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September 13, 2009
How WaPo slants its coverage of West Bank issues
Yesterday, the Washington Post runs a lengthy article by Jerusalem correspondent Howard Schneider about the West Bank Jewish town of Ariel as emblematic of conflicting U.S., Israeli and Palestinian agendas in dealing with the Mideast peace process ("In Towns Like Ariel, Many Competing Visions Collide" page A8).
Several points made by Schneider provide welcome context for the backlash in Israel against U.S. pressures for a total construction freeze in Jewish communities in the West Bank.
Both in the headline and a couple of times in the article, Ariel -- with a population of nearly 20,000 -- is accurately described as a modern "town" that presumably has outgrown the much used -- and abused -- "settlement" cliche.
Schneider also provides useful background when he points out that, in terms of achieving a two-state solution, Israel "may be willing to give up large parts" of the West Bank, that "Israel has shown willingness to cede territory and remove people by force if necessary," that Israel dismantled settlements in the Gaza Strip four years ago and in the Sinai as part of its peace agreement with Egypt, but that Israel -- relying in part on past U.S. assurances -- intends to retain several sizeable towns like Ariel.
Unfortunately, Schneider's article also is marred by some distorted historical perspectives and omission of key events and important aspects of the peace process.
--Schneider writes that "Israel OCCUPIED the West Bank, which was then under Jordanian CONTROL, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war." If Israel consistently is portrayed in the Washington Post as an "occupier" in the West Bank by dint of having won the 1967 war, why is Jordan portrayed in a softer light as merely having been in "control" of the West Bank, which it captured in 1948 and occupied for 19 years after Israel's founding? Why is the pejorative "occupier" reserved exclusively for Israel, especially when Jordan destroyed historic synagogues in Jerusalem and the oldest Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, while also denying Jews access to their holiest site, the Western Wall?
--Schneider's piece again reflects the Post's consistent reference to the 1967 war as its historical database for the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the conflict started long before 1967 -- as did Arab/Palestinian terrorism against Israel's very existence.
--Schneider, in tracing historical, economic and religious forces that shaped the history of West Bank settlements, points to Hebron, "where the biblical patriarch Abraham is thought to be entombed" and which reflects efforts "to re-establish a Jewish presence in areas where Jews had been forced to leave in the years before Israel's independence in 1948." That's a rather stingy way of recognizing the vital importance and symbolism of Hebron, the oldest Jewish community in the world, Judaism's second holiest city, the site of not only the tomb of Abraham (the religious progenitor of all 3 monotheistic religions), but also the burial place of the other two JEWISH patriarchs -- Isaac and Jacob -- and 3 of the 4 JEWISH matriarchs -- Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, the town where King David was anointed, where Jews had lived for many centuries until 1929 where Jews hadn't just "been forced to leave," as Schneider puts it, but where an Arab pogrom raged through the Jewish community, destroyed historic synagogues and cemeteries, and killed 67 Jews.
--While Schneider correctly describes some current and historical realities confronting the peace process, he omits others that are equally or more important. For example, Schneider refers in his lead to "Israeli settlements in the OCCUPIED West Bank, but later has to acknowledge that Israel regards the West Bank as "DISPUTED" land. While he mentions that the Palestinians and "much of the rest of the world" deem the West Bank as "occupied" by Israel, he gives no explanation for why Israel calls it "DISPUTED land." Why not explain Israel's position that there has been no sovereign rule of the West Bank since the Ottoman Empire, that Israel is NOT occupying Palestinian land since it never belonged to the Palestinians, and that under UN Security Council Resolution 242 -- the legal international template for resolving the conflict -- Israel is NOT obligated to withdraw from the entire West Bank in any pace deal.
--Schneider does mention that Israel, in its insistence on retaining small parts of the West Bank, is relying on "statements made by then-President George W. Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that several settlement "blocs" like Ariel will remain in Israel. But this was far more than just some "statements" by Bush to Sharon. This was a formal U.S. pledge in a letter addressed to Sharon in 2004 in connection with Israel's plans to withdraw completely from Gaza. In that letter, Bush clearly spelled out that "new realities on the ground" rule out a total Israeli pullout from the West Bank, and he cited as precedents and justification for his position U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and all previous international initiatives and formulas for a peace agreement, including Bill Clinton's 2000 proposal to Arafat, which also left parts of the West Bank inside Israel.
--The biggest notable omission from Schneider's article, however, is its total failure to mention the two other Obama conditions for pumping new life into the peace process. Schneider mentions only that Mideast envoy George Mitchell is returning to the region "for negotiations aimed at brokering at least a partial halt in settlement activity so that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians can resume." But the Obama-Mitchell agenda for restarting negotiations also include a couple of other confidence-building demands -- a serious start by Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel and an end to vicious anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian authority organs and media, plus a PA crackdown on terrorist cells in the West Bank.
And that remains the basic problem with the Washington Post's coverage of the conflict. Here again is a huge spread -- two third of an entire page -- on Jewish "settlements" but no corresponding coverage of a total snub of Obama by Saudi Arabia and the Arab League on thawing relations with Israel, and no in-depth coverage of Mahmoud Abbas's glorification of sucide bombers, his Fatah party's retention of its charter provision calling for the elimination of Israel, Fatah's ringing endorsement of its terrorist wing -- the Al Aqsa Marty's Brigades, and the Abbas-Fatah adherence to reactivation of a terror war against Israel whenever it suits them. These are all glaring failures to meet "road map" conditions for an eventual peace, embraced by both Bush and Obama. Yet, the Post erases them completely from its coverage, focusing again and again on West Bank "settlements" as the sole major obstacle to the peace process.