November 30, 2015

Former Reporters: AP Suppressed ‘World-Changing’ Story on Israeli Peace Offer in 2009

In predictably disingenuous fashion, the Associated Press claimed in a November 18 story that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has shined new light on the breakdown of a potentially history-altering round of 2008 peace talks.” Abbas acknowledged that Israel offered Palestinians 93.5 percent of the West Bank and other significant concessions.

The “light” isn’t “new” at all. The wire service had the news almost seven years ago, and, according to former AP reporters, refused to publish it. An AP reporter who “discovered the Israeli peace offer in early 2009, got it confirmed on the record and brought it” to the AP in Jerusalem has substantiated the assertion that it “suppressed a world-changing story for no acceptable reason.” It is perhaps the most damming validation yet that prudent people should never trust establishment press reports out of the Middle East — particularly in regards to Israel — because of their “pattern … of accepting the Palestinian narrative as truth and branding the Israelis as oppressors.”

Abbas told the AP that he rejected the Israeli offer, in AP’s words, “because he was not allowed to study the map” detailing the Israeli proposal.

Unfortunately for Abbas, a September 2008 story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “A senior Israeli official said the Palestinians were given preliminary maps of the proposed borders.”

Haaretz’s reporting apparently didn’t cross the international establishment press’s artificial credibility threshold, which is bad enough. (How hard would it have been to tell the world that “an Israeli newspaper is claiming that ‘Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected an Israeli peace proposal, which included withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank, because it does not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital’”?)

in early 2009, though, AP reporters obtained sufficient confirmation of the rejected offer. Here’s what followed, according to an August 2014 item in Tablet Magazine filed by Matti Friedman (HT Instapundit; bolds are mine throughout this post):

In early 2009 … two colleagues of mine obtained information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story.

More accurately, it hadn’t been reported by a non-Israeli publication with sufficient perceived credibility or potentially embarrassing visibility. So the AP knew that the rest of the world didn’t know that Israeli had made an offer every bit as generous, and perhaps even moreso, than the Bill Clinton-Ariel Sharon offer then-Palestinian “leader” Yasser Arafat had rejected in 2000. Arafat’s rejection left Clinton contending that he, in Newsweek’s words, “relishes his own sense of victimhood and seems incapable of making a final peace deal.”

The only conclusion one could reach after that 2000 debacle was that Arafat only pretended to want peace. When shown a genuine, unprecedented opportunity to achieve it, he rejected it. The AP knew that a similar portrayal of Abbas would seriously damage the carefully crafted years-in-the-making media narrative that this Palestinian “leader” was different and more reasonable, just as Barack Obama, Mr. “Fundamental Transformation” himself, whose hostility towards Israel was already clear to anyone with open eyes, had won the presidency of the United States.

Friedman’s item did not gain much wider notice, but the AP, through former Israel bureau chief Steve Gutkin, pushed back against his contentions in two posts at “News & Entertainment Weekly” goastreets.com. What prompted Gutkin’s second post was Friedman’s furious mid-September 2014 response to his first, which included the following:

I wrote that in early 2009 the bureau wouldn’t touch an important news story, a report of a peace proposal from the Israeli prime minister to the Palestinian president. This decision was indefensible on journalistic grounds. A careful reader will notice that Steve does not deny this. He can’t, because too many people saw it happen, and a journalist as experienced as Steve might assume, correctly, that at least some of them vetted my account before it was published. He merely quibbles with a marginal detail—the nature of a map that one of the reporters saw. I repeat what I wrote: Two experienced AP reporters had information adding up to a major news story, one with the power to throw the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a different light. Israelis confirmed it, and Palestinians confirmed it. The information was solid …

Gutkin contended that a deceptively headlined December 2008 AP story, i.e., published three months after the Haaretz piece and with no specific reference to anything having happened in September, proves that the wire service didn’t suppress the story. That story’s headline: “Negotiator: Israel wants 6.8 percent of West Bank.”

Unfortunately for Gutkin and the AP, that wasn’t the end of it.

