NY Times rewrites peace process history to make it more “balanced”

The New York Times is rewriting the history of a famous incident to claim that US Secretary of State James Baker publicly rebuked Israelis and Palestinians, when in fact his specific rebuke was only aimed at Israel.

In a piece today on Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments about his frustrations with the “peace process,” Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler write:

There was an echo, in Mr. Kerry’s tone, of a frustrated outburst in 1990 by James A. Baker III, secretary of state under President George Bush, who read out the number for the White House switchboard at a congressional hearing and told the Israelis and Palestinians, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”

Except there’s one problem with the Times’ recollection of this iconic incident: Baker did not tell “the Israelis and Palestinians” to call the White House.

He only told the Israelis to call the White House, thus clearly placing the blame for the lack of movement on them.

A video of the incident is at the top of this post.

Times reported it right the first time

This is how The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman reported the incident on 14 June 1990 in an article tellingly headlined “Baker Rebukes Israel on Peace Terms”:

Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d today sternly criticized conditions for peace talks laid down by Israel’s new right-wing Government and said peace in the Middle East would be impossible if Israel stuck to this hard-line approach.

In an unusually blunt message, Mr. Baker told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States was getting weary of what it considered to be obstructionist tactics used by all parties to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

To the Israelis, he said, it was time to lay down some realistic conditions for talking to Palestinians. To the PLO, he said, it was time to make clear that its renunciation of terrorism still stands, and to the Arab countries, he said, it was time to do “more to create an environment that can support Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.”

But the Times specifically pointed out that “Mr. Baker directed his most extensive comments to the new Israeli Government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.”

As the Times quotes Baker:

“I have to tell you, that before I came to this hearing this morning, I was given a copy of some wire reports, one of which quotes one of the ministers in the newly formed Government. Someone asked him, ‘Why couldn’t you move forward on the proposal that the United States made for a dialogue with Palestinians from the territories?’ And he said, ‘That question is no longer relevant.’”

If that is going to be the Israeli approach, said Mr. Baker, “there won’t be any dialogue and there won’t be any peace, and the United States of America can’t make it happen.” He said: “You can’t. I can’t. The President can’t. And so, it’s going to take some really good faith, affirmative effort on the part of our good friends in Israel.”

Call us

And here’s how the Times reported the phone number incident when it happened:

If such new thinking is not forthcoming “quickly” from Israel, Mr. Baker cautioned, then the Bush Administration is simply going to disengage from Middle East diplomacy. Washington, he suggested, will adopt the attitude that could be summed up as “call us when you are serious about peace.”

To drive home that point to the Israelis, the Secretary of State gave them President Bush’s White House telephone number.

A longer quotation from Baker can be obtained from the video of his testimony above, which makes clear he was addressing only the Israelis:

If that’s going to be the approach, and that’s going to be the attitude, there won’t be any dialogue and there won’t be any peace and the United States of America can’t make it happen – you can’t, I can’t, the president can’t. And so it’s going to take some really good faith affirmative effort on the part of our good friends in Israel. And if we don’t get it, and if we can’t get it quickly, I have to tell you, Mr. Levine, that everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us.

The cause of Baker’s frustration became clearer two years later when Shamir admitted that his strategy had been to string out “peace talks” for ten years while building settlements on occupied Palestinian land, a strategy every Israeli government has followed ever since.

Now, the Times appears to be rewriting history to make it seem more “balanced.”

The Times should correct Gordon and Landler’s story.

With thanks to Peter Feld.

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Comments

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Dear EI, while I support what you guys do and I thank you for it, I have noticed a growing trend in what may be considered an effort to milk the cow, with blatant agit-prop that is exhausting to the struggle. In this case it is obvious to all of us that the first Bush administration did not single out Israel because they were putting the blame on them, but because THEY REFUSE TO ACKNOWLEGE OUR SOVERIEGNTY AS A NATION STATE OR PEOPLE. When you write articles like this it takes away from what is really important and makes this terrible occupation seem like a western activist opportunity. There are so many atrocities being carried out everyday please focus on them as responsible journalists. Sometimes i worry you guys are westerners that need to pump out pulp journalism in order to keep your ratings high. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for all of the good work you have done in the past.

