When journalistic credibility is questioned

This is not about which side you are on in the Middle East; it is about journalistic standards.

Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
An analysis of The Guardian’s coverage of the Palestine Papers, conducted by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM), shows the extent to which the paper has misrepresented those documents. Along with Al Jazeera, it has created a misleading narrative of Palestinian subservience and Israeli intransigence. They have each attacked the credibility of both sides, but fail to fully report what the papers actually say. They show a lack of understanding of the negotiating process, and ignorance of the actual progress the papers show the sides achieved.
Sources with direct experience of the events told BICOM that some of the most important meetings during 2008 are not even mentioned. This makes it impossible to draw conclusions about what was agreed.
But even using the partial record presented in the published documents, the evidence points to a serious negotiating process. The Guardian has in several places supported its narrative with a twisted picture of what the documents tell us. It is truly regrettable that such a prestigious paper manages to distort the story in so many cases.
For example, The Guardian concludes that the Palestinians accepted the return of 10,000 refugees, when the evidence shows they were demanding the return of at least 150,000. Similarly, the paper claims they privately agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, when the documents show them rejecting the demand in private in exactly the way they do in public.
The Guardian claims Israel rejected a Palestinian territorial offer out of hand, but the documents clearly show Israeli negotiators proposing that the experts sit together and find ways to overcome the differences between the two maps.
Apart from its misrepresentation of the documents, The Guardian focuses attention selectively. It largely ignores significant Israeli final-status proposals which belie the narrative of Israeli intransigence. It also chooses to ignore numerous examples of Palestinians standing firm on their positions, such as their rejection of an Israeli proposal to annex Ma’aleh Adumim and several other large settlement blocs.
ON TOP of all that, The Guardian’s reporting fails to take any account of the gamesmanship involved in complex and high-stakes negotiations of this kind. The negotiators are human beings interacting with counterparts whom they have come to know, in some cases for years. They employ many tactics to test the other side and avoid revealing their own hand. Naturally, they exaggerate the significance of their own offers and avoid overreacting to what the other side has put on the table. This doesn’t mean they are not committed to a deal, but that they are seeking to get the best deal they can.
As well as failing to understand the content of the documents, the paper also reports them with little reference to historical context. The Guardian presents as new and shocking many positions which have long been part of the negotiating process, such as the idea that Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem be annexed to Israel. The paper seems not to understand what concessions are necessary for any realistic compromise.
When the documents are read in context, the picture that actually emerges is a complex one. Both Palestinians and Israelis can be seen showing flexibility in certain areas while standing firm on others. The gaps between the parties are significant, but there is clear evidence that both sides are showing a genuine intention of trying to overcome them.
TODAY, MORE than two years after the negotiations concluded, the Middle East is undergoing dramatic developments. Demands for transparency and accountability are quickly spreading from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Jordan. The media can play a decisive role in bringing to light the mishaps of leaders, and give a voice to those who have been denied representation.
Yet it is misleading to identify the tremendous communication tools that connect millions of demonstrators in Tunis, Cairo and Teheran with Al Jazeera. Far from being a beacon of credibility, the cable network toes the line of its Qatari paymasters, who also provide financial and political support for Hamas.
At a time of great change in the Middle East, we cannot afford any compromise on journalistic credibility. It is of great concern that the leading English-speaking liberal news platform in the world resorted to a simplistic depiction of a complex and intricate reality. This is not about which side you are on in the Middle East; it is about journalistic standards.

The writer is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM). www.bicom.org.uk