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.