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Just How Much Does The New York Times Tilt Towards Israel; and How Much Does It Matter?

the Israeli Tilt

by Kathleen Christison Former CIA Political Analyst

It won’t surprise anyone, I’m sure, that I think New York Times coverage of Arab–Israeli and particularly Palestinian–Israeli issues–taking into account all types of coverage, from straight news reporting, to analysis, to editorial/op–ed coverage–tilts distinctly toward Israel. This is noticeable to a limited extent with straight news coverage, much more obvious with analysis, and very evident with editorial and op–ed coverage. Often this is a matter simply of reporting or analyzing from an Israeli perspective, without taking the Palestinian perspective into account–as if all reporting from Israel and about Israelis is essentially reporting on “us” and on concerns in which we the readers are vitally interested, whereas reporting on Palestinians is about a different, foreign people and therefore of much less interest.

This occurs, for instance, when we’re treated to frequent features on the personal and psychological impact of suicide bombings on Israelis but seldom see stories about the impact on Palestinians of the occupation and all its aspects–the civilian deaths, the roadblocks, the land confiscation, the curfews, the depredations by settlers, the shootings by soldiers, the destruction of olive groves, etc., etc. Times reporters seem to spend little time in the West Bank and Gaza–less and less as Israel tightens its control over these territories–and as a result there is relatively little reporting on the situation there. Even the stories about Israel’s July 22 missile attack in Gaza that killed 14 innocent civilians were filed from Jerusalem, not from Gaza.

Imbalance in news coverage is chiefly a matter of omission rather than commission, as the examples above show. Since the beginning of the intifada almost two years ago, the Times has only rarely given casualty totals for Palestinians and Israelis–one suspects because Palestinian deaths outnumber Israeli deaths by about three to one, which makes it difficult to portray Israel as the party under siege. Times editorialists never saw fit to comment on the July 22 Israeli missile attack on Gaza, although they generally do run editorials decrying large Palestinian terrorist attacks.

The Times also seldom uses the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s 35–year–old rule over the West Bank and Gaza, seldom describes East Jerusalem as occupied territory, seldom informs readers that the 200,000 Israelis who live in East Jerusalem are settlers who reside not in “neighborhoods” or in “suburbs” of Jerusalem but in settlements built on land confiscated from Palestinians, seldom reports on the steady expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, and seldom indicates that the intifada is an uprising against Israel’s occupation.

A comparison of Times news reporting with Washington Post reporting shows the Post to be far superior in its on–the–ground coverage. Whereas Times reporters seem usually to file their West Bank and Gaza stories from Jerusalem, Post reporters generally write them directly from the West Bank or Gaza. Post stories are for the most part broader in scope, more in–depth, more probing, and more balanced than Times articles. Post reporters tend to get “down and dirty,” more often reporting the grim realities of Palestinian life under occupation, more often following Israeli soldiers as they blow in doorways and walls in house–to–house searches in refugee camps, more often catching the uncomfortable realities of Israel’s occupation practices, such as sniper shootings of rock–throwing Palestinian teenagers.

Whereas the Times only rarely reports casualty figures, the Post did so with some regularity until Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank in April. It is unclear whether Post reporting on deaths has dropped off because numbers became much harder to track during that month–long siege, or because the Post, and all other papers, have begun to receive much heavier criticism from Israeli supporters in recent months, and all print and electronic media are on the defensive. The Post’s employment of an ombudsman–veteran reporter Michael Getler–although not a key to perfection, helps keep the paper more nearly honest. Getler writes a weekly column, which he frequently devotes to a thorough analysis and questioning of Post reporting from the Middle East.

Analytical reporting in both the Post and the Times is spotty. In the Times, analysis, which is usually done by the paper’s best diplomatic correspondents, often indicates at least a mild bias, usually in the form of an inability to fathom where the Palestinians are coming from and what the Palestinian perspective is. One gets the impression that few if any Times correspondents understand what drives the intifada or accept that there is any legitimacy to Palestinian resistance to the occupation. For instance, in October 2000, during the first few days of the intifada, Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrated in solidarity with West Bank–Gaza Palestinians, who at that point were being killed in very large numbers by Israeli soldiers, and during the demonstrations Israeli police shot to death 13 Israeli Palestinians.

