Botching the Israel/Palestine Talks Timeline

NYT-Abbas Balks

Some readers thought this Times story was misleading– and they were right.

Some stories are easy to understand–or would be, if media reported the facts without so much spin. As hard as it might be to believe, the roots of the current Israel/Palestine negotiating impasse is one of those stories. 

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made headlines (e.g., “Abbas Takes Defiant Step, and Mideast Talks Falter,” New York Times, 4/1/14; “Talks in Limbo After Move by Abbas,” Washington Post, 4/2/14) when he decided on April 1 to apply for membership in a number of international conventions and treaties. That decision was portrayed as a serious breach–one that forced Israel to pull out of negotiations.

What was happening in reality was much different–but still fairly easy to understand. The agreement that established this round of talks, as Yousef Munayyer (Permission to Narrate, 4/4/14) explained, required that Israel release 104 Palestinian prisoners, a move intended to put off any Palestinian appeals to the United Nations. The final prisoners were to be released on March 29, but Israel failed to do so, apparently thinking they could use these prisoners as a lever to extend the talks. The Palestinian move came in response to that decision. 

So the story should be pretty easy to understand. Unfortunately, the media coverage got in the way.

As Munayyer and others (e.g., Mondoweiss, 4/3/14) have noted, many stories treated the Palestinian reaction, not the Israeli decision, as the really significant breach. Munayyer points out that the New York Times had the facts right in a March 17 piece–before Israel’s decision–but then muddied things up once that possibility became a reality.  

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan

The Times‘ public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in (4/4/14), addressing the critics of one Times piece in particular that was headlined, “Abbas Takes Defiant Step, and Mideast Talks Falter.” That piece put much more emphasis on the Palestinians as being the ones who’d thrown the talks into disarray. Foreign editor Joseph Kahn defended the story because it mentioned further down that Abbas was reacting to the Israel move, but he acknowledged that it could have been clearer. 

Sullivan summed up: 

The readers have a point. The combination of headline and initial paragraphs failed to appropriately convey the full scope of the situation. I agree with Mr. Kahn, however, that this does not reflect any larger effort by the Times to lay the impasse at the Palestinians’ feet.

The problem, though, isn’t what the Times intended to do–the reporting speaks for itself.
And, unfortunately, the problem with reporting on this issue persists. In the Washington Post (4/6/14), under the headline “Netanyahu Blames Palestinians for Collapsing Peace Talks,” reporter William Booth stressed the Israeli narrative: 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke his silence on the collapsing peace talks Sunday by blaming Palestinian leaders for the crisis and threatening retaliatory steps.

Booth’s account is pretty clear: Things were going smoothly until the Palestinians decided to ruin things. Booth explained that Israel had several “retaliatory measures” in mind, but then added this:

The Palestinians say that it is Israel that has pushed the talks toward collapse.

To restart the peace process, Netanyahu promised in July to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of murdering Israelis. In return, the Palestinians agreed not to seek greater recognition as a state from the United Nations.

The Israelis released three groups, a total of 78 prisoners, but balked last week at freeing the last batch of 26 inmates.

The Palestinians say the Israelis reneged on their promise

Well, if that was the arrangement, and the Israelis didn’t hold up their side of the bargain, why isn’t that made clear?

Perhaps the Post would explain, as Sullivan did, that it was not the intent of anyone at the paper to mislead readers about this chronology. But that’s precisely what they’re doing. 

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.