Whatever Abbas wants, Abbas gets at the NY Times

The latest twist in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a series of five meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jordan.  The sessions were far from full-fledged negotiations; they were preliminary contacts, with each side expected to present  opening proposals.  By all accounts, very little was accomplished and it's not clear at all that these contacts will succeed in paving the way for serious negotiations.

By now, the positions of the two parties about negotiations is well known and don't seem to have changed as a result of the Amman contacts.  For more than a year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged immediate talks on all outstanding issues -- without pre-conditions.   And during the same span of time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has balked at negotiations, demanding  that they first be preceded by a permanent Israeli construction freeze in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, plus an Israeli agreement to negotiate borders on the basis of the 1967 lines.

Israel obliged two years ago with a 10-month construction halt, but that failed to entice Abbas to come to the negotiating table.  The Palestinian leader seems determined to exact major one-sided Israeli concessions -- including borders that satisfy the Palestinians -- as the price for resumption of negotiations.   Not only won't Israel accept such pre-conditions, but Israel in this instance is also backed by the so-called Quartet of international mediators -- the U.S., the EU, the UN and Russia -- who likewise insist on negotiations without pre-conditions.

So, with exploratory talks apparently nearing an end, how does the New York Times update its readers?   Does it give equal weight to Israeli and Palestinian positions?  Unfortunately not.

In a dispatch from Ramallah, Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner makes it clear that what really counts is what Abbas demands.  His conditions, in her way of reporting, trump Israel's agenda and interests.  Thus, the top of her article is all about Abbas's next moves, while Netanyahu gets only a belated, cursory mention far down in her piece. ("Palestinians And Israelis Don't Agree On New Talks" Jan. 26, page A7)

Kershner's lead focuses exclusively on Abbas -- his declaration that exploratory talks are over and he now will consult with the Arab League about how to proceed further.   Having given Abbas top billing, Kershner adds, also high up in the third paragraph, that Palestinian officials reported little or no progress in the latest meetings, while complaining that Israel is not proceeding according to their demands.

With stalemate looming, Kershner continues to trot out her pro-Palestinian brief, suggesting that Israel should try to break the ice with unilateral, confidence-building measures, including release of some Palestinian prisoners.

Times readers then are treated to a quote from Abbas, grandly suggesting that "if we can demarcate the borders, we can return to negotiations, but Israel does not want to do that."

It is not until the end of a lengthy eighth paragraph that Kershner briefly mentions Israel's insistence on "negotiations with no pre-conditions."

And it is not until the 11th paragraph that Netanyahu makes an appearance with a tepid quote that Israel is trying to continue the talks.   Netanyahu's repeated offers for direct negotiations are completely ignored.  With Kershner, it's not what Bibi does or wants, it's what Abbas wants that matters.

As she makes clear in her last paragraph in which she sympathizes with Abbas for having to cope with criticism from his own side about even agreeing to the preliminary talks in Jordan "without longstanding conditions having been met."

In Kershner's reporting, Abbas is not a weak, vacillating leader, unable or unwilling to enter serious negotiations.  In her spin, Abbas is a brave martyr.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers