When the moratorium on settlement building expired at the end of that month, Abbas abandoned negotiations. Then when the Israeli prime minister announced his readiness to impose yet another settlement freeze on Israelis if the Palestinians accepted Israel as the Jewish state in a two-state solution, the Palestinian leader flatly refused.

Again and again, the Palestinians have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Yet, this dramatic indicator of the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to its particular nationhood and sovereign existence in the region is all but ignored by the Times.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pointedly suggested that setting preconditions for negotiations is a recipe for failure. The New York Times could have used his words as an entrée to investigate how preconditions have been used as a stalling tactic to avoid direct negotiations. But this is not what the New York Times wanted to explore. Instead, the focus was on Mr. Sarkozy’s acceptance of a Palestinian bid for observer status in the UN’s General Assembly, which reporter Helene Cooper hailed as a bold move in contrast to that of the U.S. President:

< p class="nopadding" align=justify>President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stepped forcefully into the void, with a proposal that pointedly repudiated Mr. Obama’s approach.

In the days leading up to the Palestinians’ formal UN membership request, the New York Times has increased the number of articles published about the issue. Many of them have focused primarily on Palestinian frustrations, the justification and support for going to the UN and the contrast between this approach and that of the more radical Hamas. See, for example, “Taking a Stand, and Shedding Arafat’s Shadow” by Neil MacFarquhar and Ethan Bronner (Sept. 22), “A Nervous Hamas Voices Its Issues With a Palestinian Bid for U.N. Membership” by Fares Akram and Ethan Bronner (Sept. 19), “Palestinians Turn to U.N., Where Partition Began” by Neil MacFarquhar (Sept. 19),  “Palestinians See U.N. Appeal as Most Viable Option” by Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner (Sept. 18),  “Palestinians Say a U.N. Gamble on Statehood Is Worth the Risks” by Isabel Kershner  (Sept. 15).

The Sept. 19th article, “Palestinians Turn to U.N., Where Partition Began,” is particularly skewed in its promulgation of Palestinian arguments, without pointing out their shortcomings. For example, Neil MacFarquhar begins:

The original two-state solution designed to establish separate countries for Jews and Arabs anticipated the day that both would seek United Nations membership.

He goes on to quote from UN partition resolution 181, stating that “Israel became a member in May 1949,” with the implication that it is now the Palestinians’ turn. He continues:

The Palestinians see the membership application as a last-ditch attempt to preserve the two-state solution in the face of ever-encroaching Israeli settlements, as well as a desperate move to shake up the negotiations that they feel have achieved little after 20 years of American oversight. The question is whether trying to bring the intractable problem back to its international roots will somehow provide the needed jolt to get negotiations moving again.

What MacFarquhar avoids mentioning is that it was the Palestinians who rejected the resolution calling for two states and violated it by waging war to prevent its implementation. The threat to the two-state solution is, and has always been, not  “the encroaching of Israeli settlements,” as the New York Times would have it, but  its rejection by the Arabs.

None of the articles in the New York Times have focused primarily on how the UN approach violates Palestinians’ signed agreements with Israel  or on how the Palestinians have refused statehood multiple times when it was offered to them, or on how the Palestinians have been avoiding negotiations, or on how they have resisted making any compromises of their own.

With such lopsided coverage, the Times almost seems to be promoting the Palestinian bid, in contradiction to the position of the US administration and Congress. Indeed, US support for Israel is blamed for “stagnation” on the peace front, with most of the blame going to Republican congressmen and Jewish voters, rather than to the Palestinian leaders who have refused to negotiate. For example:

Finally, Washington politics has limited Mr. Obama’s ability to try to break the logjam if that means appearing to distance himself from Israel. Republicans have mounted a challenge to lure away Jewish voters who supported Democrats in the past, after some Jewish leaders sharply criticized Mr. Obama for trying to push Israel too hard

The result has been two and a half years of stagnation on the Middle East peace front that has left Arabs — and many world leaders — frustrated, and ready to try an alternative to the American-centric approach that has prevailed since the 1970s. (“Obama Rebuffed As Palestinians Pursue U.N. Seat“, Sept. 22 )

This was a reinforcement of the message sent to readers on the previous day in an article that blamed the close relationship between Israel and the Republican-held Congress for the lack of a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process:

The relationship between the Israeli government and the Republican Party has significantly complicated the administration’s diplomatic efforts to avert a confrontation at the United Nations this week over the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state, limiting President Obama’s ability to exert pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions that could restart negotiations with the Palestinians. (“House G.O.P. Finds Growing Bond With Netanyahu,” Sept. 21 )

There you have it. In the mind and message of the New York Times, progress on the peace front is dependent entirely on concessions made by Israel and such concessions ought not be inhibited by pressures from pesky elected officials. Indeed, the inconveniences of a democracy sometimes seem an affront to the elite editors at the Times, annoyances such as elections, free expression of differing views by elected officials and a citizenry widely concerned about Israel.

For the Times, “pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions” sums it up and says it all.

Update: Sept. 26, 2011

A Sept. 23rd editorial on “The Palestinian Bid” set out the New York Times’ position explicitly:  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was “understandably frustrated” while:

The main responsibility right now belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel who refuses to make any serious compromises for peace.

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