For both politicians and commentators, spin is an occupational hazard. Politicians cannot function without “spinning” realities to suit their purposes thereby putting the most favourable possible interpretation on events for their own interests. Commentators may be tempted to do the same, but their proper role is to react to political spin coming at them from officials, candidates and activists.
The duty of analysts, at least theoretically, is to guide their readers towards a balanced interpretation of reality, as best they understand it. Sometimes, though, even experienced veterans can let their guard down and find themselves totally suspending disbelief and presenting spin in an uncritical manner, especially if they think it’s all in a good cause.
Roger Cohen of The New York Times seems to have fallen into precisely this trap in his most recent op-ed, in which he essentially serves as the stenographer for Israel’s former negotiator Tzipi Livni.
Ms Livni has joined forces with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in an effort to unseat the incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The bulk of Mr Cohen’s article is given over to Ms Livni’s account of how and why the American-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians collapsed earlier this year.
It’s no surprise that Ms Livni places the blame squarely on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, her account, as recounted by Mr Cohen, draws heavily on the liberal Israeli mantra that the lack of peace is best explained by the Palestinians’ inexplicable refusal to “miss any opportunity to miss an opportunity,” which dates back to the era of Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban. He first made the comment after the December 1973 Geneva peace talks.
According to Ms Livni, Mr Abbas essentially turned down a constructive and far-reaching American proposal presented on March 17, and refined on April 1. All of a sudden, Ms Livni claims, she watched Mr Abbas on television signing papers to join a number of multilateral agencies, which she says almost killed the talks. The coup de grace, she insists, actually came when Mr Abbas’s Fatah party announced an agreement with Hamas on April 23.
“A long season of negotiation gave way to recrimination,” Mr Cohen writes, “and, soon enough, the Gaza war.” He adds that thus, “another opportunity in the Holy Land has been lost. The waste is unconscionable, tragedy indeed”. By this point in the narrative it’s not clear whose voice – Mr Cohen’s or Ms Livni’s – is channelling the spirit of Mr Eban. Not only is this heavy duty Israeli political spin, it is designed to counter not a Palestinian, but an American, understanding of the primary causes for the breakdown of the talks.
In testimony before the US Senate on April 7, secretary of state John Kerry clearly stated that two Israeli actions – the failure to release Palestinian prisoners on schedule and the announcement of 700 new settlement housing units – crashed down on the process: “And poof! That was sort of the moment.” The moment, of course, in which the talks became non-viable. A state department spokesperson later clarified that Mr Kerry thinks there are faults on both sides and isn’t playing “the blame game.”
This American account was subsequently confirmed by two unnamed senior Obama administration officials. One, generally assumed to be the outgoing Middle East special envoy Martin Indyk, told veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea on May 2, “the primary sabotage came from the settlements.”
He explained that, “continuing construction allowed ministers in his [Mr Netanyahu’s] government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks”. He added that “the claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true,” and listed a series of Palestinian concessions on demilitarisation, land swaps, security and, crucially, refugees.
On May 15, The New York Times quoted another senior American official as saying, “At every juncture, there was a settlement announcement. It was the thing that kept throwing a wrench in the gears”.
Indeed, last May, Ms Livni told Israel’s Army Radio that the settlers “are preventing us from reaching a resolution” and that “settlement construction makes it impossible to defend Israel around the world.”
It’s perfectly obvious why, in the midst of a heated election campaign, Ms Livni feels the urgent need to provide a self-serving narrative about the breakdown of her negotiations with the Palestinians. And it’s also easy to understand why Mr Cohen, an avowed supporter of peace, would want to give her a platform. Presumably, it’s to help unseat Mr Netanyahu in favour of a more constructive Israeli government led by the Livni-Herzog coalition. It’s fair to say that most people interested in peace would welcome such an electoral outcome.
But the path to peace isn’t laid by narratives aimed at blaming the other side when all parties have their fair share of responsibility for the continuing conflict. And Mr Cohen did his readers a disservice by not even mentioning the well-established and almost certainly accurate American account, cited above, that Ms Livni is challenging.
This spin might be good Israeli electoral politics, but it’s very bad diplomacy and even worse journalism. And, given the facts painstakingly related not by Palestinian but by American officials, it’s totally unconvincing.