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New York Times vs. direct negotiations

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The New York Times published two articles yesterday about the resumption of direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Both address a reader who already knows what happened, yet neither opens with a sentence carrying the basic information: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday announced that direct negotiations would resume,” and so on. Instead, a clause which contains that central fact has been embedded in the second paragraph of the second story, by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, titled “Palestinians Resuming Talks Under Pressure.” It runs on page 6. This accident of omission and displacement betrays an editorial trouble of mind that is visible elsewhere.

Meanwhile the Times leads with a “news analysis” by Ethan Bronner. So little is new in the analysis that it ekes out a thin conclusion on page 6 only by rehearsing many paragraphs of familiar facts. The reason for the top billing can only have been the headline “MIDEAST TALKS: SCANT HOPES FOR THE START” (the on-line version, “SCANT HOPES FROM THE BEGINNING,” is clearer in its pessimism). Bronner begins by observing that there is “little confidence–close to none—-on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met.” His second paragraph adds that “most analysts” look on the direct talks as “pairing the unwilling with the unable.” A flippant statement by the usual standards of page 1.

The Cooper-Landler intended lead story and the Bronner substitute lead converge on a single thought: Mahmoud Abbas is in a weak position, Benjamin Netanyahu is in a strong position, and Barack Obama is taking an enormous risk. Abbas, according to Bronner, “has spent the past year and a half. . .hoping that the Obama administration would impose a solution.” A Palestinian academic, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, is cited to cast a presumption of incompetence on the part of the Palestinian Authority (something the Times has avoided in the past): “Abbas is naked before his whole community.” Yet the proportions of Bronner’s treatment permit the analysis to discredit the Palestinian Authority while barely mentioning Hamas. His analysis closes with a statement by Haim Assa, a former adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, which places all the pressure on Obama: “The main player is the United States.” 

Cooper-Landler have a separate paragraph on the risk to Obama in being seen as the main player. “For Mr. Obama,” they say, “the issue has domestic ramifications” because he “has always been viewed with a degree of wariness by some Jewish voters in the United States” (this questionable sentence would require a source without the weasel-word some). Accordingly the direct talks “could hold both opportunity and peril for him and his party.” The peril forms the subject of a third piece in the Times, an op-ed by the regularly featured opinion analyst Charles M. Blow.

Coyly titled “Oy Vey,Obama,” the Blow column wonders whether the president may not be in serious danger of losing support among Jewish voters. Conceding that Jews “are only 2 percent of the United States population,” Blow declares that “their influence outweighs their proportion”; he does not specify which opinion-makers and donors he has in mind, but the statement is anyway a corrective to the generalization of Cooper-Landler regarding “some voters.” The only poll the op-ed cites, however, is an April survey by McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican firm; and Blow interprets the numbers in a partial and misleading way. 42 percent of the Jewish voters canvassed here said they would vote to re-elect Obama: that, says Blow, is down from the 78 percent who voted for him in 2008. He omits to mention that the remaining 58 percent were not in fact anti-Obama but, rather, were divided between 46 percent who would “consider voting for someone else” and 12 percent listed under “Don’t know/refused.”

As learned authorities on President Obama’s stance toward Israel, Blow cites two persons: John Bolton, who says Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech was “the most radical anti-Israel speech I can recall any president making,” and Eric Cantor, who speaks of “the administration’s troubling policy of manufacturing fights with Israel to ingratiate itself with some in the Arab world.” Why are Cantor and Bolton taken to represent the drift of mainstream opinion among Jewish voters? But the slant of the column is plain enough by the end. Obama has a last chance, says Blow, to “reverse this perception,” when he decides “who gets the tough love and who gets the free love” in the direct talks. The column ends there

A player present but not accounted for in the Times coverage of direct talks is The New York Times itself. No organization has greater influence on the tone of educated American opinion on Israel/Palestine. But placed as they are, these articles–Bronner’s summary of the strength of Netanyahu, the impotence of Abbas, and the “shrug” with which the well-informed are greeting the talks; Cooper-Landler on the objective reasons for skepticism and the notable risk to Obama; and Blow’s numbers on the supposed fall of Obama’s popularity among Jewish voters—-together speak a message as plain and propositional as if they had been arranged for the purpose. Or rather, they yield two messages. First, to ordinary readers: “This president has taken a great many risks to oppose Israeli interests, with no visible political reward so far. Now, in a bad political season, he continues to push. Why?” The second message is addressed to President Obama: “You are treading now on dangerous ground. Fortunately for you, nobody expects anything of the latest round of talks. And it would be well, for your sake, if they came to nothing. Abbas is a cipher with no solid number to give him a meaning. Hamas is a word we do not speak (and you seem to agree). Whatever else you do, remember that Netanyahu is the only strong actor on the scene. Safety lies in not offending him.”

David Bromwich

David Bromwich's latest book is "American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us." He teaches literature at Yale and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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