With Fager’s Departure, A Less Hostile, But Still Problematic Segment from 60 Minutes

There were a few problems in this week’s 60 Minutes segment on the construction of Rawabi, a planned city in the West Bank by Palestinian-American businessman Bashar Masri. But overall, the sneering and aggressive tone the television news magazine historically directed at Israel under the leadership of now-disgraced executive producer Jeff Fager — and correspondent Bob Simon — seems to have greatly diminished.

Hints of bias still remain, but the disdain for Israel is nothing like it was under Fager’s leadership and with Simon’s reporting, which so badly marred a 60 Minutes piece on Bethlehem that aired in 2012.

The 14-minute segment about Rawabi which aired on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, was produced by Marc Lieberman and reported by correspondent Bill Whittaker. The segment details how Masri spent $150 million of his own money and was able to entice the government of Qatar to invest another $1 billion in the construction of a Palestinian city on a hill called Rawabi.

It’s clearly a sympathetic portrayal of the construction project, which is still losing $35 million a year.

Footage of the settlement that aired in the segment could easily be used in a promotional video for real estate agents selling homes in the city. (This is not an exaggeration. At one point during the segment, a young boy runs from behind the camera into a panoramic shot of the street in front of the camera. This dramatic image is likely the result of a staged shot more worthy of a Hollywood movie than journalism.) Still, there’s no denying that Rawabi could be a nice place to live and work.

Sadly, the segment’s opening lines present viewers with an obvious misstatement of fact. Whittaker reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent announcement that Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not violate international law was a “surprise decision” that “reversed four decades of American policy.”

As CAMERA researcher Ricki Hollander recently documented, Pompeo’s announcement did no such thing. “For 40 years, US presidents adopted no legal opinion on settlements despite their opposition to settlement construction at any given time,” Hollander reported.

Another howler came when Whittaker declared that the largely uninhabited city is the “first planned city for Palestinians in more than 1,000 years.” With this line, Whittker reveals that he has fallen for the pro-Palestinian line that Palestine has existed as a nation for more than a millennium. Jews have been a nation for thousands of years. The Palestinians? A few decades.

The underlying message of the 60 Minutes segment is that Masri is attempting to provide a home for a constituency of Palestinians who are more interested in promoting economic growth and freedom than they are in fighting a fruitless war against Israel. The segment reports Masri had to overcome both Israeli and Palestinian intransigence, but suggests that the delays are mostly Israel’s fault, the result of “right wing opposition.”

One element to this narrative was the difficulty Masri experienced in hooking the city up to a water supply. 60 Minutes reports that “Israel held up Rawabi’s pipeline for more than a year.” The segment continues:

Former officials in government ministries tell 60 Minutes Israeli cabinet members blocked the approval under pressure from a faction of ideological settlers who believe all this land is Israel. The most vocal: the settlers on that nearby hilltop.

In fact, in 2016, The Globe and Mail in Canada reported that in order to obtain water for his city, Masri would have to get approval from the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee (JWC), but that that the Palestinian Authority “was mostly boycotting JWC meetings.” The paper reported:

Baruch Nagar, the head of the Israeli Water Authority, blames the water-connection delay on infighting between the Palestinian Water Authority and Rawabi’s developers.

“The Israeli side presented two possible routes for the [water] pipeline to Rawabi,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “The Palestinians have been asked to choose and plan one of them. Until now, they didn’t do it.”

The 60 Minutes report also fails to detail the failure of the Palestinian Authority to make good on promises to provide infrastructure for the project. Masri criticized the PA about these broken promises in an article published by the JTA in early 2016, but these criticisms did not make their way into the 60 Minutes piece. The JTA reported:

The Palestinian Authority has also not stepped up, Masri says, despite initial promises to fund and support the project. The city’s three schools and medical clinic are all privately funded, as is the sewage and water system. Rawabi is the only Palestinian city with its own fiber optic network — also privately funded.

“We believe the Palestinian Authority should have seen the project as a top priority and should have supported it … by building a school, by building a road, building a clinic, building the sewage treatment, building a water tank,” Masri said. “Unfortunately, their contribution so far has been zero when it comes to funding.”

Masri may have been obliquely referring to these failures when he said to Whittaker, on-camera, that, “If we, the Palestinians, do not risk and invest in our own nation building, we should not expect anyone to do so. This is a duty.”

In this segment, criticism of Israel is direct and robust, criticism of Palestinian leaders is oblique and diffuse. Hopefully, in future coverage of the Holy Land, 60 Minutes can provide more explicit information about the intransigence of Palestinian leaders.

This is an undeniable bright spot in 60 Minutes’ reporting. Statements like this, combined with the segment’s coverage of a high-tech company founded by Masri and an Israeli businessman, Eyal Waldman, directly counter the anti-normalization propaganda promoted by supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting Israel.

This campaign, known as BDS for short, was a factor in the departure of SodaStream from the West Bank, which cost hundreds of Palestinians high paying jobs that Masri and Waldman are helping to establish in Rawabi.

The problems described above notwithstanding, the segment provides a glimmer, albeit a small one, of hope that 60 Minutes is changing, that it is not going to participate in the propaganda war against Israel, but instead begin to cover the changes that need to be made in Palestinian society for there to be peace in the Holy Land.