Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East

May 31, 2007   ·   0 Comments

Source: ZNet

Israel-Palestine on Record

By Howard Friel:

Can you tell ZNet, please, what "Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East," by Howard Friel and Richard Falk, is about? What is it trying to communicate?

"Israel-Palestine on Record" (Verso, June 1, 2007) is the sequel to "The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy" (Verso, 2004). Both books examine the Times' coverage of US foreign policy and international affairs from a critical perspective grounded in international law. They try to communicate that the New York Times would improve its news reports and editorials, that is, its journalism, and thus its oversight of US foreign policy, if it integrated international law into those reports and editorials. How would that work? Let me illustrate by citing a recent statement by the Times' Ethan Bronner, who is the newspaper's top editor on the Middle East.

Bronner was interviewed recently by an English-language Arabic newspaper based in London ("Arab and American Media Bias," Asharq Alawsat, May 23, 2007). The writer of the article asked Bronner to respond to the claim in our current book that the Times ignores international law in its coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to our documented assertion that Israel's settlements in Palestinian territory violated international law. Bronner responded: "With regards to settlements, we stay away from assertions of legality on most international issues, because law is less clear about international affairs than about national affairs." First, Bronner's statement confirms what we have found, that the Times essentially ignores international law in its coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Second, since international law confers important rights to the Palestinians as occupied people, Bronner's statement implicitly concedes that the Times doesn't recognize Palestinian rights; this also confirms what we have found. Third, in the absence of recognition of Palestinian rights, the Times cannot claim to cover the conflict impartially, which it doesn't, as we have found.

The most important legal instrument that is applicable to the Israel-Palestine conflict is the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 49(6) of the Convention states: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." These nineteen words—which would easily fit into any news article or editorial in the Times—prohibit, and thus outlaw, Israel's settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. To my knowledge, the Times almost never, if ever, mentions the Fourth Geneva Convention in the context of Israel's settlements in Palestinian territory. Bronner in effect confirmed this. Every relevant international authority—the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem, in addition to virtually every UN member state (except Israel)—has affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. However, the New York Times, like Israel, simply ignores the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The journalistic implications of ignoring international law as it applies to the Israel-Palestine conflict are profound, as we demonstrate throughout our book. For example, Ethan Bronner has reviewed many books in the Times about the conflict, including a favorable review of "The Missing Peace" by Dennis Ross, which is widely viewed, including by Bronner, as the Bible on the Camp David summit in July 2000, which involved final-status peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, with the United States acting as mediator. However, Ross explains in his book that the Clinton administration, rather than acting impartially, prioritized "Israel's political needs" (as Ross put it) over Palestinian rights. Ross in fact described a tantrum thrown by President Clinton when the chief Palestinian negotiator asserted the Palestinian right to its 22 percent of historic Palestine under UN resolutions and the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank. Even though Israel enjoys a settled claim under the same criteria to 78 percent of historic Palestine, the Israelis, with US support, wanted more than that at Camp David. At the beginning of the summit, Israel sought 13 percent of the Palestinian 22 percent so it could legally annex West Bank land on which most of Israel's settlers live. Then, according to Ross, Israel reduced that demand to 9 percent of the Palestinian 22 percent (there is no documentary evidence that Israel ever significantly reduced its original demand for 13 percent). Ross and nearly everyone else spun this Israeli "concession" as a "generous" offer, and when Arafat turned it down, he was criticized for not actually wanting a peace agreement. It was virtually unreported that international law views Israel's settlements as illegal. Also unreported was the fact that, at Camp David, the Palestinians conceded Israel's claim to 78 percent of historic Palestine under UN resolutions. There were other issues involved but they were framed by the US news media in a similar fashion. None of this could have been explained without invoking international law and Palestinian rights, which explains why the Times didn't bother going into it.

In his interview with the Arabic-language newspaper, in response to our additional documented claim that the Times mostly ignores reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Bronner said, "I do not think that we view a report by a human rights organization as something we absolutely must carry." Since the human rights organizations cite Israel's settlements, in addition to its excessive use of lethal force, its targeted assassinations, house demolitions as collective punishment, and torture as violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and since the Times ignores international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, it makes sense that the Times would also ignore the human rights organizations. No one expects the Times to cover every report, but it hasn't even covered the annual reports by Amnesty International and HRW on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Palestinian terrorists also violate international humanitarian law when they kill and injure innocent and unarmed Israeli civilians. And we cite those violations, because if you apply an international law standard you have to apply it to everyone, otherwise the law is not impartial, which it must be. But Israel holds a preponderance of the power and policymaking discretion. As the occupying power, Israel holds the cards for a final peace agreement. But Israel wants more than what international law already grants, so it continues its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory while continuing to increase its illegal settlements and settler population. It is quite obvious that the details involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict are saturated in international law, but the Times ignores this fundamental aspect of the conflict. This necessarily in our view compromises its impartiality and fairness in covering the conflict.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

The content for both books comes from a lot of reading and research. Everything substantive in both books is documented.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

In terms of a contribution that the books might make, we think that international law is something that Americans should know more about because it has the potential for increasing public oversight of US foreign policy, and would help provide an essential check by the people and the press against the concentration of illicit power in the presidency. The way to authoritarianism in the United States is through the door of US foreign policy, which has too easily justified domestic constitutional excesses with "anti-communist" or "anti-terrorist" pretexts. One way to check that threat is to demand a legal US foreign policy, and a US press that weighs the legality of US policy by invoking and integrating international law into its coverage. We explain in chapter after chapter in "The Record of the Paper" how this could have and should have been done by the Times, from Vietnam to Iraq. We do the same thing in "Israel-Palestine on Record" with respect to Israel and the Palestinians. Even if you argue strictly from the perspective of the narrowly defined political needs of the United States and Israel, as Bronner and Ross have done, neither the US nor Israel makes out better with their approach. Israel is a corrupt and morally aimless state, similar to the United States, due mainly to the lawlessness and brutality of its foreign policies, which in turn must be justified and enforced domestically, one way or another. Nor has the national security of either country been enhanced by an insistence on such policies; in fact, the evidence is to the contrary.

We don't know whether the New York Times will ever use international law in the way that we recommend. But by demonstrating that it doesn't, we can show that its journalism is not impartial as it claims, does not function to deter illegal foreign policy, is not set up to help prevent the unconstitutional concentration of power in the president, and has basically failed its checks-and-balances mission as the constitutional framers and the US Supreme Court have envisioned.

Comments on "The Record of the Paper":

Noam Chomsky
There could hardly be a more critical issue today than whether the world will be governed by the rule of law or the unilateral resort to force. This closely argued and penetrating study reviews half a century of increasing contempt for law and preference for force from a dual perspective: US government policy, and "journalistic malfeasance with far-reaching implications for constitutionalism in the United States and the rule of law for our country and the world"—no exaggeration, as the authors demonstrate in meticulous detail. "The Record of the Paper" should be read and pondered carefully, and taken as a call for action by concerned citizens.

Amy Goodman
Friel and Falk provide a thorough and convincing analysis of how the New York Times advocated for the Iraq invasion, avoided dissenting views, ignored global opinion and established fact, and dismissed the relevance of international law. Perhaps most importantly, this book frames the shameful coverage of Iraq within the culture of the New York Times, with its consistent endorsement of US foreign policy from Vietnam to Nicaragua, Venezuela to Iraq. Read this book and join the fight for an independent media.


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