The Hottest Button: How the Times Covers Israel/Palestine

More than any other newspaper, the New York Times influences how policymakers, journalists and the general public understand important issues. Unfortunately, Times’ news reporters continue to misrepresent the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by failing to acknowledge the broad international consensus that Israel’s settlements and West Bank Wall violate international law. Times’ reporters instead present Palestinian and Israeli views using a “he said, she said” formula, without an appropriate framework to help readers evaluate competing claims.

These shortcomings came to a head last week in Steven Erlanger’s April 19, 2005 article, “Israel, on Its Own, Is Shaping the Borders of the West Bank”. The article’s thesis that, “the likely impact of the provisional new border on Palestinian life is, perhaps surprisingly, smaller than generally assumed,” was based on the flawed analysis of the Wall’s impact by David Makovsky. Makovsky, a former Editor of the right-wing Jerusalem Post, is now a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a spinoff from the right-wing American Israeli Public Affairs Committee(AIPAC). On top of paraphrasing Makovsky’s arguments, Erlanger quotes 144 words from Makovsky, versus only 23 words from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“The land between the green line and the barrier is 8 percent of the West Bank,” Erlanger reported. He happily added that, “Eight percent is half of what the figure was last summer,” ignoring the reality that Palestinians don’t accept Israeli annexation of any of their land,

Erlanger wrote that the revised Wall “route has sharply reduced the number of Palestinians caught inside the barrier: fewer than 10,000 of the two million Palestinians in the West Bank.” He then added caveats – 10,000 does not include Wall impacts on 195,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the Wall has cut off most of the Palestinians’ best agricultural land, and the Israeli army can completely seal off Palestinian towns like Qalqilya that the Wall nearly surrounds. Though Erlanger never admits this, these caveats add hundreds of thousands of Palestinians negatively impacted by the Wall, making Makovsky’s figure of 10,000 Palestinians totally misleading.

Erlanger notes three times that Israeli annexation of 8% of the West Bank is close to the 5% that President Bill Clinton supposedly proposed in 2000. The emphasis on annexing 5% – 8% of the West Bank serves Makovsky’s partisan political agenda – lowering the bar for expectations of what constitutes a just resolution.

However, there is no justification for “lowering the bar” when international law requires that Israel withdraw from the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, analysts like Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition have explained repeatedly that Israeli annexation of a strategic 5% of the West Bank will leave Israel in control of the West Bank, and prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

There is a widespread consensus that international law provides a viable framework to address most elements of the conflict. The Times, however, studiously avoids mentioning international law, even the 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the world’s highest legal body, that construction of the Wall on Palestinian land is illegal.

Coverage of the settlements is similar. Erlanger wrote that Palestinians “argue that all Israeli settlements beyond the green line are illegal.” He neglected to mention that the United Nations Security Council, the ICJ, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the respected Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and even the United States government in the 1970s and 80s, all stated that all Israeli settlements violate international law. This broad consensus is firmly rooted in the Fourth Geneva Convention which clearly defines Israel’s obligations as an occupying power.

After Erlanger’s article, Michael Brown of Partners for Peace suggested to the Times that it note in articles that UN Security Council resolutions declare all Israeli settlements illegal. Daniel Okrent, the Times Public Editor responded in his April 24, 2005 column “The Hottest Button: How the Times Covers Israel/Palestine,” by quoting the Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner who said, “We view ourselves as neutral and unbound by such judgments. We cite them, but we do not live by them.” “In 1975, when the U.N. General Assembly labeled Zionism as racism, would it have been logical for The Times to repeat that description as fact from then on? Obviously not. We take note of official views, but we don’t adopt them as our own.’”

However, Brown’s complaint was not that the Times doesn’t adopt the “official views”, but rather that the Times doesn’t even cite them. Furthermore, Bronner’s counterexample was disingenuous. The UN resolution labeling Zionism a form of racism was only a non-binding General Assembly resolution and lacked the broad international support of the condemnations of Israeli settlements.

On a positive note, Daniel Okrent left the door open to improving the Times coverage of Israel/Palestine. In response to the observation that a Ramallah-based correspondent might see the conflict differently from those based in West Jerusalem, Okrent wrote, “The Times ought to give it a try.” Readers should hold the Times to Okrent’s proposal.

Readers were so frustrated by these recent articles that the Times likely received a large volume of critical letters. Israel’s disproportionate power relative to the Palestinians has contributed to the domination of the Israeli narrative in the media. However, mobilized citizens demanding that the media acknowledge international law in Israel/Palestine have justice on their side, giving them a power that could shift the balance and improve coverage.

Keep those letters coming.


Bylines: Ahmed Bouzid is President of Palestine Media Watch ( and Patrick O’Connor is a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (

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