Anatomy of a Falsehood: Roger Cohen recycles pro-Israel attack against Omar Barghouti

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Roger Cohen has an International Herald Tribune column today titled “Zero Dark Zero” that outlines the dire state of the two-state solution. In the process of making his case Cohen recycles an out-of-context quote from Omar Barghouti that has become popular among Israel supporters looking to smear the BDS movement. Although the Times has issued a semi-correction on the quote, it serves as a useful example of how pro-Israel advocacy enters the mainstream discourse.

In his article Cohen explains why the two-state solution is important to him as a liberal Zionist and the outlines forces standing in the way:

For any liberal Zionist — and I am one — convinced of the need for the two-state outcome envisaged in the United Nations resolution of 1947 establishing the modern state of Israel, both the religious-nationalist Israeli push to keep all the land and the Palestinian refusal to abandon the untenable, unacceptable “right of return” (there is no such right in history, just ask the Jews) are causes for deep despondency.

To prove his point regarding Palestinian obstinance he provides a quote from Omar Barghouti:

As Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, put it recently to Yale students: “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

The quote immediately struck me as something Barghouti wouldn’t say. Luckily Barghouti’s talk at Yale is online:

No where is this video does Barghouti utter the line Cohen attributes to him, and it ends up he didn’t say it. Cohen’s article was posted online yesterday morning, and the following correction appeared in the early evening:

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong venue for a quote by Omar Barghouti. Mr Barghouti used these words at an appearance at the University of Ottawa. He says he was quoting a well-known position of Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.

Interestingly enough, although the Times cut the claim that Barghouti said this at Yale there were pieces that reported it. Sara Greenberg quotes Barghtoui saying almost the same thing as Cohen in the Times of Israel, and she relies on this article from the Jewish Ledger which strangely doesn’t report the same exact quote:

Lauri Lowell, director of Community Relations at Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven (JCRC), was one of several Jewish community representatives who attended the event. . . .

“While he stated that the BDS movement does not take a position on a onestate vs. two-state option, he made it clear that if the three goals were met, Israel would become an Arab-majority state and, as he put it, you would have ‘Palestine next to Palestine,’” Lowell says. “It was obvious what would come next in that scenario.”

If Barghouti didn’t say this at Yale when did he say it (if he said it at all)? And how have all these writers ended up with a line that seems so difficult to pin down?

Following the correction, the Times have changed the Barghouti quote in Cohen’s article to (emphasis added):

As Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, once put it: “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

Although the correction does add Barghouti’s claim “He says he was quoting a well-known position of Sari Nusseibeh,”the Times is clearly standing behind the quote.

I contacted Barghouti to ask for an explanation and he responded the quote was from a presentation at the University of Ottawa in 2009. He also offered more context for the correction that ran in the Times:

I was quoting Sari Nusseibeh who wrote that return of the refugees would make the two state solution a Palestine next to a Palestine. His solution was scrap the right of return. My solution, in rebuttal, was scrap two states!

Here is example of Nusseibeh using this same formulation in a 2001 New York Times article:

“The Palestinians have to realize that if we are to reach an agreement on two states, then those two states will have to be one for the Israelis and one for the Palestinians, not one for the Palestinians and the other also for the Palestinians,” he said.

And here’s video of the 2009 event showing the full context of the quote (at the 1:00 mark):

In the end Barghouti was simply quoting Nussibeh to explain an argument counter to his own position.

I googled the quote Cohen referenced to see if it has been reported elsewhere and found only one exact match — an August 2010 article titled “Palestinians Using Academics and Liberal Ideals to Promote an Extremist Agenda” by Juda Engelmayer. Engelmayer is an executive with the New York public relations agency 5W Public Relations which is known for right-wing pro-Israel advocacy including representing Hebron settlers.

Engelmayer writes:

Under the guidelines of a two-state solution, which has widespread support, both peoples can live together. Yet, Barghouti clearly states that “if the occupation ends” BDS will not end, because the right of return is its real cause. “I clearly do no buy into the two state solution,” Barghouti said. “This is something we cannot compromise on,” he said.

In his own words, Barghouti understands that “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

Engelmayer references “a video expose available on YouTube” as a source for the quote — here it is:

The video was produced by the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Barghouti quote (at the 5:00 mark) is clearly used without context.

Barghouti’s quotation was twisted by an Israel advocacy group to supposedly prove the malevolent intent of the BDS movement and has taken on a life of its own among Israel supporters.  Although it should be clear that this quote does not represent Barghouti and the BDS movement’s true motives, Roger Cohen and the New York Times are standing by it. In the process, they are not impugning the BDS movement and advocates for Palestinian rights, they are only further discrediting the paper of record when it comes to honestly discerning fact from simple propaganda.

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