Avishai’s new article, however, is supposed to be a fuller account as well as authoritative. Stern writes:
In self-aggrandizing mode, Avishai touts his “exclusive” revelations as themselves constituting a new opportunity for peace—particularly, he pointedly adds, if President Obama now steps into the breach, picks up where the Israelis and Palestinians left off more than two years ago, and with the aid of the international community pushes through a deal that Israel has no choice but to accept. Otherwise, Avishai quotes a frustrated Abbas as saying, “If nothing happens, I will take a very, very painful decision. Don’t ask me about it.”
Stern continues to write that the details about the Olmert offer to Abbas in September 2008 are actually old news, having appeared elsewhere in major newspapers and magazines three times earlier. Stern himself conducted one of the interviews with Olmert, who told him that Abbas had broken a promise to return for further discussions, and that he had never heard from him since. He continues to write:
Thus, contrary to the Times’ assertion that Olmert has revealed exclusive new information to Avishai, it is abundantly clear that the former Israeli prime minister, widely despised at home and desperate to remain relevant, started blabbing about his negotiations with Abbas over a year and a half ago to anybody who would listen.
I guess that to the NYT’s editors, until the same story is in their paper, it is not new and is not news. But as Stern points out, the other problems are the falsehoods in Avishai’s article. Here is the most important one:
The most significant concerns Avishai’s effort to create a plausible cover story absolving Abbas of responsibility for walking away from yet another ostensibly golden opportunity to win a Palestinian state—just as Yasir Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor, walked away from Bill Clinton’s offer of a state at the 2000 Camp David talks, and at a similar moment when the two sides were supposedly within an inch of an agreement. Without any qualification, Avishai simply accepts at face value Abbas’s transparently self-serving claim that the reasons the negotiation with Olmert didn’t continue after September 2008 were the start of the Gaza war and his good friend Olmert’s preoccupation with his legal troubles. In other words, it was Israel’s fault.
The truth is, as Stern shows, that this is “pure hokum.” The Gaza war was not on Israel’s horizon until three months after the final Olmert-Abbas meeting. Moreover, Olmert’s legal problems would have made Olmert more willing, not less, to bolster his reputation and credibility by producing a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians. The real reason the negotiations failed is simple. Stern nails it: “In actuality, there is only one plausible reason for Abbas’s failure to return to discuss the issue of borders. It is that the PA president could not and cannot ever allow himself to announce to the Palestinian refugees and their myriad descendants that their 60-year-old dream of returning to their homes in Israel is over.”
Stern is referring to the so-called “right of return,” which no Palestinian negotiator has ever been willing to abandon nor tell his constituency that it will not happen. When I spoke with Saeb Erekat three years ago , the man who has just resigned as chief negotiator for the PA after holding the position for decades, he said that peace would be simple to achieve. He then firmly declared that he and any other Palestinian would never compromise on the “right of return.”
Finally, Stern notes that Olmert has now changed what he tells reporters from what he told them a year earlier. In saying that they were really close to an agreement, Olmert, Stern writes, is making a claim that “is completely contrary to his statement to me in 2009 that he was dismayed by Abbas’s decision to break off negotiations and go silent—an obvious sign that Abbas was nowhere near close to a deal, let alone very close.” Whom do you trust, Olmert to journalists soon after the negotiations ended, or Olmert today, who needs to tell a different version to get noticed and to seem relevant?
Now the Times has made up for the lack by letting Abbas lay the blame on Israel’s present government, thus tacitly endorsing the paper’s own spin on the peace process. It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. Delusions of “peace,” it seems, can have a similarly debilitating effect on political leaders, the journalists who write about them, and the editors of influential newspapers.
In any other time, responsible editors would have spiked Avishai’s article. If they ran it, major magazines would run a dissection of it such as the one Stern has written. Clearly, the magazine ran an article that reaffirms the paper’s editorial views, thus further erasing the difference between objective reporting and the editorial division of the paper. Don’t hold your breath for the Columbia Journalism Review to cover this. Send Sol Stern’s article around, and let’s use the internet to embarrass the New York Times and to let its readers learn the truth.