Friday, July 25, 2014

A New Low for the New York Times

I’ve written a number of times (as have, increasingly, many others) about the multiple failures of the New York Times to inform its readers—the world, really, given the importance of the Times—of the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today’s lead editorial reaches a new low—well, there have been lots of lows. It’s a typical Times editorial on the issue, a wringing of the hands, blaming both sides equally for the current disaster.

Just as it has repeatedly done in past editorials, the Times does not so much as even mention Israel’s occupation and repression—an omission so misleading that it amounts to a kind of indirect lying. But beyond that, today’s editorial contains what can only be characterized as an outright lie. With no qualification, the editorial states that “Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction.” In fact, there is very strong evidence--its Charter and occasional rhetoric notwithstanding—that in practice Hamas would  accept any negotiated two-state settlement that has the support of the Palestinian people. In his indispensable article in the current New Republic, John Judis reviews some of that evidence, and there’s a lot more that has been accumulating for at least the last ten years.

The Times is entitled to argue that the evidence is not dispositive, I suppose, but it is assuredly not entitled to ignore it—especially on an issue that is critical not only to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but settling it.

During WWII the Times played down the increasing evidence of the Holocaust—later, it apologized, essentially admitting that it didn’t want to highlight what might have been seen as just a Jewish issue. Then, during the run-up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the Times ran prominent news stories that accepted the administration’s claims about Iraqi nuclear weapons—later, it again apologized.

Maybe one day the Times will also apologize—once again, far too late—for the way it has dealt with the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But I, for one, won’t forgive it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nicholas Kristof: How to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Anyone who regularly reads the New York Times surely understands that Nicholas Kristof must be one of the nicest persons in the world. His heart is always in the right place, his values and principles are of the highest, and his intentions are invariably beyond reproach. How come, then, so far as I can see nobody—at least nobody holding real power, anywhere—seems to pay any attention to him? Am I suggesting that his naivete makes much of what he writes irrelevant, a mere wringing of his hands?

Yes. His column in today’s Times, “Leading Through Great Loss,” is classic Kristof, I’m afraid—so ill-informed or naïve about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as to border on absurdity.

Here’s a few examples:

*“When militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality.” Proportionality is important, but it is not the main problem with Israel’s wars against the Palestinians. While it is a cliché that is repeated by just about everyone (including Obama) that “Of course Israel has a right to defend itself”—sometimes followed, as with Kristof, a “but,” and others with no qualifications at all—it reflects a profound misunderstanding of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general principles of the right of self defense. In short, if you are an aggressor, a repressor, an occupier, and your actions lead to desperate acts of resistance, you cannot avail yourself of any right of “self-defense.” Sure, if Israel ended the occupation and repression of the Palestinians but Hamas continued to attack it, then—and only then—it indeed would have the right of self-defense.

*Kristof describes the repeated violations of informal and even formal ceasefires between Hamas and Israel to a pattern of “mutual escalation,” or even more wrong-headedly, to “Hamas extremism and violence after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.” That is factually false, in several ways. The details are too complicated to go into here, but (1)there was no true Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza, and (2)even if there had been there was certainly no Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and (3) Israel has been far more the instigator of the periodic escalations than the innocent responder.

* Kristof writes: “It’s true that [a two-state peace agreement] is not achievable now, but the aim should be to take steps that make a peace deal possible in 10 years or 20 years….the mutual distrust is so great that it may take years to lay the groundwork, so let’s get started.”

Breathtaking. That’s what innocents have said for the last forty years or so, failing to recognize that the very purpose of Israeli policy is to maintain the occupation and prevent a genuine and fair two-state settlement. Hasn’t Kristof heard of this? Isn’t he aware that the more the Israeli government encourages further Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the more impossible becomes a two-state peace agreement?

Kristof’s general conclusion: “Aggression one side boomerangs and leads to aggression on the other.” It’s all symmetrical and “mutual,” there are no rights and wrongs, there are no painful facts.

Can’t we all just get along?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is the New York Times Finally Coming Clean on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Yes and No.

Seven years ago I published a long journal article describing the many ways in which the New York Times distorts and obfuscates the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  ("Muting the Alarm over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The New York Times versus Haaretz, 2000-06, International Security, Fall 2007)

Since then, I have continued to point out (mostly in this blog) the more egregious Times' distortions and obfuscations.  Lately, though, I've more or less stopped doing so, in part because in some ways the Times' coverage and opinion pieces on the conflict have improved--though not nearly enough--and in part because there is now a much more widespread recognition of the continued biases in Times' discussions of the conflict.

