Jan 1 2008

Get Carter

NY Times punishes an ex-president for criticizing Israel

Though the New York Times ignored Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid when it was first published–it didn’t review the book until it had already been on the Times’ bestseller list for five weeks–that didn’t stop the paper from running an article about a former Carter employee who didn’t like the book.

The December 7, 2006 article began by reporting that Kenneth W. Stein, a former executive director of the Carter Center in Atlanta, had resigned, “citing concerns with the accuracy and integrity of Mr. Carter’s latest book.” It quoted Stein charging the book was “replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions and simply invented segments.”

Reporters Brenda Goodman and Julie Bosman also cited the observation by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “I was just very saddened by it. I just found so many errors.” They quoted Alan Dershowitz calling Carter’s book “ahistorical,” and noted that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles released a statement “saying the former president harbors bias against Israel.”

As Goodman and Bosman noted, “Mr. Stein’s criticism of [Carter’s] book has been the sharpest cut.” What was the evidence for Stein’s charges? There wasn’t much, though the Times’ reporters dressed up the lack of evidence: “Mr. Stein declined to detail all the inaccuracies he found, saying he was still documenting them for a planned review of the book; but he did offer a few examples.”

According to the Times, Stein claimed that Carter had inaccurately dated a briefing to White House officials about what he had been told by Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Carter had written, “As usual, I reported these conversations to the White House and State Department, but Washington was almost totally preoccupied with the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.” The Iraq invasion of Kuwait occurred in August 1990; according to Stein and the Times, Carter was referring to a March 1990 meeting that Carter had with Assad (New York Times, 3/15/90).

But Carter’s book doesn’t actually date either the conversation or the subsequent briefing. In fact, Carter indicated that his briefing to the White House had reflected a bundle of conversations over time–with Assad, Yasser Arafat, PLO officials and Israeli officials–which makes Stein’s point frivolous, at best.

In any case, the timeline plays no substantive role in Carter’s thesis; it’s not clear why this example of “inaccuracy” would convince the Times that other, unspecified factual problems in the book would call into question the book’s “integrity.”

For the second example, Stein accused Carter of plagiarism: “Mr. Stein also said he had been struck by parts of Mr. Carter’s book that seemed strikingly similar to a work by a different author, but he would not disclose the details.” Stein charged that “elements” in Carter’s book “were lifted from another source,” and that the “source is now acting on his or her own advice about what to do because of this.” Incredibly, the Times printed this serious accusation without evidence or specifics.

In the review that he had promised to write, published in the Spring 2007 issue of Middle East Quarterly, Stein devoted all of three sentences to substantiating his plagiarism charge, none of which even attempted to provide any evidence of plagiarism. He did reveal from whom Carter had supposedly plagiarized, however, writing that Carter “seems to have mislabeled and taken” maps from Dennis Ross’ 2004 book The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.

The apparent map in question in Carter’s book with respect to the plagiarism charge is labeled “Israeli Interpretation of Clinton’s Proposal 2000.” Stein was essentially arguing, without the burden of specificity, that Carter had “lifted” this map from one in Ross’s book labeled “Map Reflecting Clinton’s Ideas.” However, Carter’s map is graphically distinct, and appears to have come from another source, as Carter has claimed. Carter, unlike Ross, depicts an “Israeli Security Zone” along the Jordan River; only Carter shows Salfit in the West Bank and Netanya in Israel, whereas only Ross includes Israel’s Haifa and the settlement Maale Adumin.

Though the maps at issue were clearly not identical, Ross also accused Carter of plagiarism, as the Times reported in a brief news item by Brenda Goodman on December 9, two days after she conveyed Stein’s plagiarism charge. Goodman reported that Ross “accused former President Jimmy Carter of copying material from one of his books”–Ross’s map–“without proper attribution.”