In an analysis of the nationalistic reaction to the intifada throughout the Arab world written two weeks into the intifada, Judith Miller wrote that the “rift between Israeli Jews and the Arab citizens of Israel” was another “profound emotional scar” left by the violence. Her evidence of the “emotional scar” was that Israeli Jews “were horrified by the ferocity of this uprising, which closed off large sections of their country, and by the ‘Death to the Jews’ slogans chanted by the Arab protesters.” She made no mention of an emotional scar for Israeli Palestinians, no mention at all of the fact that 13 unarmed Israeli–Palestinian demonstrators had recently been shot to death, no mention that Israeli police had never in Israel’s history opened fire on demonstrators when they were Israeli Jews, and no mention of the fact that Israeli Jewish demonstrators had chanted “Death to Arabs” during demonstrations at the same time.

More recently, on July 14, 2002, Serge Schmemann wrote a brief essay accompanying pictures of several West Bank Palestinians who described their frustration with U.S. policy. (A 12–year–old boy, for instance, says that he likes Americans when they support Palestinians, but then he notes that Colin Powell came to visit Yasir Arafat and “said something about” a Palestinian state but then did nothing. A taxi driver who had been waiting for hours for Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint to return his ID papers, said he blames everybody for the situation, including the Palestinian Authority, and feels that the U.S. gave the green light to Israel to continue the occupation.) Under a headline that does sympathetically acknowledge the Palestinians’ “deep despair,” Schmemann seems to give them the back of his hand by concluding his essay this way: “It is easy to argue with these voices, to recite the litany of Mr. Arafat’s failings and lost opportunities. Perhaps it is useful, though, to simply hear them” [my emphasis]. If Schmemann didn’t actually mean to be patronizing, as this sounds, then he must have felt it necessary to apologize for letting Palestinians speak their minds.

One other example of the failure of Times correspondents to understand–even to fathom — the Arab and Palestinian perspective: on March 3, 2002, diplomatic correspondent Elaine Sciolino ran a long article on the mood in Saudi Arabia and appeared on C–SPAN that morning to talk about it. On C–SPAN, she said she had been quite surprised during a three–week trip to Saudi Arabia to discover how much all levels of Saudi society focused on the Palestinian situation. It amazed her, she said, how very much the Palestinian crisis dominated Saudi conversation, and how the crisis informed their thinking about the U.S. because the U.S. armed Israel. It also surprised her, she said, that television pictures of Israelis attacking Palestinians appear all the time in Saudi Arabia [her emphasis]. She repeatedly emphasized her amazement at this discovery, and the tenor of the article was similar, although a little less obviously surprised. The article spoke of seeing television footage of “the Palestinian interpretation of the intifada,” by which Sciolino meant that the pictures were one–sided, showing Israeli soldiers firing into crowds and dead Palestinian babies but no Palestinian suicide bombers or Israeli bombing victims.

What’s most amazing about Sciolino’s discoveries was not that the Saudis were concerned about the Palestinian plight, but that Sciolino was surprised to discover that they were. No media person and no one as well informed and savvy as Sciolino should ever have been surprised that the Arab man in the street sees frequent television pictures of Palestinians being beaten and shot by Israelis and that this arouses genuine anger on behalf of the Palestinians. This is an appalling level of obliviousness and denial. The Times understands historic Jewish fears and the impact these have on American Jews when they see Israelis under attack, but it generally isn’t able to apply this same level of understanding to Arabs and their sense of solidarity with fellow Arabs under attack.