This morning's Times, at first glance, seems to have broken new ground in honest reporting--for its lead story is on the killing (by burning alive) of a Palestinian boy, in "revenge" for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.  It's an important story, and maybe a real breakthrough at the Times--though it is also well to bear in mind that even the Israeli right has condemned the unspeakable nature of the killing, and that no less than the mother of one of the Israeli kidnapped teenagers killed earlier this month has movingly expressed her outrage at the "revenge" killing.

In short, it didn't take much courage for the Times to lead with the story and, in effect, highlight the failures--euphemism--in Israeli society that are the context for the crime.

Still, I would have been more heartened by what seems to be a new Times willingness to deal with the realities of Israel's behavior, were it not for Roger Cohen's oped in the same issue.  Cohen, though no rightist on the issue, likes to be "balanced" and symmetrical, typically wringing his hands and blaming both sides, equally, for the ongoing conflict.

He does so again in today's column. I will address just one point.  Balancing his criticism of the Netanyahu government, Cohen also blames Abbas for his unwillingness "to make the painful decisions necessary to attaint a two-state peace," especially the relinquishing of the  Palestinian  "right of return."

Serious observers of the conflict know that this is not the case.  I have written in the past about the myth of Palestinian intransigence on this issue.  Since I have nothing new to add, I will simply quote myself:

"The evidence is overwhelming that in the context of a fair two-state settlement along the lines of the international consensus, Arafat, the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority have all been ready to settle for a symbolic resolution of the issue."

"In brief, as early as the 1980s, there were a number of signals from Arafat and the PLO that in the context of an overall two state settlement that included Israeli and international recognition of Palestinian or some other form of Muslim sovereignty and control over the al-Aksa mosque in the Old City, the PLO would agree to a compromise settlement of the refugee problem."

"Then, at the Taba negotiations at the end of 2000, according to Yossi Beilin, the leader of the Israeli negotiating team, 'almost full agreement was reached with respect to principles for resolving the problem.' (Path to Geneva, p. 247) Since then, the nature of these principles have become well-known: (1) some acknowledgment from Israel of its responsibility for the Palestinian expulsion or flight in 1948; (2) an unlimited right of the refugees and their families to return to the Palestinian state; (3)large-scale international economic compensation and assistance to the refugees, wherever they choose to settle; and (4) a token return of some families to Israel, subject to Israeli agreement."

"In 2008 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas engaged in secret negotiations over a possible two-state settlement, the general terms of which have now been widely reported. In particular, in early 2001 the British newspaper Guardian reported that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks documents—also known as “the Palestinian Papers”-- revealed that during the negotiations the PA leaders 'gave up the fight over refugees….Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families…could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement.'”

"Finally, in 2012 the twenty-two members of the Arab League unanimously reiterated the language of the 2007 peace plan, which does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” This carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would certainly not have received such support if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had objected."

To be sure, Cohen does allude to Abbas's true position, writing that he doesn't want to give up "the comforts of his position and the ambiguity of concessions not formalized."  But surely Cohen should understand that since Netanyahu has no intention of agreeing to end the Israeli occupation and allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Abbas cannot be blamed for not wanting to make a politically explosive concession and get nothing in return.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shlomo Avineri Speaks Out

Shlomo Avineri is a former Director of Israel’s Foreign Affairs ministry, a long-time professor at Hebrew University, and perhaps Israel’s most acclaimed political scientist—certainly the one who is most likely to be quoted in the New York Times. In the Israeli political spectrum, Avineri is usually described as a “centrist,” maybe even “center left.”

Given the state of Israeli political culture and discourse, that means he often can be found occupying a position half-way between obtuseness and rationality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-- on the one hand he favors a two-state settlement but on the other he has sometimes blamed the Palestinians, include Mahmoud Abbas, for the failure to reach such a settlement.

But the attack two days ago by six Israelis, who burned alive a sixteen year old Palestinian boy, evidently is another matter. “This is a wake-up call,” this morning’s Haaretz quoted Avineri: “a line has been crossed.” To be fair, lest this be considered a somehow inadequate response, or to suggest that until now Israel’s violence against Palestinians had fallen short of crossing the line, Avineri did add: “This is absolute evil.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

History vs "History."

