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For almost two years, the mainstream media have repeated the notion that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a “generous” offer to Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. With little or no analysis of what constituted this “generous” offer, media outlets in the US created a self-fulfilling prophecy about Barak’s proposals. The durability of this unfounded characterization is testament to the power of the mainstream media to construct reality.
Journalist or Spokesperson?
Lally Weymouth, journalist and commentator for Newsweek and the Washington Post, softballed Barak in an interview: “You offered Arafat a generous deal at the Camp David summit last July. Why is he turning to violence?” (Newsweek, 10/23/00). (Weymouth, it should be noted, is the daughter of late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, part of the family that owns Newsweek.) While Weymouth’s loaded “so when did he stop beating his wife?” style of questioning was critiqued by a sole letter writer three weeks later (Newsweek, 11/13/00), it was even more apparent in an interview with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in March 2001. “It appears that Barak made Arafat an extraordinary offer: a Palestinian state in all of Gaza, 95 percent of the West Bank, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an international presence in the Jordan valley. Why didn’t he take it?” Sounding more like a spokesperson for the Israeli government than an objective American journalist, Weymouth continued with a string of loaded questions: “Whether it was 90 or 95 percent it was still, in my view, a very generous offer that Barak made, and an offer that won’t come again for a long time,” “There were billions of dollars in international aid that would have accompanied the package. And now, what has Arafat produced for his people after all these years?” “But why can’t Arafat ever take responsibility for anything?” “Many in the United States now believe that Arafat never wanted a deal. Is this so?” and “Couldn’t he have accepted [the ‘generous offer’] if he wanted to?” (Newsweek, 3/31/01).
Undeterred by time-honored standards of journalistic impartiality, Weymouth, in an interview with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, began sounding like a broken record: “Speaking of the peace process, didn’t you think that former Israeli prime minister Barak made a generous offer last year to the Palestinian Authority, and that Arafat made a mistake by rejecting it?” (Newsweek, 3/31/01).
Comparatives and Superlatives
In its “conventional wisdom” section, Newsweek (10/23/00) offered this aphorism: “Barak_Went extra mile for peace and punished for it. His new offer won’t be half as generous.” A few months later, Barak’s offer was “more generous than any made by previous Israeli leaders” (Newsweek, 2/6/01). While this thought may be conventional, it is hardly wisdom. Many other media sources echoed this “comparative view”_the notion that Barak’s offer was “more” generous than any that the Israelis had, or were likely ever again to, put on the table_taking it to the superlative. The Los Angeles Times cited “independent experts” who said Barak’s plan was “the most generous ever proposed by an Israeli leader to the Palestinians” (7/16/00), and that “the Israeli prime minister brought to the summit the most generous package ever offered by Israel to the Palestinians” (7/23/00). “[The] Israeli government [is] willing to offer the most generous compromise terms possible under current political circumstances,” argued a New York Times editorial (9/30/00). Commentator Jim Hoagland wrote of “the most generous peace terms ever contemplated by an Israeli leader” (Washington Post, 12/3/00). The problem with such comparisons is that they are objectively true_the supposed offer was indeed the “most” generous the Palestinians could expect from the intransigent and begrudging Israelis.
