Obama’s Letter, Netanyahu’s Rejection And The Media’s Non-Response
Following Israel’s capture of the West Bank in 1967, along with other territories including East Jerusalem, Israel has built and expanded Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The settlers enjoy the benefits of a separate, and far superior, civilian infrastructure to nearby Palestinian communities, and they are protected at great expense by the Israeli military. Under international law, the settlements are illegal. But despite private agreements with the US to rein in growth, Israel has continued the non-stop expansion of its illegal settlements. While the public stance of the United States is that it does not recognise “the international legitimacy” of the settlements, Washington has in practice provided decades-long support for Israeli policy.
Earlier this week, independent journalist Jonathan Cook reported facts that blow a hole through the standard deceit that the United States is an “honest broker” for peace in the Middle East. (Jonathan Cook, ‘Obama's Cave-In to Israel’, Counterpunch, 4 October, 2010; http://www.counterpunch.org/cook10042010.html). As Cook explains, details were leaked of a letter sent by US President Barack Obama to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister:
“Obama made a series of extraordinarily generous offers to Israel, many of them at the expense of the Palestinians, in return for a single minor concession from Netanyahu: a two-month extension of the partial freeze on settlement growth.”
The previous 10-month freeze on settlement growth in the West Bank, which has just ended, has not so far been renewed by Israel. This obduracy threatens to bring the negotiations to an abrupt halt. This was the deadlock that Obama’s letter was supposedly designed to break.
Netanyahu reportedly declined the US offer, while Washington denies that a letter was ever sent. But according to the Israeli media, US officials in Washington are “incensed” by Netanyahu’s rejection.
As Cook notes, the disclosures were made by an informed source: David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a close associate of Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief adviser on the Middle East, who is said to have initiated the offer.
“In return for a two-month extension of the settlement moratorium, the US promised to veto any UN Security Council proposal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the next year, and committed to not seek any further extensions of the freeze. The future of the settlements would be addressed only in a final agreement.
“The US would also allow Israel to keep a military presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, even after the creation of a Palestinian state; continue controlling the borders of the Palestinian territories to prevent smuggling; provide Israel with enhanced weapons systems, security guarantees and increase its billions of dollars in annual aid; and create a regional security pact against Iran.”
The Palestinian leadership, observes Cook, is certain to draw three major conclusions “from this attempt at deal-making over its head.”
“The first is that the US president, much like his predecessors, is in no position to act as an honest broker. His interests in the negotiations largely coincide with Israel’s.
“Obama needs a short renewal of the freeze, and the semblance of continuing Israeli and Palestinian participation in the ‘peace process’, until the US Congressional elections in November.”
“The second conclusion -- already strongly suspected by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and his advisers -- is that Netanyahu, despite his professed desire to establish a Palestinian state, is being insincere.”
“The third conclusion for the Palestinians is that no possible combination of governing parties in Israel is capable of signing an agreement with Abbas that will not entail significant compromises on the territorial integrity of a Palestinian state.”
There was next to no coverage of these dramatic revelations, and their implications, in the UK news media. As far as we can determine, the Independent has remained silent, along with The Times and the bulk of the national press.
One welcome, although brief, exception appeared last week on the Guardian website by its Jerusalem-based correspondent Harriet Sherwood. (‘Obama offering Israel incentives to extend freeze on settlement construction, say reports’, guardian.co.uk, 30 September 2010 18.11 BST, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/30/israel-obama-netanyahu-peace-talks). Oddly this did not appear in the print edition, as far as we can determine from searches of the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database.
A fleeting mention did, however, appear in the Guardian on Monday this week (and the following day in the paper). Stretching his journalistic muscle to all of 40 words, Guardian assistant editor Simon Tisdall wrote blandly in his “world briefing”:
“Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, is likewise refusing to budge. He reportedly told US officials that a 60-day extension to the building moratorium that expired last month, as sought by Obama, would damage his political credibility and endanger his coalition.”
(‘Obama faces humiliation over Middle East talks’, guardian.co.uk, 4 October 2010 16.00 BST; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/oct/04/israel-palestine-peace-collapse)
Note the conformity to the requirements of professional journalism to report facts, but only superficially and without the context and analysis that might offend power.
As far as we can see, the only other national UK newspaper to mention the latest disclosures was the Daily Telegraph which had a printed piece titled inoffensively – indeed, deceptively - ‘Obama tries to keep peace deal on track’. The earlier online version was more honest: ‘Barack Obama “sent Israel letter outlining assurances on peace talks”’. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/8035425/Barack-Obama-sent-Israel-letter-outlining-assurances-on-peace-talks.html)
As for the BBC, the search function on its news website is notoriously cumbersome to use; so it has been difficult to verify whether BBC news online has reported it at all. But an email from Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen (see below) strongly suggests the corporation has yet to mention the disclosures about Obama’s letter, Netanyahu’s rejection of it, and what these latest developments might mean for a proper understanding of the Middle East “peace process”.
Exchange With BBC Middle East Editor
On October 4, we wrote to Jeremy Bowen, asking whether he was aware of Obama’s letter and Netanyhau’s rejection of it. We also referred to Cook’s report, highlighting the main conclusions that could be drawn, as we saw above: namely, that the US is no “honest broker”; the timing of Obama’s letter with forthcoming US Congressional elections is unlikely to be a coincidence; and that Netanyahu, and indeed the Israeli leadership as a whole, is not a sincere negotiating partner.
We concluded in our email to Bowen:
“Were you aware of these disclosures? And do you plan to report them, and their significance?”
On October 5, Bowen emailed back:
“Yes, I am aware of the American proposals, which have been reported extensively since David Makovsky put them in the WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] site.
“I am in Lebanon working on a radio programme at the moment. I feel sure that the American offer will be part of my reporting when I am back with the Israelis and Palestinians.”
We replied the following day:
“It is noteworthy that the BBC has seemingly failed to report on President Obama’s letter, especially given the extensive resources at your disposal. Obama’s self-serving offer to the Israelis, and Netanyahu’s rejection of it, is significant for many reasons as reporter Jonathan Cook makes clear in his piece. The role of the US as 'honest broker', and the cynical realpolitik of the timing with US Congressional elections in November, are laid bare; as is Netanyahu’s obstructionism and insincerity. The story is all over the Israeli media.
“There were thus compelling reasons for the BBC to bring these disclosures in a timely and fully explanatory way to the attention of the public. That the BBC’s Middle East bureau is seemingly unable or unwilling to do so, regardless of whether you happen to be in Lebanon working on a radio programme, is grim news indeed.
“By denying the public vital facts that enables us to form a fully rounded picture of what’s going on, you have surely neglected your professional responsibilities. This matters because ultimately people’s lives depend upon the truth being reported.”
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor
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Helen Boaden, BBC News editor
Michael Lyons, BBC Trust chairman
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