When lawyers make statements about the innocence of their clients sensible people know not to take them at face value, for the legal profession’s first duty is to try to prove that its clients are innocent, whether or not they are. So, to point to an obvious example, sensible and reasonably knowledgeable people know they must discount anything Allan Dershowitz says about Israel; after all, he’s a lawyer and Israel, in effect, is his client.

It’s very different with academic historians, however—or at least it’s supposed to be—for their first duty, their only duty really, is to ascertain historical truth, as best as they can. Thus, historians—perhaps I should say, “historians”— who ignore, distort, or simply baldly deny historical facts and evident truths (and some truths are evident) are guilty of donning the trappings of scholarship in an effort to lend credibility to their ideologies or policy preferences.

To be sure, ascertaining historical truth is hardly  always easy, for on many issues there are perfectly legitimate factual or interpretative differences among scholars. However, there are limits to such legitimate disagreements, especially in cases in which the facts are indisputable. Cliched as it has become, Daniel Moynihan’s famous statement is indispensable: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the historical cases in which the most basic truths are, or should be, incontestable. Despite the conflicting “narratives,” there is no symmetry: one sides’ narrative is overwhelmingly supported by the historical facts, and the other sides’ is largely mythology that is no longer accepted by serious scholars and observers.

One of the clearest examples concerns whether  Arab hatred of Israel and the Jews is primarily responsible for the repeated failures to end the Arab-Israeli conflict since since 1948.  In fact, there should be no dispute over this, for the historical record is irrefutable: the Arab states, individually and collectively, have repeatedly sought to make peace with Israel.

But not according to a June 24 article in the magazine Tablet,”Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There.”   The author, Richard Landes, is a Harvard-educated associate professor in the Department of History at Boston University—all the right credentials. His argument, however, is another matter.

The “Arab political culture,” Landes writes, is driven by “honor/shame values…[and] tends to favor ascendancy through aggression.” That is why the Arab-Israeli conflict has been intractable, he says—in 1948 and continuing throughout the conflict the Arab states and the “Arab street” have maintained “that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.”

For this reason, Landes concludes, the Arabs will never agree to peace with Israel, even if Israel withdrew from all the occupied territories: “Attention to honor-shame culture... suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor, which means ‘all of Palestine, from the river to the sea.’”

The lack of correspondence of this argument with the clear historical truth is breathtaking. In fact, throughout the entire history of the conflict, all the relevant Arab states have repeatedly offered to settle their conflict with Israel, essentially in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from conquered and occupied Arab lands. I have written about this history in some detail (for one version, see my long blog essay of December 19, 2013, at

In brief summary, at the 1949 Lausanne conference the main Arab states proposed a peace settlement to Israel, provided (1)that Israel agree to withdraw from the territories it conquered in the 1948 war and return to the borders established by the 1947 UN partition and (2)that it agree to the return of the Palestinian refugees who had fled the 1948 war or had been expelled by Israel.  Israel turned down the Arab proposal.

Nonetheless, what Lausanne (and other Arab offers) demonstrated was that regardless of their previous intransigence, the main Arab states were now willing to accept Israel and end the conflict.  Moreover, since the early 1970s, the Arab states have again repeatedly sought to settle the Israeli-Palestinian and overall Arab-Israeli conflicts, on terms that were both just and not merely entirely consistent with legitimate Israeli security needs, but in fact would have furthered them.

Though there have been other (but soluable) issues, in the last forty-four years the basic Arab terms for peace (and, in most cases, a full normalization of political and economic relations) have been that Israel withdraw not to the 1947 lines but only to the expanded Israel that followed the 1948 war, and agree to a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Where, then, are the Arab demands--required by their "culture"--that Israel must be destroyed? On the contrary, the evidence demonstrates that Israel could have reached a settlement with the main Arab states collectively in the summer of 1949, or bilaterally with Egypt in 1948 and again in the early 1970s (thus avoiding the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian War), with Syria in 1949 and again in the 1990s, with Saudi Arabia since 1981, and with Lebanon and Jordan since the onset of the conflict.

Moreover, since 2002 the entire Arab League has formally, unanimously and on repeated occasions proposed an entirely fair overall peace agreement with Israel. And, above all, the evidence is overwhelming that since the 1980s at the latest, Yasser Arafat and the mainstream Palestinian leadership have wanted to reach a two-state settlement with Israel, based on the international consensus of what such a settlement would entail. Indeed, the weight of the evidence suggests that even Hamas would, however reluctantly, agree to accept or at least not disrupt a two-state settlement.

None of this--the real history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not its mythology--can be found in the Landes article.