By Barry Rubin
The New York Times has now crossed the line from being a grossly slanted newspaper in its Middle East coverage to being one so partisan, blinkered, and defensive as to lose its value altogether. I do not write this lightly and have no wish to exaggerate. But the newspaper’s editorial of March 26 is so mendacious, so made up to suit the political purposes of the Obama administration without any reference to the facts that it is a work of politically tailored fiction.
Basically, the themes or omissions are as follows:
- Israeli policy is the result of extreme right-wing politicians.
- Most Israelis support Obama rather than their own government.
- The U.S.-Israel agreement of last October never existed.
- The Palestinians don’t exist and one doesn’t need to mention their actions or the administration’s total catering to them.
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done something so awful that it proves he doesn’t want peace. What did he do? Precisely what he told the U.S. government he was going to do five months ago and which it then called a major step toward peace!
The Administration’s and Times’ goal is to portray the issue as not being one of Obama versus Israel but rather Obama plus the Israeli majority against a relatively small number of right-wing extremists who have hijacked the country.
If only such tactics were used against America’s enemies.
Unfortunately, it is necessary to discuss this editorial in detail. It begins:
“After taking office last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel privately told many Americans and Europeans that he was committed to and capable of peacemaking, despite the hard-line positions that he had used to get elected for a second time. Trust me, he told them. We were skeptical when we first heard that, and we’re even more skeptical now.”
Netanyahu not only said this privately but also publicly, as is clear in the official Israeli government peace plan about which the Times has never even informed its readers. It offers a two-state solution and lists Israel’s needs: end of conflict, resettlement of Palestinian refugees in a Palestinian state, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, demilitarization. So Netanyhu hasn’t “grudgingly” accepted this solution, he’s offered it himself.
Of course, Israel has things it wants in exchange but neither the U.S. government nor the Times discusses these matters. As a result, the apparent position of the U.S. government is that Israel will have to accept a Palestinian state without conditions. No wonder Israel’s public is suspicious.
Moreover, this government is not merely one of Netanyahu but also of Labour Party leader Ehud Barak and former Labour leader Shimon Peres who was also in Kadima, and is now president, as a supporter of its program. It is not a “right-wing” government but a national unity coalition including the biggest party of the left and of the right.
The story being set up portrays the problem as being Netanyahu neither committed nor capable of making peace. The Times is clearly never skeptical about the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership. But what has Netanyahu done to demonstrate this claim? There was no problem before the recent crisis, set off by the announcement that a plan to build apartments in Jerusalem—still years off—had passed one more of seven stages toward approval.
It bears repeating over and over again that last October, Netanyahu reached a deal with the Obama Administration: No construction on the West Bank; construction to continue in Jerusalem. In addition, the White House agreed that this ban would be limited to nine months. The obvious concept was that the U.S. government was wagering that it could produce either enough progress on talks, benefits to Israel, or both that it could persuade Israel’s government to extend that freeze. Netanyahu never broke that agreement, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed as a great step toward peace.
So has Netanyahu done something horrible or is this a largely fabricated crisis?
“All this week, the Obama administration had hoped Mr. Netanyahu would give it something to work with, a way to resolve the poisonous contretemps over Jerusalem and to finally restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It would have been a relief if they had succeeded. Serious negotiations on a two-state solution are in all their interests. And the challenges the United States and Israel face — especially Iran’s nuclear program — are too great for the leaders not to have a close working relationship.”
The Times was not dismayed by the fact that the PA refused to negotiate between January 2009 and February 2010, and then only indirectly agreed to do so. Unless I missed it, there hasn’t been one word of editorial criticism of the PA at all. In fact, the newspaper said not a single word regarding the PA’s sabotage of Obama’s call for negotiations last September.
What the second paragraph disguises is that the Obama Administration made a major new demand on Israel’s government: all construction to stop permanently after it had already accepted a compromise on the issue. This is not just “something to work with,” but rather a maximalist demand for something no Israeli government has ever given.
“But after a cabinet meeting on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing government still insisted that they would not change their policy of building homes in the city, including East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make the capital of an independent state.”
Again, there is no mention of the PA giving anything on any subject; this issue doesn’t even exist according to the Times. As noted above this is not merely a “right-wing government,” but the story is being set up to suggest that Obama is the true leader of Israel.
“President Obama made pursuing a peace deal a priority and has been understandably furious at Israel’s response. He correctly sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a factor in wider regional instability.”
In January, Obama announced that he felt it unlikely he could make serious progress on peace. Presumably this was a result of PA behavior as well. From that moment, it was clear that a peace deal was no longer a priority; again a point the Times does not even suggested.
“Mr. Netanyahu’s government provoked the controversy two weeks ago when it disclosed plans for 1,600 new housing units in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. was on a fence-mending visit and Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks” were to begin.”
It is interesting to note that the reason there were proximity talks only was that while Netanyahu called for direct negotiations (as had Obama last September), the PA rejected them. Moreover, Israelis know that it was not “Netanyahu’s government” but a low-level commission that announced the plans without clearing it with the prime minister. Even Israeli journalists who are strongly opposed to Netanyahu have made this point, which the Times ignores.
“Last year, Mr. Netanyahu rejected Mr. Obama’s call for a freeze on all settlement building. On Tuesday — just before Mr. Obama hosted Mr. Netanyahu at the White House — Israeli officials revealed plans to build 20 units in the Shepherd Hotel compound of East Jerusalem.”
While it is technically true that Netanyahu did not accept the freeze on all building—“settlement building” makes it sound (and no doubt many Times’ readers falsely believe—that new settlements are being constructed—it is also true that the Obama Administration accepted a compromise.