However, a month later, in a January 9, 2007 op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ross wrote that he was “always…concerned less with where the maps had originally come from” and “more with how they were labeled.” Thus, the Times not only published unsubstantiated charges by Stein and Ross that Carter had committed plagiarism, it also permitted Ross to claim a month later that he was never concerned about the origins of Carter’s maps.

Ross ran into more problems while accusing Carter of mislabeling the maps. In the same Times op-ed piece, Ross wrote:

The problem is that the [map labeled] “Palestinian Interpretation” is actually taken from an Israeli map presented during the Camp David summit meeting in July 2000, while the “Israeli Interpretation” is an approximation of what President Clinton subsequently proposed in December of that year.

Because the map labeled “Palestinian Interpretation” in Carter’s book depicts a non-contiguous West Bank divided into three distinct cantons, Ross was thus revealing that Israel had presented Palestinian negotiators at Camp David with a map proposing a non-contiguous (and hence non-viable) Palestinian state. If this is the case, then the fraud here is not Carter’s, but Ross’, since he described the same Israeli map in The Missing Peace without revealing that the map depicted a non-contiguous West Bank. This was a monumental omission from Ross’s account of Camp David in his book–viewed as authoritative by Israel’s supporters–and clearly undermines the rest of his controversial telling of the summit.

If you wonder why New York Times editors were allowing such unethical journalism and shoddy commentary, you might examine the work of Ethan Bronner, the Middle East editor at the Times, who personally contributed to the paper’s skewed coverage of Carter’s book.

Bronner began his book review of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Times, 1/7/07) by writing, “This is a strange little book about the Arab/Israeli conflict from a major public figure.” It was “largely unsympathetic to Israel” and a “distortion” of Israel’s policies, because “broader regional developments” that are presumably exculpatory of Israel’s conduct “go largely unexamined”–namely Al-Qaeda, “the nuclear ambitions of Iran” and “the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.” The relevance of any of these phenomena to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is the focus of Carter’s book, was not explained by Bronner’s review.

Carter, according to Bronner, also is guilty of “distortion” because “hollow statements by Israel’s enemies are presented without comment.” Bronner was referring to Hafez al-Assad, the late president of Syria, who, according to Bronner, “is quoted for an entire section, offering harsh impressions of Israel.” Carter actually provided an extended summary of his conversations with Assad, including a few brief quotes; he put this material in context by saying he thought it would “be helpful to summarize the past involvement and assessments of the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia concerning their potential involvement in possible solutions” to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Bronner apparently was offended that Carter would present such Arab views of the conflict.

Bronner also claimed that Carter, speaking of the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, wrote that its “driving purpose” is “the acquisition of land” and “not to stop suicide bombers and other violent attacks.” Bronner misrepresented Carter’s views in this instance, since Carter was talking about Israel’s overall policy toward the Palestinians (which includes the wall), and not the wall by itself. Here is the relevant passage from Carter’s book:

Israeli leaders[‘]…presumption is that an encircling barrier will finally resolve the Palestinian problem. Utilizing their political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories. The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa–not racism, but the acquisition of land.

Contrary to Bronner’s rendition, Carter in fact acknowledged the security aspects of the wall in his book, but also accurately noted that much of it is built on Palestinian land, and thus illegally situates large areas of Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the wall.

While arguing that “settling the Israel question” for “radical leaders of the Muslim world” means “eliminating Israel,” Bronner ignored the radical and even mainstream elements in Israel who hold similar views toward Palestinians (Jerusalem Post, 9/11/06; TheNation.com, 12/14/06).

Though one would never know this by reading the New York Times’ coverage of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was in essence an appeal to Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the United States to resolve the conflict peacefully by recognizing the legitimate rights of both Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps it was for those reasons that the New York Times, given its overall coverage of the conflict–which favors Israel’s rights over Palestinian rights–would attack the former president with unsubstantiated and utterly implausible charges of plagiarism.

Howard Friel is coauthor with Richard Falk of Israel/Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007), and with Falk of The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004).