Middle East Blame Game Misreporting

Two things are certain with U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The first is that they will inevitably fail (I say inevitably because of long-standing foundational flaws precluding success) and the second is that when they do, the blame game will inevitably ensue. Well, we have arrived at blame game stage once again.

Both parties don’t trust each other, both parties don’t believe the talks will amount to anything and both parties do not want to be blamed for failure. But with nothing to show after months of talks and more trips by Secretary of State John Kerry than I can count, the question will be asked: who is to blame?

The most direct cause of the “crisis” in the talks in recent days is the Israeli refusal to uphold their end of the bargain in an American-brokered agreement which got the talks kicked off last July. The agreement was simple, Israel would release 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. In exchange, the Palestinians would hold off on bids for international recognition for a period of nine months giving Kerry’s negotiations a chance. The Israelis insisted on releasing these prisoners in batches and the fourth and final batch of prisoners was due to be released on March 29th.

Weeks before the deadline, the Israelis began to indicate they might not release the prisoners. This was happening in the context of talks where no progress was being made and the April 29th deadline was approaching. Kerry was unable to sell the pro-Israel parameters of a framework to the Palestinians, so it seem that without progress, there would be no extension beyond April 29th. In an effort to blackmail the Palestinians into extending the talks even without progress, Israel reneged on the fourth batch of the release and wanted to tie it to an extension of talks beyond the 29th, unilaterally changing the terms of the agreement. I wonder if this Israeli move was not green lighted by Washington as a way to press the Palestinians to extend the talks.

In any case, it was clear from the outset that the Palestinians would object to this breach of the agreement and consider the agreement null if it took place. They said so explicitly and publicly when a delegation came to meet with President Obama and Kerry in mid-March. So no one should be surprised by the fact that Abbas went ahead with joining fifteen international treaties once Israel failed to meet its commitment. He said that is what he was going to do and he did it. In short, when Israel failed to keep its word, Abbas kept his. Those of us watching this issue closely knew the impasse was coming so Kerry and his team can’t plead ignorance or surprise.

But it would be damaging for Israel to be blamed for the end of these talks. So how is the media covering this? Well, The New York Times can’t seem to get the story straight. On March 17th, they got it right, noting that Israel was attempting to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement:

There is another, more imminent, date that could jeopardize the process. Israel promised in July that it would free 104 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, and the last release date is March 29. Some Israeli officials warned that Mr. Netanyahu would not carry out the release unless the talks were extended.

Got that? The New York Times clearly stated there was an agreed upon release date, March 29th, and that if Israel failed to release these prisoners by that day, it could “jeopardize the process.” Yet reading The New York Times‘ reporting of the events since Israel’s failure to meet the deadline has been almost comical.

This April 3rd story completely rewrites history. It was initially headlined “Israel calls of prisoner release as Kerry seeks to keep talks alive”. By why is the Times reporting on Israel failing to release prisoners it should have released four days earlier on April 3rd? That’s old news by now. The answer? Because they were changing the story. Here is what the story initially said was the reason Israel didn’t release the prisoners:

The Israeli decision was a response to the announcement on Tuesday by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, that his administration was formally seeking to join 15 international bodies, which the Israelis regarded as an unacceptable move that would subvert the direct negotiations with Israel for Palestinian statehood.

Now the Times is telling its readers that Israel is not releasing the prisoners as a response to the Palestinian move to join fifteen international bodies, even though they had previously reported that Israel was threatening not to release the prisoners to extort an extension out of Abbas. There was also the fact that Abbas actually signed those agreements after the Israelis failed to meet the March 29th deadline. So why rewrite history here?

Additionally, as word of a larger deal that would include Jonathan Pollard was breaking, a Jodi Rudorenstory included this gem:

[A Palestinian official] also said “today is the last chance” for Israel to release the promised fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners — an impossible deadline because the release requires a 48-hour waiting period after approval by five Israeli ministers and the five have not yet convened.

Notice how Rudoren editorialized after the hyphen calling it an “impossible deadline” and casting the Palestinians as making an unreasonable demand. The story was written on April 1st, two days after the deadline had already passed, a deadline which this newspaper had already reported on March 17th was one that Israel did not intend to keep. Why is Rudoren creating excuses for the Israelis?

Both of these egregious and contradictory excerpts has since either been removed from the stories or rewritten in marginally improved ways. This is probably because many readers (full disclosure: including myself) have noted the inaccuracies to the editors. So many readers have chimed in that the Public Editor devoted a post to it today entitled “Readers Object to Times’s Portrayal of Palestinian Role in Impasse” and she comes down on the side of the readers.

Yet here, The New York Times is making excuses for Israel again, turning a clear violation of a commitment to meet a deadline into a he said/she said situation:

For the Palestinians, the breakdown of the talks was precipitated by what they said was an Israeli violation of the commitment to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by March 29. But Israel delayed the release while it sought a broader, American-brokered deal to extend the negotiations to early 2015.

So who is to blame here? Well, the paper of record tells us it is all a matter of perspective. What cowardly journalism. There are simple ascertainable facts here. There was an agreement and the Times reported on it. Israel reneged on its end of the bargain when it failed to meet the agreed upon deadline. That’s it. That isn’t a matter of perspective. Either Israel did what it committed to do when it was supposed to or it didn’t. But putting blame squarely where it lies seems too difficult for the Times.

The paragraph has since been altered, explaining Israel’s intentions behind failing to meet the deadline and ultimately, it is still a matter of dispute:

But Israel sought to condition the release of the final batch on an extension of the negotiations beyond the current deadline of April 29. And though the Palestinians blamed Israel for delaying the fourth release beyond a late-March deadline and precipitating the current crisis, Israel is now accusing the Palestinians of having foreclosed the planned release with their move.

The facts here are not in dispute. There was a deadline, Israel didn’t meet it, it did not have an intention of meeting it and attempted to change the deal all together. Once this occurred the Palestinians gave Kerry additional time to try to get the Israelis to keep their end of the bargain. He couldn’t. Thus, the Palestinians signed fifteen letters, keeping with what they said they would do.  That’s it. That is the story.

Why is it so hard for The New York Times to get this simple story right? Perhaps because if reported properly, the reader will get the idea that Israel is in fact to blame.