Ron Radosh

The NY Times Magazine's False Cover Story exposed by Sol Stern

You can count on the New York Times to continually let its readers know how Israel is the guilty party when it comes to finding out why the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fell apart. This time, its readers were given a 4700 word cover article in the paper’s Sunday magazine by Bernard Avishai, who favors the replacement of Israel by what he calls a secular “Hebrew republic” open to all who inhabit its borders, rather than the existing Jewish state. Avishai is also a “peace activist,” although the magazine does not inform his readers of this.

The heart of Avishai’s claim is that a chance recently existed “to end the Israeli occupation and found a Palestinian state.”  Its essence took place in 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister of Israel, and he and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority engaged in two-year long negotiations and made what Avishai calls “far-reaching proposals.”  As Avishai relates the story, both sides almost concluded an agreement that would have ended with a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. Abbas, he says, “had been most flexible on Israel’s security demands”; Olmert had “conceded to Abbas every major demand Palestinians had made for decades.”

So what happened? You can read Avishai’s article yourself. But the reason this agreement came to naught is simple: Israel backed out! As Avishai writes: “Olmert made his most comprehensive offer to Abbas on Sept.16,2008, the opening day of the General Assembly in New York. Abbas then ‘went silent.’” But it wasn’t his fault. Abbas was ready to resume talks, but corruption charges and the Gaza war distracted him, and he failed to send someone to a talk proposed in Washington by Condoleezza Rice. But he made it clear he was ready to continue negotiations until a settlement took place. Olmert, facing his own problems, did not respond. And then, the Netanyahu government won the Israeli election, and as we all know, the hard-line new PM is opposed to a settlement with the Palestinians.

So, Avishai argues, now is the time for President Obama to use his position to resuscitate peace talks and pick up where Olmert and Abbas left off before it is too late.

The New York Times, in running Avishai’s lead piece, and putting it online as well in its world news section, makes it clear they consider Avishai a journalist who has delivered a major scoop — the first person to present all the previously hidden details of what had ensued and had led to abandonment of the one moment that both sides had come closest to reaching a deal.

The problem is, Avishai’s article is a complete fraud! Thank God for Sol Stern, a journalist who years ago, ironically, used to write from Israel for the NYT as a special reporter, and who himself used to have feature articles in the New York Times Magazine. But that was decades ago, when Stern was on the political left and was an editor of Ramparts magazine. Now he is a conservative working at the Manhattan Institute; the New York Times is not exactly knocking at his door.

Writing today at Jewish Ideas Daily, a relatively new website edited by former Commentary editor-in-chief Neal Kozodoy, Sol Stern demolishes Avishai’s article, and  not only makes mincemeat of it, but embarrasses the editors of the magazine for even having run the article in the first place, since, as he proves, there is nothing new in it and, as Stern writes, “what’s new isn’t true.”

What Sol Stern has produced is nothing less than a tour de force. His article should be mandatory reading in journalism schools for how the mainstream media gets things wrong, and especially how what was once the paper of record does so. First, Stern shows that Avishai’s narrative appeared January 27 in a supposed scoop by Ethan Bronner, who wrote that progress towards peace was stopped when the new “hard-line” government of Benjamin Netanyahu took over.  Bronner based his article on an interview that none other than Bernard Avishai had conducted with Olmert and Abbas earlier. Now, a short time later, “the paper has twice put its weight behind pieces of copycat journalism that…happen to fortify its own editorial position” on the so-called peace process.

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?

Stern concludes:

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.

UPDATE: It has just come to my attention that an article which appeared in The Australian in January 2009 completely confirms Sol Stern’s analysis of the Bernard Avishai article. Written by the paper’s foreign  editor, Greg Sheridan, it relates what he was told by the former Israeli PM while he visited Sydney that month.

According to what Ehud Olmert told Sheridan, the fault for his proposals going nowhere lay entirely with the Palestinians. Sheridan called his interview the longest undertaken by Olmert with any media since he had left office.

Sheridan asked Olmert “to compare the failure of Abbas to conclude a peace agreement with him, with the opportunity Yasser Arafat passed up at Camp  David in 2000.” Olmert responded that while Arafat “never wanted to make peace with Israel,” and was a “murderer and terrorist,” Abbas “wants peace.” He stressed that Netanyahu also does and  “is not an obstacle to peace,” but is rightfully “worried about security.”

“Olmert’s term in office,” Sheridan writes, “is best remembered for the extensive negotiations, and final peace offer that he undertook with Abbas.” He continues to write that “Olmert explains this position to me in unprecedented detail. Can the Palestinian leadership ever accept any offer that an Israeli prime minister could ever reasonably make?”

The first thing that is clear is that Avishai has produced an article with nothing new in it. How could the editors at the NYT not know about this article, which a simple Google search or Lexis/Nexis search would have immediately revealed? Here is what Sheridan writes:

It is important to get Olmert’s full account of this offer on the record: “From the end of 2006 until the end of 2008 I think I met with Abu Mazen more often than any Israeli leader has ever met any Arab leader. I met him more than 35 times. They were intense, serious negotiations.”

These negotiations took place on two tracks, Olmert says. One was the meetings with the two leaders and their senior colleagues and aides (among them Kadima leader Tzipi Livni on Olmert’s side). But Olmert would also have private, one-on-one meetings with Abbas.

“On the 16th of September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan. It was based on the following principles.

One, there would be a territorial solution to the conflict on the basis of the 1967 borders with minor modifications on both sides. Israel will claim part of the West Bank where there have been demographic changes over the last 40 years.”

This approach by Olmert would have allowed Israel to keep the biggest Jewish settlement blocks which are mainly now suburbs of Jerusalem, but would certainly have entailed other settlers having to leave Palestinian territory and relocate to Israel.

In total, Olmert says, this would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 per cent of Palestinian territory in the West Bank: “It might be a fraction more, it might be a fraction less, but in total it would be about 6.4 per cent. Israel would claim all the Jewish areas of Jerusalem. All the lands that before 1967 were buffer zones between the two populations would have been split in half. In return there would be a swap of land (to the Palestinians) from Israel as it existed before 1967.

So what happened as a result? Here is what Olmert told Sheridan, a conclusion that is a bombshell, because it is the refutation of everything in the NYT Magazine article:

Olmert says he showed Abbas a map, which embodied all these plans. Abbas wanted to take the map away. Olmert agreed, so long as they both signed the map. It was, from Olmert’s point of view, a final offer, not a basis for future negotiation. But Abbas could not commit. Instead, he said he would come with experts the next day.

“He (Abbas) promised me the next day his adviser would come. But the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said we forgot we are going to Amman today, let’s make it next week. I never saw him again.”

Olmert told Abbas that this was a major opportunity. He told him: ‘This is the offer. Sign it and we can immediately get support from America, from Europe, from all over the world.’ I told him he’d never get anything like this again from an Israeli leader for 50 years.” Olmert added that we should today ask Abbas to respond to this plan, and if they refuse, “there’s no point negotiating.”

Sheridan asks: “If the Palestinian leadership cannot accept this offer, can they accept any realistic offer? Do they have the machinery to run a state? Is their society too dysfunctional and filled with anti-Semitic propaganda to live in peace next to the Jewish state?” He asked these questions of Olmert, who reiterated that “I never received a positive response from them. I think it’s up to them to prove the point.”

So I ask the editors of the New York Times Magazine the following question. How come you did not know about this lengthy interview, which contradicts all of Avishai’s claims? If you did know about the Sheridan interview with Olmert, is it not the Times’ responsibility to let its readers know about what Olmert had told him, in as great a detail as anything he said later to Bernard Avishai?

We are waiting for an answer.