Let me give an analogy. You demand that I give you $100,000 to buy a property. I counter-offer $75,000. You accept it and publicly brag about what a great deal it is. A few months later you angrily announce that I rejected your proposal.
That is very close to the current situation.
“Palestinians are justifiably worried that these projects nibble away at the land available for their future state. The disputes with Israel have made Mr. Obama look weak and have given Palestinians and Arab leaders an excuse to walk away from the proximity talks (in which Mr. Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, would shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah) that Washington nurtured.”
Well, why should they worry if they can negotiate a deal? And if they are worried shouldn’t this make them more eager to reach a deal before more is “nibbled” away. Remember, by the way, we are talking about a piece of land approximately four city blocks over the pre-1967 border in an uninhabited place.
But the best point of the paragraph is that the Times is shocked! Shocked! That this makes Obama look weak! How many things has Obama done in the Middle East to look weak? (To save space and because I know you can give a list, I won’t spend a page outlining them.) Yet on what single occasion has the Times been upset about this?
“Mr. Obama was right to demand that Mr. Netanyahu repair the damage. Details of their deliberately low-key White House meeting (no photos, no press, not even a joint statement afterward) have not been revealed. We hope Israel is being pressed to at least temporarily halt building in East Jerusalem as a sign of good faith. Jerusalem’s future must be decided in negotiations.”
Yes on the last sentence. But the announcement that in a few years Israel might start building some apartment buildings doesn’t decide Jerusalem’s future. If the PA offers a good deal then why should the presence of plans to build apartments—or even existing apartments—stop it? But that’s what this is mostly about: Trying to reach a deal which does not require the PA to give up anything it doesn’t want to, which means giving up nothing at all
“The administration should also insist that proximity talks, once begun, grapple immediately with core issues like borders and security, not incidentals. And it must ensure that the talks evolve quickly to direct negotiations — the only realistic format for an enduring agreement.”
This, too, is profoundly dishonest. Direct talks have been going along for most of the last 18 years. They were derailed first by the PA walk-out (over a war in Gaza begun by Hamas) and then by the Obama Administration’s own demand—beyond the PA’s demands—for the construction freeze.
There is no hint that the lack of talks doesn’t rest on Israel, with the possible exception of the last week though even this could have been finessed. Suppose Obama had said to Netanyahu: Please announce that there are no imminent plans to build these apartments and denounce the announcement as unauthorized by you. Things could have been worked out and indirect talks restarted.
Now the Administration’s explosion has put them off for months at least. After all, why should the PA, smiling as the U.S. government bashes Israel, relieve the pressure on Israel’s government? Especially since they don’t want to negotiate any way and they know the U.S. government won’t make them do so?
“Many Israelis find Mr. Obama’s willingness to challenge Israel unsettling. We find it refreshing that he has forced public debate on issues that must be debated publicly for a peace deal to happen. He must also press Palestinians and Arab leaders just as forcefully.”
Notice how the one sentence comes in at the end about how Obama must press Palestinians and Arabs. But there is not a single specific, nor any discussion of how the lack of balance in itself is damaging. Yet even the premise is flatly wrong: must there be a public debate now on a permanent end for Israel construction as the main and sole condition for reaching a peace deal? I could name a dozen other issues, including the PA’s failure to comply with its commitments on a daily basis.
“Questions from Israeli hard-liners and others about his commitment to Israel’s security are misplaced. The question is whether Mr. Netanyahu is able or willing to lead his country to a peace deal. He grudgingly endorsed the two-state solution. Does he intend to get there?”
Notice that the editorial does not speak of questions from Israelis but from “hard-liners and others,” implying—while still covering itself in language—that only some kind of extremist might question Obama’s commitment. Again, a long list of reasons for questioning that commitment could be made.
But again what has happened to make the question Netanyahu’s ability or willingness to make a peace deal. Here are the total charges against him: The announcement of building a set of apartments, for which he apologized, and another regarding 20 additional apartments.
It’s not as if he and his colleagues daily broadcast incitement to murder people on the other side through schools, sermons, and speeches. It’s not as if they refused to negotiate at all month after month. It’s not as if they released or did not incarcerate extremists who murdered civilians on the other side. (Actually they did release prisoners who murdered civilians but they were Palestinian prisoners who murdered Israelis.) It’s not as if they don’t even control half the territory for which they purport to bargain.
Those are all characteristics of the PA, things the Times does not even mention. And if the administration or the Times wanted to take offense at anti-peace actions they could mention that at the time of Biden’s visit the PA dedicated a major square to a terrorist who murdered a score of Israeli civilians. Not only did the Administration not protest this action but Clinton mistakenly attributed it to Hamas in her AIPAC speech.
Consequently, this editorial is not merely slanted; it is so profoundly dishonest, distorting both the Palestinian and the Obama Administration role, as to be suitable to that published in a state-controlled newspaper in a dictatorship.
Once–and perhaps again in the not-distant future–the U.S.-Israel link was called a “special relationship” because it was so close. Now it is still distinctive in a special way: Israel is the only country in the world–a list that includes none of those countries sponsoring anti-American terror or trying to destroy U.S. interests–that this administration, perhaps only temporarily, wants to intimidate and defeat.
But is this all about Israel or is it about the desperation to defend an administration which has failed so badly and acted so erratically in foreign policy?
By so misrepresenting the facts and situation, some media can go on defending Obama’s policies and actions. But that’s no way to defend America and its interests, quite the contrary
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, Click Here