UPDATED: Wall Street Journal Misrepresents Israeli Politicians

Feb. 27 Update: The Wall Street Journal published a correction. See details below.

Feb. 11, 2009 – According to a Wall Street Journal news story published just before the Israeli elections, Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party, wants to transfer Israel’s Arabs to Palestinian control, and Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, calls for their “expulsion.”

The problem for those hoping to learn about Israeli politics from the newspaper is that neither assertion is true.

The Feb. 6 story, “Anti-Arab Israeli party surges” by Charles Levinson, opens by miscasting Lieberman’s position regarding Israeli Arabs: “A right-wing politician who is calling for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens looks set to score big gains in national elections here on Tuesday.”

Several paragraphs later, disingenuous language distorts the views of Livni (and other unnamed politicians):

This time … the country’s politicians appear to be echoing Mr. Lieberman’s bellicose rhetoric. Ms. Livni said in December that if elected she would tell Israel’s Arab citizens “your national aspirations like elsewhere,” comments widely interpreted as an endorsement of Mr. Lieberman’s plan to transfer Israel’s Arabs to Palestinian control.

Levinson’s assertion about Livni, a moderate politician in favor of peace talks and a two-state solution, is arguably the greater distortion.

The reporter does not specify who “widely interpreted” Livni’s comments as calling for a transfer of Arabs to Palestinian control. (In the very least, Hezbollah interpreted them this way.) But regardless of how some may have chosen to interpret her words, Livni neither said, nor did she mean to insinuate, that she would “transfer” Arabs. In fact, she explicitly disavowed this misunderstanding of her words.

In concealing from readers this disavowal, Levinson commits a brazen violation of journalistic ethics, not to mention basic fairness.
What Livni Said

Here, according to Ha’aretz, is what Livni originally said on Dec. 11, 2008:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday that the creation of a Palestinian state would serve as a solution to national aspirations of Israel’s Arab citizens.
“Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them ‘you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere,'” Livni was quoted by Army Radio as saying to students at a Tel Aviv high school.
“The idea is to maintain two states for two peoples, that is my path to a democratic nation,” she added.

It is apparent, even from this original statement, that Livni was not referring to transfer, but rather to a two-state solution — “two states for two peoples” with Arabs in the Jewish state being “citizens with equal rights.” Jewish national aspirations are fulfilled with the existence of the Jewish state, even though many Jews live elsewhere as equal citizens. Palestinian national aspirations, according to Livni’s formulation, would be likewise fulfilled with the establishment of a Palestinian state — presumably “Palestine” — even though Palestinian Arabs live elsewhere as equal citizens. This is hardly “bellicose rhetoric,” as Levinson argued. It is a goal that has long been shared by most of the world.

This goal, Livni’s specific way of describing it, and the propensity to hastily misinterpret talk on the subject are so commonplace, in fact, that even a year earlier one Arab columnist called it all “the same old story.” Nazir Majali wrote in Ha’aretz:

It is the same old story: A high-placed Israeli leader, in this case Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, came out with a declaration about the Arabs of Israel, and the Arab MKs understood it as the opposite of what she meant. … Livni spoke of the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In exchange, she explained, Israel would recognize the Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. And just as Israel is the state of all the world’s Jews, Palestine would be the state of all Palestinians, and should be “the response to the national aspirations of the Palestinian people wherever they are… even those who live among us as citizens with equal rights, while their national rights will be expressed by the Palestinian state,” as she put it. (“The hope in Livni’s words,” Nov. 27, 2007)

Sound familiar?

But for those who nonetheless misinterpreted her more recent statement, Livni quickly clarified, without ambiguity, exactly what she meant. “The national aspirations [of the Arabs] should be realized elsewhere, but there is no question of carrying out a transfer or forcing them to leave,” she told Israeli radio the following day.

She elaborated, “I am willing to give up a part of the country over which I believe we have rights so that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state in which citizens have equal rights, whatever their religion.”

Unlike the Wall Street Journal, other news outlets that relayed Ms. Livni’s quote made clear her subsequent clarification.

The Washington Post reported:

In December, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a leading candidate to be Israel’s next prime minister, angered Israeli Arab leaders when she said that the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would provide “a national solution” for Israeli Arabs and that their “national aspirations lie elsewhere.” She later clarified that she did not mean Arab citizens would be forced to leave Israel. (Jonathan Finer, “Gaza Conflict Angers, Alienates Israel’s Arab Citizens,” Jan. 20, 2009)

The BBC likewise detailed how “Livni tried to clarify her comments on Friday” (“Livni sparks Arab ‘transfer’ row,” Dec. 12, 2008). And the Jerusalem Post explained, “Livni said in an interview with Israel Radio on Friday that at no point had she been calling to transfer Israeli Arabs. …I will fight for the rights of every citizen in the country’, she said….” (“Anger against Livni grows within Kadima,” Dec. 14, 2008).

And so on.

What Lieberman Says
Levinson’s attempt to disingenuously cast Livni’s comments as an “endorsement” of Lieberman’s policies is misleading and unfair as is. But the story also misled about Lieberman’s views.

As noted above, the reporter refers in the first paragraph to Avigdor Lieberman as a “politician who is calling for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.”

Only much deeper in the story is it obliquely revealed that “expulsion” wasn’t the proper word to use:

A central tenet in Mr. Lieberman’s campaign is a proposal to redraw Israel’s borders to trasfer most of the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens to Palestinian control, in exchange for land in the West Bank occupied by Jewish settlers.

Readers skimming the lede — the most widely read paragraph — will likely believe, and understandably so based on the common understanding of the word expulsion, that Lieberman was referring to physically uprooting the Arab population and deporting them from the country. As the later paragraphs (and repeated statements by Lieberman) make clear, he was not.

The problematic language has been brought to the attention of Wall Street Journal editors. This article will be updated when they decide whether and how to redress the misinformation.

Feb. 27 Update – The Wall Street Journal today published the following correction:

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she didn’t support forcing Israel Arabs to be transferred to Palestinian control when she said in December that their “national aspirations lie elsewhere.” A Feb. 6 World News article said the comment was widely interpreted as endorsing such a policy, but didn’t include Ms. Livni’s subsequent clarification.

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