Times editorials, columns, and the selection of op–ed articles are far more blatant in their tilt toward Israel. In an article in Roane Carey’s The New Intifada, Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish described the tilt of editorials and op–eds run during the first four months of the intifada. Of 15 editorials on the conflict, they labeled 14 as pro–Israeli and one as neutral because it focused on internal Israeli politics and made no mention of Palestinians. Of 33 op–eds, 25 were pro–Israeli, six were pro–Palestinian, and two were sensitive to both sides. (The Post doesn’t come off any better in its editorial coverage. Abunimah and Ibish found that of 13 Post editorials in the same period, 12 were strongly pro–Israeli, the remaining one neutral. Of 27 op–ed articles, 20 were pro–Israeli, five were sympathetic to the Palestinians, and two were sensitive to both sides.) Times editorial writers have criticized Israel for settlement construction and harsh practices in the West Bank and Gaza, but in the two years since the Camp David summit collapsed–years that have seen the outbreak of the intifada, a steady escalation in Palestinian violence, an increase in suicide bombings, Israel’s complete termination of the negotiating process six months after Camp David, the election of hardliner Sharon, the collapse of various cease–fire and negotiating plans such as Mitchell and Tenet, a campaign of Israeli assassinations of Palestinians, the reoccupation and siege of the civilian population of the West Bank, the destruction of the Palestinian civil infrastructure–Times editorials have concentrated the burden of blame for all turmoil almost entirely on Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians.

Arafat alone was blamed for the collapse of Camp David, Arafat has been blamed for provoking Israel into taking harsh measures during the intifada, Arafat and the Palestinians are blamed for escalating violence. In an August 2001 editorial, the Times declared that both sides needed to work to contain the violence and that their mutual goal should be “to create a calm enough atmosphere to take the first steps toward resumed negotiations.” Getting to that point would, in the Times’s view, require two things: that Arafat show “more responsible behavior” and that Israel be willing to recognize that “for now he [Arafat] is the only realistic Palestinian negotiating partner.” In other words, Israel need do nothing except grin and bear Arafat; all real concessions and good behavior had to come from Arafat. The usual presuppositions were at work here: Israelis always show responsible behavior and don’t need the admonition given Arafat, and, unlike Palestinians, Israelis obviously always desire “a calm enough atmosphere to take the first steps toward resumed negotiations.”

The Times demonstrated its unbalanced approach most noticeably in July 2001 in its commentary on a major one–year–later retrospective on the Camp David summit published by Jerusalem bureau chief Deborah Sontag. In a striking–and, one must assume, deliberate–effort to maintain its own blame–Arafat position on Camp David, a Times editorial on the Sontag story undermined Sontag by contradicting her principal conclusion. Having done extensive interviews with Israeli, Palestinian, and American participants in the summit and in–depth analysis of what went wrong, Sontag concluded that Arafat was by no means solely to blame for the summit’s collapse and that all three parties were responsible, more or less equally, for mistakes made over the entire seven years of the peace process. A “potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold” in Israel and the United States, Sontag wrote. “It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then ‘pushed the button’ and chose the path of violence.” But officials to whom she spoke had concluded that the dynamic was actually far more complex than this, that Arafat did not bear sole or even a disproportionate share of the responsibility. In fact, Sontag concluded, Barak did not offer Arafat the moon at Camp David but rather proposed a solution that might have been generous and even politically courageous in Israeli terms, but that would not have given the Palestinians what they regarded as a viable state.

Rather than accept Sontag’s considered assessment of where responsibility lay, a Times editorial two days later persisted in praising Barak and blaming Arafat. Barak had come to Camp David, the editorial proclaimed, “with a daring offer, a peace plan that essentially vaulted over the interim steps outlined under the Oslo accords.Mr. Barak gambled that Mr. Arafat would accept his approach.” But, the editorial contended, Arafat was not up to the task, acted too hesitantly, did not offer any proposals of his own, and condoned and, it’s implied, stirred up “the violent uprising” that erupted two months later. Words and phrases like “daring,” “vaulted,” and “condoned the violent uprising” set the tone here. The editorial is saying that, despite what Sontag wrote, Barak did offer Arafat the moon, and Arafat was solely responsible for letting it all fall apart. (Interestingly, Sontag left Jerusalem after this article was published. She’s still with the Times and occasionally writes for the Magazine, but I can’t help wondering if she got kicked upstairs, or aside, or something. Maybe she intended to leave anyway; this article would have been a great swan song. But maybe it turned into a swan song after the Times editors decided they didn’t like it, or after they received complaints from pro–Israeli, anti–Arafat readers?)

