More than any other newspaper, The New York Times influences how policymakers, journalists and the general public understand important issues. Unfortunately, the Times' news reporters continue to misrepresent the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by failing to acknowledge the broad international consensus that Israel's settlements and West Bank Wall violate international law. The Times' reporters instead present Palestinian and Israeli views using a “he said, she said” formula, without an appropriate framework to help readers evaluate competing claims.
These shortcomings came to a head in an April 19 piece by Steven Erlanger, the Times' correspondent to the region, titled “Israel, on Its Own, Is Shaping the Borders of the West Bank.”
The article's thesis that “the likely impact of the provisional new border on Palestinian life is, perhaps surprisingly, smaller than generally assumed,” was essentially based on the flawed analysis of the Wall's impact by David Makovsky.
Mr. Makovsky, a former editor of the right-wing Jerusalem Post, is now a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a spinoff from the right-wing American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). On top of paraphrasing Mr. Makovsky's arguments, Mr. Erlanger quotes 144 words from Mr. Makovsky, versus only 23 words from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
“The land between the green line and the barrier is 8 percent of the West Bank,” Mr. Erlanger reported. He happily added that, “Eight percent is half of what the figure was last summer,” ignoring the reality that Palestinians don't accept Israeli annexation of any of their land.
Mr. Erlanger wrote that the revised Wall “route has sharply reduced the number of Palestinians caught inside the barrier: fewer than 10,000 of the two million Palestinians in the West Bank.” He then added caveats -- 10,000 does not include Wall impacts on 195,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the Wall has cut off most of the Palestinians' best agricultural land, and the Israeli army can completely seal off Palestinian towns like Qalqilya that the Wall nearly surrounds. Though Mr. Erlanger never admits this, these caveats add hundreds of thousands of Palestinians negatively impacted by the Wall, making Mr. Makovsky's figure of 10,000 Palestinians totally misleading.
Worse, Mr. Erlanger notes three times that Israeli annexation of 8% of the West Bank is close to the 5% that President Bill Clinton supposedly proposed in 2000. The emphasis on annexing 5% - 8% of the West Bank serves Mr. Makovsky's partisan political agenda -- lowering the bar for expectations of what constitutes a just resolution.
However, there is no justification for “lowering the bar” when international law requires that Israel withdraw from the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, analysts like Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition have explained repeatedly that Israeli annexation of a strategic 5% of the West Bank will leave Israel in control of the West Bank, and prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
What is crucial to note in all of this is that there is a widespread consensus that international law provides a viable framework to address most elements of the conflict. The Times, however, studiously and systematically avoids mentioning that international law -- even the 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the world's highest legal body -- deems the construction of the Wall on Palestinian land illegal.
After Mr. Erlanger's article, Michael Brown of Partners for Peace suggested to the Times that it note in articles that UN Security Council resolutions declare all Israeli settlements illegal. Daniel Okrent, the Times Public Editor responded in his April 24, 2005 column “The Hottest Button: How the Times Covers Israel/Palestine,” by quoting the Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner who said, “We view ourselves as neutral and unbound by such judgments. We cite them, but we do not live by them.”
Bronner's response is very telling and quite typical of the types of responses the mainstream media gives its critics when it has no answer. Instead of answering Mr. Brown's point that the Times systematically ignores UN resolutions and international law, Mr. Bronner accuses Mr. Brown of wanting the Times to “live by them,” and then proceeds to vehemently assert that the Times will not bend to doing that!
On a positive note, Mr. Okrent left the door open to improving the Times coverage of Israel/Palestine. In response to the observation that a Ramallah-based correspondent might see the conflict differently from those based in West Jerusalem, Okrent wrote, “The Times ought to give it a try.”
Readers should hold the Times to Okrent's proposal.
Ahmed Bouzid is the President of Palestine Media Watch (www.pmwatch.com), and author of Framing The Struggle: Essays on the Middle East and the US Media (Dimensions, 2003). Patrick O'Connor is a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (www.palsolidarity.org)
Other Articles by Ahmed Bouzid
Desperate Wishful Thinking on Palestine/Israel