The Adverb and the Adjective
While most mainstream media stories repeated the idea of a “generous” offer, there were many for whom this adjective was too weak, and in need of further modification. In a Los Angeles Times commentary (7/9/00), Yossi Klein Halevi, wrote of the “astonishingly generous compromise” of control of Jerusalem. “Israeli critics simply find that plan recklessly generous” concluded a Washington Post editorial (7/11/00). George Will agreed that the offer was indeed “recklessly generous” (Newsweek, 4/8/02), which, ironically, would make him an “Israeli critic” to his colleagues at the Post. U.S. News & World Report told of “extremely generous” “concessions [that were] dramatic” (7/24/00). Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), speaking to the Los Angeles Times (10/15/00), chided Arab leaders for not “expressing support for the incredibly generous proposals Barak made.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer gushed, “Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians an astonishingly generous peace”(10/13/00). Later that month, Krauthammer would qualify the “peace” still further: Barak offered Arafat a generous final peace_and Arafat told him to go to hell” (10/27/00). Now, the offer was not only “generous,” it was also “final.” A Washington Post article paraphrased Israeli Jews, who felt that “Barak had offered breathtakingly generous terms to Arafat at the Camp David negotiations (10/31/00). Time (10/23/00) chimed in: “Barak felt he was going way beyond his own political brief when he proffered what Israelis considered a dangerously generous proposal.” During the February 2001 Israeli elections, the Los Angeles Times reported that many Israelis “reject Barak because they believe that he made overly generous offers to Palestinians” (2/5/01). Stephen S. Rosenfeld wrote in the Washington Post that “many, with reason, found [Barak’s bargaining] unprecedentedly generous to Palestinians” (5/3/01). Los Angeles Times commentator Uri Dromi laments the Palestinians’ “rejection of Ehud Barak’s unbelievably generous offers and their current violent conduct” (6/17/01). Another Los Angeles Times commentator, Walter Reich, speaks of the “daringly generous territorial offer” at Camp David (12/7/01). The use of such words as “astonishingly,” “recklessly,” “extremely,” “incredibly,” “breathtakingly,” “dangerously,” “overly,” “unprecedentedly,” “unbelievably,” and “daringly” is no accident. They are intended to leave the impression that it would be impossible to reason with anyone who had “rejected” such extreme “generosity.”
Not “Generous”; Not Even an “Offer”
Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the Camp David talks received almost no attention in any mainstream American media, print or broadcast. Referred to, only recently, in one letter to an American newspaper (Rocky Mountain News, 6/3/02), the essay, “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” appeared in the New York Review of Books (8/9/2001). (There was no mention of the article on any news broadcast). It was written by two high-level negotiators at the 2000 Camp David summit: Robert Malley, special White House assistant on Arab-Israeli affairs, and Hussein Agha, an Oxford senior research associate and an adviser to the Palestinian delegation. Malley and Agha talk of how Barak’s offer_far from being “generous”_was actually a reneging on interim agreements already made by Israel. “Unfulfilled interim obligations did more than cast doubt on Israel’s intent to deliver; in Arafat’s eyes, they directly affected the balance of power that was to prevail once permanent status negotiations commenced,” i.e., it was difficult to trust the “generosity” of Barak when his failure to abide by previous agreements made the Palestinians feel bullied. In addition, Malley and Agha recount how the Palestinians requested_in accord with an offer made by Clinton_that “the US remain neutral in the event the summit failed and not blame the Palestinians.”
Malley and Agha, echoing the silence in almost all of the mainstream media, fail to mention, however, that the use of the term “generous” in describing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is rather odious. If a terrorist gives up four hostages instead of three, few would call it “more generous.” The Taliban’s offer to turn over Osama bin-Laden to a third party_if the US would provide evidence of his involvement in the September 11 attacks (New York Times, 9/18/01)_was not considered “generous.” When, during his occupation of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein floated offers of a withdrawal in exchange for certain territorial concessions on the Persian Gulf (New York Times, 1/11/91) certainly no one in the American media called it “generous.” In other words, Israel meeting its obligations under international law (such as Security Council Resolution 242, which emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” and specifically called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the” 1967 war) is no more “generous” than anyone who refrains from breaking the law. Indeed, that is the least expected of a civilized individual or nation.
Perhaps most instructive as to why this cogent analysis fell under the media radar is its contention, not only with the terming of Barak’s offer as “generous,” but also with the idea that it was any kind of an “offer” at all. “Had any member of the US peace team been asked to describe Barak’s true positions before or even during Camp David_indeed, were any asked that question today_they would be hard-pressed to answer. . . . The tension, and the ambiguity, were always there. . . . The final and largely unnoticed consequence of Barak’s approach is that, strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer.” This, then, is the true genius of the rhetorical construction of Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David. Not only was the offer not generous, there was never even an offer to be so described.
“Generous” implies the giving of a gift, or the relinquishing of a right. “Generous” might better describe the relationship between the American media, the US government and its favored ally, Israel. What is “generous” is continued US support for Israel, for which the US seems to seek nothing in return, not even compliance with American law which requires American military aid not be used to violate human rights. Now that’s generosity.