Washington Post coverage of President Barack Obama’s July 6th White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu raises a question: How much news can the paper miss?
Judging from the column “Alliance, or dysfunctional relationship?” by “Washington Sketch” opinion writer Dana Milbank and the article “Obama, Netanyahu thaw relations; Israeli leader says direct talks with Palestinians will happen soon,” by reporters Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear, too much. That’s even though the two pieces together occupied most of page A-2.
Snide but not satirical
The Post has defended Milbank’s column in the past as an edgy, irreverent but clever skewering of political news makers. If edgy, irreverent and clever are synonyms for smug, superficial and erroneous, that works.
1) Milbank claims “four months ago, the Obama administration made a politically perilous decision to condemn Israel over a controversial new settlement.” Unlike Post news pages, which distinguish between Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and Jewish villages and towns in the West Bank, the columnist confuses and conflates an announcement of plans for new apartments in Jerusalem with a (non-existent) new settlement in the West Bank.
He repeats the mistake, writing of “Hillary Clinton calling Israel’s settlement action ‘insulting'” before getting it right, referring to “new housing in a disputed area of Jerusalem.”
2) Milbank either falls for or attempts to con readers with the “honest broker” scam. He claims that “Obama came to office with an admirable hope of reviving Middle East peace efforts by appealing to the Arab world and positioning himself as more of an honest broker. But he has now learned the painful lesson that domestic politics won’t allow such a stand.”
“Honest broker,” like its hoary twin, “even-handed,” has a discredited lineage. The claim is that if only the United States acted as a diplomatic neutral between Israel and those who’ve attempted to destroy it and often still refuse to recognize its legitimacy as a Jewish state then — viola! — peace would break out. Self-contradictory, it runs afoul of history. Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties, for example, were reached when a) Egypt and Jordan decided they were in their national interests and b) Washington, while serving as a moderator, clearly continued as Israel’s ally.
3) Echoing the strawman/bogeyman charges of Profs. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer against a nefarious “Israel lobby,” Milbank skips from “domestic politics won’t allow” an “honest broker” to blasting Obama for “perform[ing] the Full Monty of pro-Israel pandering: ‘The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable’,” etc. The columnist asserts that “the Israel lobby,” Netanyahu’s denunciations, Republican support for Israel and Democratic fear left the president “routed and humiliated by his Israeli counterpart.”
Milbank’s “edgy” summation? Obama had to invite Netanyahu “for what might be called the Oil of Olay Summit: It was all about saving face.” This analysis goes no deeper than CNN’s headline crawl just after the Obama-Netanyahu session: “Show of unity.”
The columnist does not acknowledge that the “Israel lobby” represents tens of millions of Americans, Jews and non-Jews, who support Israel over its enemies and recognize in it the one Middle Eastern nation with freedoms like those in the United States. He mocks Obama’s statement that “our two countries are working cooperatively” without noting broad military, intelligence, scientific, medical and other U.S.-Israel interactions. He does not seem to comprehend that Turkey’s repudiation of its pro-Western orientation and the reported loss of faith in the Muslim world over Obama as a “transformational figure” have much more to do with rejection of Western secularism and mosque-state separation than with the nature of U.S.-Israel ties.
The disingenuousness of Milbank’s column is clarified by a singular choice: He quotes one “liberal activist” outside the White House who appeals, via bullhorn, to Obama “to stand up for once … and speak to Netanyahu in no uncertain terms.” The “protester” is Ray McGovern, who Milbank does not otherwise identify.
But McGovern is no “liberal protester.” Rather, he is a prominent member of the far-left anti-war, anti-Israel fringe. A former CIA official who helped found VIPS — Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity — he’s long blamed “O.I.L.,” oil, Israel, and logistics, which he defines as the desire for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, for dragging the United States into war against Saddam Hussein. He signed a petition claiming the U.S. government knew about the 9/11 plot; he blasted Obama for “caving into Israel” in 2009 for not sustaining the pro-Saudi, pro-Chinese, anti-Israeli Chas. Freeman’s nomination to chair the National Intelligence Council; he insists Israel intentionally attacked the U.S.S. Liberty spy ship during the 1967 Six-Day War although U.S. and Israeli investigations determined the assault was accidental.
Milbank knows this, having written about McGovern’s anti-Israel performance at a Democratic anti-Iraq war panel in 2005. Knows, but doesn’t disclose. An irreverent columnist might have noted that anyone who claims to be “for Sanity” in capital letters ought to be watched closely, but this time Milbank was just posing.
Hard news is hard to find
The news article, “Obama, Netanyahu thaw relations” properly noted some factors underlying prickly U.S.-Israeli ties earlier this year. Mentioned were the announcement, as Vice President Joseph Biden visited Jerusalem in March, of Israeli plans “to build 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of Jerusalem [emphasis added]” and Israel’s deadly interdiction May 31 of the Turkish Mavi Marmara as it attempted to run the Gaza Strip blockade.
The reference to eastern Jerusalem — after the expulsion by Jordanian occupation forces of its Jewish population in 1948 — as disputed rather than “Arab East Jerusalem” or “Palestinian East Jerusalem” is refreshingly correct. Note to Post editors: Such descriptions of the West Bank are equally applicable.
But the story was silent on three key elements of the Obama-Netanyahu talks:
1) Obama tried to recoup U.S. failure to protect Israel at his recent Washington summit on nuclear non-proliferation. Propping up the U.S.-Israeli policy of ambiguity that long as helped protect Israel’s status as a non-declared, presumed nuclear weapons power, the president said:
There is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against us — against it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.
This declaration received no Post coverage.
2) The president also stated:
I think it’s very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement, that they are not engaging in provocative language; that at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone, as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel.
Context for this remark was:
a) PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ falsehood, when meeting with Obama recently, that the PA did not conduct anti-Israel agitation [a violation of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and a recurrent indicator that Palestinian leaders are not committed to peace].
b) The PA’s futile effort to deny Israel membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Abbas was lying about incitement — the State Department monitors Palestinian Media Watch, www.palwatch.org, and knows it — and the PA has continued anti-Israel agitation since. When long-time terrorist Mahmoud Daoud Oudeh, organizer of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes, died last week, Abbas praised him as “a wonderful brother, companion, tough and stubborn, relentless fighter.”
The Post didn’t report, let alone follow up, the president’s statement.
3) Netanyahu insisted that “the single most dominant issue for many of us, is the prospect that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is brutally terrorizing its people, spreading terrorism far and wide. And I very much appreciate the president’s statement that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu reaffirming the president’s stated determination “to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons” in Obama’s presence, at the White House, is important not only for Israeli political considerations. It no doubt was meant to be heard in Tehran.
However, the Post‘s Palestinian-centric coverage omitted the Iranian angle as well.