The story of what actually transpired at Camp David, unearthed by Sontag a year after the fact, is also an indictment of the U.S. media, including particularly the Times. By unquestioningly accepting the U.S.–Israeli version of Camp David, which from the moment it ended placed the entire responsibility for failure on Arafat, the media made a very serious political and diplomatic miscalculation that has had far–reaching consequences. As Rob Malley, an American diplomat who participated in the summit and has written extensively on it since, wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, “The one–sided account that was set in motion in the wake of Camp David has had devastating effects–on Israeli public opinion as well as on US foreign policy,” setting in train a string of misperceptions that add up to a mythology about the Palestinians’ supposed inability to make peace.

Malley puts it this way: “Barak’s assessment that the talks failed because Yasser Arafat cannot make peace with Israel and that his answer to Israel’s unprecedented offer was to resort to terrorist violence has become central to the argument that Israel is in a fight for its survival against those who deny its very right to exist. So much of what is said and done today derives from and is justified by that crude appraisal. First, Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leaders must be supplanted before a meaningful peace process can resume, since they are the ones who rejected the offer. Second, the Palestinians’ use of violence has nothing to do with ending the occupation since they walked away from the possibility of reaching that goal at the negotiating table.And, finally, Israel must crush the Palestiniansif an agreement is ever to be reached.”

Although Israel and the U.S., and most especially President Bill Clinton and his Middle East advisers, are responsible for starting up this body of myths by stridently playing the blame game and loudly trumpeting Arafat’s “sole responsibility” for Camp David’s failure, the media–and the Times as the leading U.S. newspaper–bear an equal or nearly equal share of the responsibility for buying into this line without questioning, without investigating, without ever wondering if there might be something self–serving in the U.S. and Israeli versions of the story.

Deborah Sontag did a good job of research and in–depth analysis in publishing her story, but it should not have taken a year to get the real story. It was there to be ferreted out much earlier from the Palestinian press, the Israeli press, various Internet websites, and the numerous officials on all sides who were at Camp David, but no U.S. media organ was interested. It should have been obvious from day one that there was something not quite straight in the tales of Barak’s great readiness to compromise versus Arafat’s total stone–walling. No negotiation is ever that black and white. But the mindset and the body of assumptions from which the media and U.S. policymakers have always approached this issue blinded correspondents and commentators to what was actually going on.

Thomas Friedman’s commentaries, perhaps more even than the Times editorial line, determine the impressions gained by Times readers of what’s involved in the conflict, who’s responsible for its continuation, and where it’s headed. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of Friedman’s writings since Camp David, but suffice it to say that he has in repeated columns over two years obsessively heaped blame on Arafat and the Palestinians (taking the line that the intifada proves that Palestinians cannot make peace and want to destroy Israel) and seriously distorted what Israel offered at Camp David (repeating the fiction that Barak offered “95% of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem, with all the settlements gone,” never mentioning that the resulting so–called “state” would have been broken up into several non–contiguous parts).

Friedman likes to blame Arafat for “provoking the Israelis into brutalizing Palestinians” and for provoking the “ritual sacrifice” of Palestinian children: “The Palestinians seem to have no qualms about putting up their youths to be shot at.” He adds that Israelis seem to have no qualms about shooting at Palestinians, but it’s clear that in his book the basic fault lies with the Palestinians. This is the way Middle East policy is often made in Washington–through the commentary of leading opinion–molders like Friedman and Times editorialists who spout distortions like these all the time and whose critical position at the center of public discourse enables them both to influence public thinking and at the same time to reflect that thinking upward to policymakers.

Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story,” was published in March 2002. Both Kathy and her husband Bill, also a former CIA analyst, are regular contributors to the CounterPunch website.