Don't believe all you read - except this

As Mitchell heads back to the Mideast, beware of the verbal flak.

May 5, 2010 21:36
4 minute read.
US SPECIAL Mideast Envoy George Mitchell is back i

mitchell311. (photo credit: AP)


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With George Mitchell back in the Middle East this week to launch indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he can expect to run into considerable turbulence created by malicious rumors, trial balloons, taunts and a lot of hot air.

The verbal flak is coming from all directions as self-anointed insiders and experts try to shape public perceptions of the new talks before they even begin – in reality revealing little more than their own agendas. It’s not just the usual talking heads and printed pundits – everyone knows who they are – but the anonymous experts, officials, observers, insiders and assorted “reliable sources” whose identity we don’t know and whose authenticity we are unable to judge.

So here’s an easy guide: If you don’t know who said it, take it with a block of salt.

ONE ISRAELI paper this week headlined a story declaring: “Obama promised Abbas a Palestinian state within two years.” And the source: “An Egyptian official told the Arabic language daily Al-Hayat.” How convincing is that? The White House hotly denied it.

You may have seen stories with headlines like: “Obama to call world summit if Mideast peace talks fail” or “Abbas: Obama won’t allow provocations from either Palestinians or Israel.”

Here’s another reading hint: Who benefits from this story? Whose interest is served? Do those blind sources who purport to know Barack Obama’s true intentions have an agenda they – or the reporters – are not telling you? Are they portraying the American president as a crusader for peace, a Palestinian agent aiming to destroy the Jewish state or a tool of the Zionist lobby out to block Palestinian statehood? If you don’t know the author’s sources or agenda, you can’t really answer those questions.

Keep in mind that right now the two sides and their American interlocutors are all jockeying for position. A few stories in the past week confidently told us Obama has promised to recognize a Palestinian state if Israel doesn’t agree by a certain date, that the US will support a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, that Palestinians have no real interest in negotiations but intend to unilaterally declare statehood, that Obama intends to call an international conference this fall to ram a peace agreement down Israel’s throat. There’s something for every paranoid prognosticator. And maybe a grain of truth here and there.

Take the story about a supposed letter from Obama to Abbas promising to support a UN vote to condemn settlements. Washington historically vetoes anti-Israel resolutions (not always: the Reagan administration even sponsored the one condemning Israel’s attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981). What’s behind the Obama letter story? Here’s three versions:

• The Palestinians were spreading it to justify returning to negotiations in the absence of the settlement freeze they’d demanded.

• The story was intended to rattle the Israelis.

• It’s an attempt by the Israeli Right to show Obama sides with the Palestinians.

The New York Times’s Roger Cohen wrote that Obama told Abbas he wouldn’t block a UN resolution condemning Israel if it “seriously undermines trust between the two parties.” Not so. The White House firmly denied that version, but not a report that a Mitchell aide, David Hale, told Abbas that if Israel goes ahead with construction of the controversial 1,600 homes for haredim in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of east Jerusalem, it would abstain (not vote yes or no). That’s the project whose announcement scuttled Vice President Joe Biden’s initial effort to launch the proximity talks in March.

The moral of this story: Hold your fire. The news stories will be flying at you from all directions, each declaring it has the inside scoop. Everyone is going to have his or her sources and leaks. Saeb Erekat, the chief PA negotiator, gives his briefings on and off the record, unabashedly contradicting himself and issuing all kinds of dire warnings, from Palestinian plans to unilaterally declare statehood to flat denials.

When Erekat threatens, “If Israel builds one house in the West Bank, Palestinians will immediately stop the negotiations,” he doesn’t scare Binyamin Netanyahu, but he does encourage Israeli rejectionists to send out a construction crew. One has to ask whether Erekat is really looking for an excuse to walk out and blame the Israelis.

On the Israeli side, beware the “senior official.”
That can mean any cabinet minister, deputy, assistant or his driver – each considering himself or herself a senior official and the one who really should be running the country. It can also mean insiders in the Prime Minister’s Office acting – probably under instructions – to plant misinformation meant to affect policymakers in Washington.

Everyone has an agenda. Every reader, like every good reporter, should consult multiple sources, analyze what the source meant as well as what he or she said, and then make an independent and skeptical judgment. Do that, and chances are you could be half right.

A final hint. Listen most to what the delegations themselves are saying. The more kvetching, the more problems; the less they have to say, the more work they are getting done.

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