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David Bromwich

David Bromwich

Posted: May 19, 2009 11:43 AM

New York Times Falsifies Obama-Netanyahu Meeting [UPDATED]


Original Post Updated At the Bottom

The New York Times assigned to the story a national correspondent, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, whose political perceptions are bland and whose innocence about Israeli-American relations could be relied on. At the newspaper of record, a thing like that does not happen by accident. They took the most anxiously awaited meeting with a foreign leader of President Obama's term thus far, and buried it on page 12. The coverage of a major event, which the same newspaper had greeted only the day before by running an oversize attack-Iran op-ed by Jeffrey Goldberg, has officially now shrunk to the scale of a smaller op-ed.

What is more disturbing and far more consequential is that the Times made this meeting into a story about Iran. They read into Obama's careful and measured remarks exactly the hostile intention toward Iran and the explicit deadline for results from his negotiations with Iran that Obama had taken great pains to avoid stating. Obama's relevant remark was this:

My expectation would be that if we can begin discussions soon, shortly after the Iranian elections, we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there's a good faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn't mean every issue would be resolved by that point, but it does mean that we'll probably be able to gauge and do a reassessment by the end of the year of this approach.

"Shortly after," "fairly good sense," "the right direction," "good faith effort," "probably," "by the end of the year." This was a language chosen deliberately to cool the fever of Netanyahu and his far-right War Coalition in Israel. But Stolberg, writing for the Times, converts these hedged and vague suggestions into a revelation that Obama for the first time seemed "willing to set even a general timetable for progress in talks with Iran."

In fact, as any reader of the transcript may judge, President Obama sounded a more urgent note about the progress Israel ought to make in yielding what it long has promised to the Palestinian people. Palestine was the proper name that dominated Obama's side of the news conference. In the Times story, by contrast, the word Iran occurs three times before the first mention of "Palestinians." Iran is mentioned twice more before the words West Bank are uttered once.

Regarding the necessity of a Palestinian state, President Obama was explicit:

We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the Prime Minister that he has an historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure.

And when Netanyahu said the Israeli attitude toward Palestine would completely depend on the details of progress toward securing Iran against the acquisition of a single nuclear weapon, Obama replied that his view was almost the reverse. In a leader as averse as Barack Obama to the slightest public hint of personal conflict, this was a critical moment in the exchange; how far, a reporter asked Obama, did he assent to the Netanyahu concept of "linkage" -- the idea that first the U.S. must deal with Iran, and a more obliging Israeli approach to Palestine will surely follow. Obama answered:

I recognize Israel's legitimate concerns about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon when they have a president who has in the past said that Israel should not exist. That would give any leader of any country pause. Having said that, if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians -- between the Palestinians and the Israelis -- then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.

This was a reluctantly formulated but direct and inescapable inversion of the Netanyahu doctrine on linkage. Not a trace of it appears in the Times account.

Finally, Gaza was much in President Obama's mind and on his conscience at this meeting; so much so that he broke decorum and stepped out of his way to mention it:

The fact is, is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel's long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward.

And yet not a word from Stolberg and the Times about these words of Obama's on Gaza. Nor was any analytic piece offered as a supplement -- the usual procedure in assessing an event of this importance.

To sum up, what happened at the meeting can be judged plainly enough by the news conference that followed. Binyamin Netanyahu tried to make it all about Iran. Obama declined, and spoke again and again about the importance of peace in the entire region, and the crucial role that Israel would have to play by freezing the West Bank settlements and negotiating in good faith to achieve a Palestinian state.

Let us end where we began, with Barack Obama on the good of peaceable relations with Iran, and the New York Times on the importance of thinking such relations are close to impossible.

President Obama: "You know, I don't want to set an artificial deadline."

Now the Times headline: "Obama Tells Netanyahu He Has a Timetable on Iran." And the Times front-page teaser for their A12 story: "Obama's Iran Timetable."

The decision-makers at the New York Times are acting again as if their readers had no other means of checking the facts they report. They are saying the thing that is not, without remembering that the record which refutes them has become easily and quickly available. A great newspaper is dying. And on the subject of Israel, it is doing its best to earn its death-warrant.

UPDATE BELOW

A commenter on this column pointed out that there was an analytic companion to the Stolberg report, after all. It is a web-only piece, dated May 19, written by David Sanger.

Sanger begins:

WASHINGTON -- Now that President Obama has established what he called a "clear timetable" for Iran to halt its nuclear program--progress must be made by the end of the year, he declared on Monday--both American and Israeli officials are beginning to talk about how to accomplish that goal.

A one-sentence paragraph, and all business. Is the Times trying once again to commandeer public opinion for U.S. or Israeli military action against a large country in the Middle East? Improbable as it may sound, it is becoming hard to escape that conclusion. Certainly, the reader of Sanger's piece is encouraged to draw the same inference as the reader of Stolberg's report: namely that the central subject between Netanyahu and Obama on Monday was the laying out of a timetable against Iran; and that Obama was friendly, compliant, and with-the-program (if vague).

Symptomatic excerpts from Sanger:

"So now begins Mr. Obama's diplomatic sprint." (The Times holds a stopwatch. And the title of the article reinforces the pressure: "After Israeli Visit, a Diplomatic Sprint on Iran").

One of "Obama's strategists" is quoted as saying: "the Israelis, of course, are racing to come up with a convincing military alternative that could plausibly set back the Iranian program." A military alternative to what? Alternative to negotiations, or to some other, American, military action? Sanger withholds comment, only noting: "Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Netanyahu made any reference on Monday to Israel's regular allusions to those alternatives. This was, after all, a first meeting."

Notice the public assumption by Sanger--contradicted by the tenor and details of the news conference itself--that Obama has already agreed to pay respectful attention to Israel's military ideas. Obama's reluctance to say so aloud is taken to exhibit merely the shyness of a new leader on a "first meeting."

Again: "Mr. Obama's strategy is based on a giant gamble: That after the Iranian elections on June 12, the way will be clear to convince the Iranians that it is in their long-term interest to strike a deal." How gigantic is the gamble, in fact? That depends on whether you set greater store by the Israeli or the American estimate of Iran's progress toward a weapon. It is a gigantic gamble only on the Israeli view. Evidently, Sanger takes on trust the accuracy of that view.

This analytic piece concludes with two paragraphs of Israeli doubts about any dealings at all with Iran, and Israeli doubts about Obama. There is a rushed, single paragraph in the middle, on Palestine. No second analytic piece about Palestine as a subject of Monday's news conference has yet been posted at the New York Times on-line.

The Times story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and the Times analysis by David Sanger both tell the same story. It says that Iran is the major business between the U.S. and Israel in the coming year. The story is false, as an impartial viewer or reader of Monday's news conference will recognize. The giant gamble of the Times is that by repeating the story they can shape events and help to make it true. This double distortion was policy, not accident.