Former AP reporter Mark Lavie weighed in at his blog on September 19, 2014:

I am the “furious” one who discovered the Israeli peace offer in early 2009, got it confirmed on the record and brought it to you. You banned me from writing about it. That is by far the worst journalistic fiasco I have been involved in, and we’re talking 50 years of journalism here. No denials on your part can erase the truth–and this is the truth: The AP suppressed a world-changing story for no acceptable reason. I am not ascribing motives to the decision–oh, hell, of course I am. It fit a pattern, described by Matti, of accepting the Palestinian narrative as truth and branding the Israelis as oppressors. This drove Matti, by far the most talented writer on our staff, away from AP. It drove me out of the Jerusalem bureau to Cairo. There, for two years as a regional editor, I tried to balance the slanted stories coming out of Jerusalem, often fighting for every letter and comma. Now I’m retired, and no one is filling that role. The world suffers as a result.

Lavie published a lengthy reprise at Tablet a week ago, during which he also explained that the November 18 AP item mentioned at the beginning of this post came about as a result of his prodding:

… In March 2009, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was interviewed in Arabic on Al-Jazeera. When I saw the MEMRI translation I immediately understood its significance: Erekat disclosed that Abbas had turned down an offer that would have given the Palestinians a state in almost all of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and parts of Jerusalem. Then I found out about the map. No one else had the story.

Excited about this scoop, I raced into my bureau chief’s office at the AP in Jerusalem. Imagine my shock when I was told it’s not a story—and I was banned from writing about it. It just couldn’t be a legitimate story, in line with the new definition of journalism.

The profession I joined in the 1960s wasn’t about helping anyone. It was about reporting and explaining the news. This new definition of journalism, apparently requires choosing sides. This became clear to me as long ago as 1988, at the beginning of the First Intifada, when I saw a reporter jump out of her car in the middle of a Gaza riot and shout at the Palestinians throwing rocks at the vehicle: “Why are you doing this? I’m trying to help you!” Like most Western media sources, she wanted to frame the uprising—the Palestinians as people—as helpless victims, to pillory the Israelis as the cruel oppressors. Stories that didn’t fit that framework had a hard time seeing the light of day. Even a peace offer.

… This month, Israel TV’s Channel 10 broadcast a three-part series of documentaries about the failed peace efforts of 2000 and 2008. The third part featured interviews with Olmert and Abbas. There, for the first time, Abbas admits what I knew six years ago: Olmert offered him the map and demanded that he initial it. “I did not agree,” Abbas told his interviewer. “I rejected it out of hand.” He claimed that he isn’t an expert on maps. In fact, he went back to his office and sketched the map from memory—quite accurately.

… When I (recently) explained to my former colleagues the significance of what Abbas said, the AP agreed that it was worth reporting. The AP story ran a full day after the Abbas interview was aired. From there it went everywhere.

It’s a temporary victory—the story of Israel’s generous peace offer and Abbas’s rejection is out there, finally, and making some waves. But, again, this is temporary, because the underlying bias, the framing of the conflict—strong, cruel Israel against weak, victimized Palestinians—has not changed.

And so, I’m left with a bitter observation: If this news is making waves now, imagine what would have happened if I had been allowed to report it in real time?

Note that the AP’s November 18 report still allowed Abbas’s “map” excuse to go unchallenged, even though Lavie has clearly shown that it’s not credible.

The absolute best that can be said of AP’s editors and management is that they took an internationally important story away from the reporters who had done all the work and justified it in their own minds by recalling a months-old story which had been twisted it virtually beyond recognition in a way the Palestinians would prefer — without telling their own reporters about it. That doesn’t exactly display the “commitment to independent, comprehensive journalism” the wire service claims it has.

One other item Friedman revealed should also never be forgotten: “AP’s Gaza coverage is shaped in large part by Hamas, which is something important that insiders know but readers don’t.” Specifically:

There has been much discussion recently of Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters. Any veteran of the press corps here knows the intimidation is real, and I saw it in action myself as an editor on the AP news desk. During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail—that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll—because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza. (The policy was then, and remains, not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli. Earlier this month (i.e., August 2014 — Ed.), the AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation; the story was shunted into deep freeze by his superiors and has not been published.)

It can’t be emphasized enough: Prudent people should never trust establishment press reports out of the Middle East — particularly in regards to Israel.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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