Dec 1 2010

Unfrozen Settlements in Palestine

Portraying Israeli ‘PR stunt’ as peace offer

Benjamin Netanyahu--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Downing Street

Benjamin Netanyahu–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Downing Street

Corporate media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict does not suffer from a lack of creative use of language: the “generous” offer the Palestinians rebuffed at Camp David in 2000, for example (Extra!, 7-8/02), or references to illegal West Bank colonies as “neighborhoods” (Extra! Update, 8/02). The current round of U.S.-backed negotiations brought a new kind of misdirection: the Israeli “freeze” or “moratorium” on settlement building, a move ostensibly intended to help lay the foundation for negotiations. But if you thought “freeze” meant “stop,” think again.

The settlement “freeze” was announced in December 2009 as a 10-month time frame during which the Israeli government pledged that it would cease new home construction in its West Bank colonies. Construction within East Jerusalem was not covered by the plan, nor were school or other infrastructure projects within settlements.

News accounts treated the pledge as a good faith effort to resume direct talks with West Bank Palestinian leaders—and certainly gave the impression that Israel had decided to stop building up its settlements. The New York Times referred to “the settlement moratorium” (9/26/10) or “Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction” (9/14/10), while Washington Post readers saw references to “Israel’s 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement-building in the occupied West Bank” (8/20/10) and “a 10-month freeze by Israel on new settlement construction.” (8/21/10). A Post editorial (9/25/10) discussed the “nine-month moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements” and a September 17 headline declared, “No Sign of a Compromise on Settlement Construction Ban.”

These common media characterizations—a freeze, a moratorium, a ban—sound straightforward. But at other times the reporting hinted at a murkier situation, as in one New York Times article (8/24/10) that referred to “Israel’s partial, 10-month moratorium on settlement construction,” and then later to the “temporary, partial freeze.” How could readers make sense of these confusing signals?

A few outlets provided clear explanations of the situation—but only rarely. The settlement “freeze,” these articles explained, would seem more a cynical ploy than a good faith effort at serious peace negotiations. New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner wrote on July 15, 2010, that “an examination of the freeze after more than seven months suggests that it amounts to something less significant, at least on the ground.”

“In many West Bank settlements, building is proceeding apace,” he continued, explaining that the so-called freeze “came with the assertion that some 3,000 units were grandfathered in and would proceed during the moratorium.” Israeli authorities issued a blizzard of building permits prior to the announcement of the freeze—10 times the previous year in one area. All of this left Bronner to conclude, “So in the first half of 2010, when no more units were permitted, the pace of building remained largely unchanged.” A freeze without much of a freeze, in other words.

If Bronner and his editors at the Times believe this reporting to be accurate—and there are no indications that it is not—then all of the many subsequent Times references to a settlement “freeze” or “moratorium” were highly misleading.

Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman noted the incongruity between the official rhetoric and reality in a September 23 piece: “How much of a freeze has there actually been on West Bank Jewish settlement building by Israel? Very little, an Associated Press analysis of the numbers suggests.” The article went on to point out that the Israeli government and peace activists agree that “building has barely slowed down.”

Friedman quoted some Israeli peace activists who pointed out that while the “freeze” was not really all that significant, an “extension” could have actually amounted to a serious halt to settlement-building, since at that point the projects that had been approved prior to the “freeze” would have been completed.

This would have constituted a fundamental change in Israeli settlement policy; absent that extension, the “freeze” amounted to very little of substance. But the political effect of Israel’s semantic ploy was considerable; as the 10-month period expired, Palestinian leaders were portrayed as the ones who needed to be willing to give some ground.

“The big diplomatic hurdle so far is whether the Israelis will extend a temporary freeze on building new settlements,” announced PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown (9/17/10). Brown asked Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler: “Start with the moratorium on settlements. It comes to an end at the end of the month. What is the situation now?” Kessler’s response was that “the moratorium has been in place for 10 months,” which was supposed to get peace talks moving forward. But “the Palestinians wouldn’t come immediately to the table. The talks have just started. And now you have this situation where the Israelis are saying, ‘We have had it for 10 months. You know, time’s up. We want to move on.’”

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (10/20/10) counseled that Barack Obama was well within his rights “to ask Israel to continue its now-expired 10-month partial moratorium on settlement-building in the West Bank in order to take away any excuse from the Palestinians to avoid peace talks.”

In the end, the dispute over the settlement “freeze” was often reduced to a standard kind of media hand-wringing. An ABC World News Sunday report (9/26/10) noted that these are “Jewish settlements, don’t forget, built on land the Palestinians want for their state.” The report closed with anchor Dan Harris saying, “Such a visceral issue, these settlements.” As is often the case, the fact that the settlements are very much a legal issue—it’s illegal under international law to colonize land captured in war—was ignored.

As the AP’s Matti Friedman put it (9/23/10), “Any discussion of the issue quickly inflames passions and reveals the divergent narratives of the sides.” That this language comes in a piece demonstrating how the Israeli “narrative” on the settlement freeze is totally misleading suggests that media accounts must strain to achieve some form of “balance”—no matter what.

Columnist Dror Etkes of the Israeli paper Ha’aretz (9/28/10) offered a damning assessment, writing: “The story can be called many things but ‘freeze’ is certainly not one of them. What took place in the past few months is, in the best case scenario, not more than a negligible decrease in the number of housing units that were built in settlements.” Etkes derided the freeze as a “PR stunt” that he dubbed “Israbluff,” closing his column with this:

Benjamin Netanyahu will probably not win the Nobel Peace Prize but he is certainly likely to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, or at least Chemistry, in the name of the Israeli government, which discovered that—contrary to what scientists had thought until now—water is not the only substance that expands instead of contracting when it freezes.

He might have to share that Nobel with a few U.S. media outlets.