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With all due respect, there is always a need for several different approaches, from within and without.

In the case of this article, I see it as another stone in the case against the flood of distorted information, which defines Western thought on Palestine and support for Israel. You know what is actually happening, but most don't. Detailed information and an overall view of the subversion of facts is essential. As far as I am concerned, that is what leads to action.

Besides, EI does cover countless aspects of the decades-long injustice.

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Great work uncovering the real context of Baker's quote! Will the NY Times correct this? It will be interesting to see what they do.

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Not only correct it. I'd like to read how and why they created this error in the first place. But I won't hold my breath.

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I think that Ali Abunimah's work is excellent. There are always people who do not know the background. In other posts he has written about the atrocities. Then, too, I can understand Mr. Subuh's frustration. Israel is pursuing a disgusting, horrifying, sadistic policy in creating new settlements and continuing to cleanse Palestine of her rightful people. I am sick every time I read about another child murdered in cold blood by trigger-happy vicious Israeli military. All this because people believd that God gave the land to Moses. I find Moses to be a delusional old fanatic who today would be in therapy and medicated. The Zionists are just as deluded and have possibky driven themselves mad with their extremist philosophy. How does one deal with a madman? A land hungry madman ?

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"...a strategy every Israeli government has followed ever since."

And therein lie the clear facts of that.

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When I first read that the US (Kerry) was "frustrated" I didn't know whether to rejoice
or mourn. Imagine that Palestine would do something "unilaterally". Does that
apply to Israel (and the US) too? Should they be unable to attack Palestine,
unable to build any new "settlements", unable to continue to maintain the
wall etc. because it is UNILATERAL? (Or merely because it it violates
international law and is wrong?)

In the UN, we all know by now that action originates not from the General
Assembly (which can recommend action), but from the Security Council where
the US (as a "permanent member") has a veto.

What more direct membership by Palestine in conferences strongly signifies
is greater ( perhaps even "unilateral") participation in the expression of
"international opinion" as well as the increasing isolation of the US and Israel.

I often hope that Hamas will be enabled to speak to the UN. They are
considered "terrorists" by the US and Israel of course, but not by the
UN. But this would be the decision of Hamas itself.

N. H. Aruri analyzes the development of the US as co-belligerant with Israel
(not "mediator " or "broker") over 35 years of diplomacy in DISHONEST
BROKER. (up to the Obama Administration when the analysis was written).
This history has NOT been the creation of only one party as younger commenters
would have you believe. This is a freeing aspect of this work. Otherwise, Aruri
minces no words.

I believe more and more that Palestine (not Israel, US) should elect its
own "President", form its capital, set up its government, judicial system....unilaterally (of Israeli / US "frameworks" etc. But this, of course, is not my business but theirs and theirs alone.

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Check out www.TimesWarp.org for more on Ali's expose and the way the NY Times provides cover for Israel by aiming at "balance."

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"All the News That Fits ... the State Department's Daily Briefing"

Thanks for retaining the historical memory so necessary to set the record straight. A valuable resource for anyone who wishes to know why Americans are so ignorant of reality in the Middle East.

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Great work, Ali. If you haven't done so already, I strongly urge you to demand an official correction from the Times. In addition to posting a comment on the story, send a message to the address for corrections: nytnews@nytimes.com. If that doesn't work, as it probably won't write to the "public editor," Margaret Sullivan, at public@nytimes.com. If they don't respond promptly, keep bugging them.

I went through all this last fall, over something much more obscure: on a page they call "Lens," a blog on photojournalism, they describe the apartheid wall as a "wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank and Israel." I demanded a correction on the grounds that 85+ percent of the wall is within the West Bank and thereby separates parts of the West Bank from other parts of the West Bank, not from Israel. They stalled for a long time, but I kept badgering them, and finally, "after a great deal of consultation," as the author explained in an e-mail to me, they did publish a correction of sorts. (I detailed the whole story at weiss.net/2013/11/following-consultation-apartheid.html .)

If nothing else, it's good to remind them that people notice their lies and distortions! And maybe someday history will take note. As Mahmoud Darwish put it:

"Gentlemen, nothing passes like that
without account
All that you have done
to our people is
registered in notebooks"

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.