WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Losing Its Balance over Israeli Settlements, Part I

Washington Post coverage of Arab-Israeli news has improved since the arrival of Howard Schneider as Jerusalem bureau chief early this year. But the article headlined “U.S. Urges Israel to End Expansion; Settlement Issue Is Complicated by Bush Agreement,”  by Schneider and Post diplomatic/State Department reporter Glenn Kessler, falls short.

The problem is not what is  reported — i.e. the pressure from generally pro-Israel congressmen to halt population growth in Israeli communities in what The Post refers to as “Palestinian areas” or “the occupied West Bank,” the “blunt comments” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “we want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity,” the confirmation of an unwritten understanding between the George W. Bush administration and Israel to allow “natural growth” in existing settlements.

The problem is the omission of key information that leaves the article seriously unbalanced.

For example, missing from the article is the following:

* In the 11th of 13 paragraph, The Post reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, “said the Israeli government is relying on ‘understandings’ between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon that some of the large settlements in the occupied West Bank would ultimately become part of Israel, codified in a letter that Bush gave to Sharon in 2004.” Yet The Post fails to quote directly from the relevant portion of Bush’s April 14, 2004 letter to Sharon:
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC [United Nations Security Council] Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.  It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities. [emphasis added].

* The sidebar “Statements of U.S. Presidents” that accompanies the article quotes all presidents since Jimmy Carter in opposition to Israeli settlements, and cites Carter’s April 12, 1980 claim that “we do not think they are legal, and they are obviously an impediment to peace.” It does not report that Carter and Gerald Ford were the only American chief executive since Israel began building new Jewish communities in the disputed territories shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War to allege that such settlements were illegal. It does not tell readers that administrations since Carter’s have taken no position on the legality of the settlements. This could leave readers to infer wrongly that subsequent administrations shared Carter’s view.

* Long before Bush’s letter to Sharon stating that “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers,” made complete withdrawal unrealistic, other America presidents stated that they did not expect Israel to abandon all post-’67 territory. For example:

a) President Ronald Reagan, on Sept. 1, 1982, stressed “Israel exists; it has a right to exist in peace behind secure and defensible borders; and it has a right to demand of its neighbors that they recognize those facts. I have personally followed and supported Israel’s heroic struggle for survival, ever since the founding of the State of Israel 34 years ago. In the pre-1967 borders Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again [emphasis added].”
b) President Lyndon Johnson, little more than one week after the Six-Day War ended, stated on June 19, 1967 that “there are some who have urged, as a single, simple solution, an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4. As our distinguished and able Ambassador [to the United Nations], Mr. Arthur Goldberg, has already said, this is not a prescription for peace, but for renewed hostilities [emphases added].”

The Reagan and Johnson statements ignored by The Post recognize that Israel’s pre-’67 armistice lines were not the secure and recognized borders called for as part of a final agreement by U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and negotiated according to it and Resolution 338. If Israel is not required to withdraw completely, then it follows that it would not be prohibited from settling in territory to be retained.

The small print at the bottom of the sidebar provides an idea of  how it came to be so one-sided — its reported “sources” are: Foundation for Middle East Peace, B’tselem and Washington Post research ….” The first two are anti-settlement organizations; whatever may be said of The Post, it is not a pro-settlement medium.

Key Context Lacking

“U.S. Urges Israel to End Expansion” is not meant to be a comprehensive look at the development of Jewish communities in the disputed territories since 1967. But the absence of even passing reference to a basic fact — that settlements have not blocked peace-making historically — virtually invalidates it.

* Before 1967, Israel did not control the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights or Sinai Peninsula. There were no Jewish communities there. The absence of Jewish settlements did not stimulate negotiations or bring peace.

* Only a few settlements were built in the first decade after the Six-Day War, but neither the Arab states nor the Palestinian Arabs negotiated peace.

* Egyptian President Anwar Sadat negotiated peace with Israel in 1978 and 1979 after settlement building had accelerated.

* In 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a Declaration of Principles initiating the Oslo process. The Palestinian Authority was established in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Settlements were left to be negotiated as a final status issue; subsequent Israeli-PA accords were reached in the following years while settlement building continued.

* In 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty; settlements were not an issue.

* In 2005, Israel dismantled all its Gaza Strip settlements and withdrew from the territory. Afterward, Palestinian terrorists fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells from the Strip into Israel, sometime from the sites of former settlements.

The Next Deadline

It’s news that U.S. and Israeli governments disagree over whether Israel has the right to expand existing, authorized Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. That makes it all the more important that news media, including The Washington Post, make sure that the details about the settlements’ legality, and Israel’s obligations and rights in the disp uted territory, are correct and placed into context.

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