WASHINGTON POST WATCH: Journalistic Revisionism at the Washington Post

Once again the Washington Post failed to provide its readers with accurate and balanced coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This time–on January 13, 2008–both the news and editorial desk failed..

News Desk

The lead “World News” section article was headlined “West Bank’s Jewish ‘Outposts’ Dig In; Many Answer Bush’s Demand for End to Illegal Settlements By Starting New Construction.” This lengthy report by interim Jerusalem correspondent Jonathan Finer includes four serious flaws.

1) It stated that

under international law, it is illegal to settle land seized in war, and Palestinians say the settlements now pose one of the greatest obstacles to peace. Israeli leaders dispute that assertion, although they have pledged to eliminate the outposts, which proliferated with the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

Are Jewish communities in the West Bank indeed illegal? The Post does not report why Israel disagrees with that claim.  International law bars settlement by one country of land seized from another sovereign state in a war of aggression. Israel asserts this does not apply to the West Bank since, among other things:

a) The West Bank is not the territory of any sovereign country. Before Israel gained it in self-defense in the 1967 Six-Day War, it had been occupied illegally by Jordan, as a result of Jordanian aggression in 1948-1949. From 1917 to 1948, the West Bank had been part of the League of Nations’s/United Nations’ British Mandate for Palestine. For 500 years before that, it was a sliver of the Ottoman Empire.

b) For more than 1,000 years, the only time Jewish settlement was prohibited in what is often called the West Bank was the 19 years under Jordanian occupation.

c) International law that applies specifically in this case, the Mandate of the League of Nations, Article 6, provided that British mandatory authorities

…shall encourage, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands not required for public use.

In fact, the land originally referred to included what became Jordan, where the Jewish right to settlement was suspended. Authors of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, the cornerstone of Arab-Israeli diplomacy since 1967, noted that Jews as well as Arabs have claims in the territories. Hence the acknowledgment, in an American Journal of International Law article, 1990, vol. 84, page 720, that “the Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there.”

Assertions that Jewish communities in the territories violate international law, though numerous, are political, not legal. The Post‘s statement is tendentious and misleading.

2) The article reports, speaking of “the West Bank,”:

We intend to ensure that Jews stay in Judea and Samaria, and the best way to do that is to establish more communities,’ said [Daniella] Weiss, using the biblical term for the West Bank favored by some Israelis.

The implication is that describing the West Bank as Judea and Samaria (Yehuda v’Shomron in Hebrew) amounts to an archaic throw-back favored by some who support the settlement movement and/or oppose a diplomatic compromise.

In reality, “West Bank” is a relative neologism, coined by the Jordanians in the 1950s after they seized the land then often referred to as Judea and Samaria.

a) As CAMERA has pointed out to Post editors previously, Judea and Samaria are and have been in wide use among Israelis, Jews and others regardless of politics; among “some Israelis” favoring the term have been Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin.

b) Samaria was the name of a British administrative district in Mandatory Palestine; Palestinian Jews born there had “Samaria” stamped on their birth certificates. Before Israeli independence, long before Israel gained the territories in 1967, maps in English-Hebrew texts used in American schools showed Judea and Samaria, as well as the Galilee and Negev, as regions in Mandatory Palestine.

c) Like Galilee and Negev, Jerusalem and Be’ersheva, among countless others, Judea and Samaria are biblical terms. They’re also contemporary terms, and to imply otherwise is, again, tendentious and misleading.

3) The Post also reports that

with a new round of peace talks underway, the Israeli government is under intense pressure to hand back parts of the occupied  West Bank ….

a) Israel may negotiate away claims and settlements, but it cannot “hand back” to the Palestinian Arabs what was never theirs. Individual Arab land owners have property rights in many places on the West Bank. But, as noted above, no Palestinian Arab state ever exercised sovereignty there; Jews have legitimate claims as well; and virtually all the major Jewish settlements have been built on Jewish-owned property or land that was state land back through Ottoman rule.

b) Israel is the legitimate military occupational authority in the West Bank, as a result of the ’67 War and until a negotiated settlement according to Resolutions 242 and 338, and subsequent diplomatic agreements such as the 2003 “road map.” Its position in that respect is akin to that of the Allied powers in Germany after World War II — except stronger: the Allies had no territorial claims in Germany, Israel and Jews do in Judea and Samaria; the legal status of the land is disputed. To refer only and always to “the occupied West Bank” without making that point is, once more, tendentious and misleading.

4) The last third of the article focuses on Palestinian Arab complaints about Jewish settlements in general, not only the illegal outposts, and support for those complaints by an Israeli critic.

Neither here nor elsewhere in the piece does a pro-settlement source speak to the legal and historical facts supporting that viewpoint. In journalism school that is called bias by omission.

Editorial Desk

 The lead editorial, “A Middle East Commitment; Seven Years Later, President Bush picks up where Bill Clinton left off,” trips over its own effort at balance. It notes that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has failed “to stop incitement against Israel by Palestinian media and schools” [incitement virtually never reported in the Post‘s news columns] and properly puts the alleged Arab right of “return” in quotation marks. Nevertheless, t he commentary:

a) Implies an equivalence between Abbas’ failure to control Palestinian police and paramilitary forces with Olmert’s management of Israeli forces, and between the two men’s overall authority. The Post writes “even if the two leaders manage to gain control over their own bureaucracies and security forces ….”

Olmert never lost control over Israeli security forces or the rest of the government administration. If he had, not doubt the Post would have reported it. But Abbas — whose Fatah movement controls the Palestinian Authority government of the West Bank only, having been routed in the Gaza Strip by Hamas after Israel’s withdrawal — controls neither the multiple Palestinian “security forces” (whose members often moonlight in terrorist groups) nor the PA’s often corrupt and thuggish bureaucracy. He is as much figurehead as leader.

b) More gratuitously, the paper equates Israeli and Palestinian behavior in general. It claims that over the past “seven years of bloodshed, unilateral actions and diplomatic stasis … both Israelis and Palestinians sought to change the terms suggested by Mr. Clinton” at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001. The result? “A tragic waste of lives and time.”

This is wrong. Seven years ago, Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat (with Abbas at his side), rejected an Israeli-U.S. proposal for an independent West Bank and Gaza Strip state, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, in exchange for peace with Israel as a Jewish state. Instead, they launched the “al-Aqsa intifada,” in which more than 4,000 Arabs (more than half of them combatants), and more than 1,100 Israelis (the large majority non-combatants) were killed.

The “tragic waste of lives and times” has been the responsibility not of “both the Israelis and Palestinians” seeking to change the terms proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Clinton but of one side, the Palestinian, which unilaterally started and sustained the years of bloodshed that forced diplomatic stasis.

“Seven years of diplomatic stasis.” This cliche ignores President Bush’s diplomatic isolation of Arafat, his 2002 milestone speech calling for a Palestinian leadership untainted by terrorism that could negotiate with Israel a “two-state solution” including a West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestine both democratic and peaceful, and the 2003 reformulation of Bush’s “vision” as the U.S., Russian, E.U. and U.N. “roadmap.”If there was “stasis” the continued anti-Israel incitement and aggression by elements of the PA, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other groups caused it.

These are yet more examples of the disturbing journalistic revisionism regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been increasingly apparent at the Washington Post.

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