In a recent HonestReporting Canada alert, we critiqued CBC News Mideast correspondent Sasa Petricic for wrongly claiming on March 20 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “avoided negotiations with the Palestinians”. As we noted in our alert and in a complaint we sent to the CBC, this statement is inaccurate as Netanyahu has repeatedly called for negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions. In sharp contrast, it is Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas who has avoided negotiations with Israel by repeatedly demanding that a freeze in Israeli settlement building must occur as a condition to the resumption of peace talks. When U.S. President Barack Obama was in the region last month, he urged the Palestinians to drop their settlement building precondition, but was rebuffed by Abbas.
Responding to our complaint and that of our members on April 4, Jonathan Whitten, Executive Director, of CBC News Content defended their correspondent’s reporting. Here’s an abridged version of his reply (emphasis added) and the full response can be read by clicking here:
“Yes, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he would welcome talks without pre-conditions, and he has said it repeatedly. But the situation is more complex than that statement suggests. There are also what are likely seen as more important issues in play.
Four years ago in a speech at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, under pressure from the United States, Prime Minister Netanyahu invited the Palestinians to begin talks immediately. It was a notable gesture that appeared to signal a break with two decades of the Prime Minister’s strident ideological opposition to a deal. But having offered to talk, he went on to set out a series of conditions – an undivided Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”, Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, a demilitarized Palestinian state, Israeli controlled airspace, and no halt to building settlements – that the Palestinians could be expected to reject out of hand. The speech was widely analyzed, but the general conclusion was that it would make it more difficult to bring the two sides together.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position has changed little since then. He has repeatedly declared his determination (including to the U.S. Senate) that Israeli sovereignty is indisputable, Jerusalem would never be divided. The Palestinians see that, coupled with continued settlement building, especially in the sensitive E-1 corridor, as major roadblocks to resumed talks.”
“… For Mr. Petricic to say he is avoiding the issue is a fair choice of language and a reasonable exercise of judgment based on his assessment of the circumstances.
But let me emphasize once again that his very brief comment arose in a report focused solely on the Israeli Prime Minister and his anticipated discussions with President Obama. It does not reflect the Palestinians who might also be said – although for different reasons – to have at least avoided, if not rejected, the resumption of peace talks.”
Mr. Whitten claimed that CBC journalists “are able to make assessments based on facts,” but despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu going on record, literally dozens of times, calling for the immediate resumption of peace talks without preconditions, the CBC doesn’t seem to believe him. The CBC spuriously imputes that Netanyahu demands certain conditions to precede negotiations when only the opposite is true as Netanyahu keeps insisting that he opposes any and all conditions prior to talks. The only one who has been evasive to peace talks is Mahmoud Abbas who keeps insisting on unilateral Israeli concessions.
As Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported earlier this month, Netanyahu insists that “questions of security and recognition” of Israel should be resolved immediately at the onset of negotiations and not before those negotiations commence. In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu stated that he was “determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians, but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all.”
After receiving Mr. Whitten’s reply, HonestReporting Canada member Steve Solomon parsed his letter and responded back saying: “… I respectfully suggest that given the competing narratives between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, to suggest as did Mr. Petricic , ‘…that over the past couple of years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided negotiations with the Palestinians …’ implies to the listeners, very strongly, that the blame lies squarely on one side of a very complex equation. In such circumstances, I believe that it would behove a veteran reporter to be more circumspect with his choice of descriptive terminology.”
Another HRC member, Ms. Maya Lamm, responded back to Mr. Whitten saying: “His (Netanyahu) setting out his red lines (the conditions you note below) are not preconditions to the negotiations themselves, any more than Abbas repeating his demand for a ‘right of return’ (though Abbas does indeed set out preconditions for negotiations)… (also) your time line is wrong. After the Bar Ilan speech, which you claim made things harder, there was indeed a resumption of negotiations months later, broken off by — uh oh, it was by Abbas. Doesn’t quite fit your answer below).”
While HRC member Jack Micay relayed the following statement directly to HRC: “Basically what Mr. Whitten is saying in the last 2/3’s or so of the letter is this: We know what Netanyahu has said publicly on many occasions, but rather than report what he has said, since we don’t like him or trust him, we are going to instead tell our viewers and listeners what we think is going on in his mind. In other words we feel entitled to substitute our opinions (prejudices) for the facts.”
Unsurprisingly, CBC Ombudsman Esther Enkin’s April 17 review of HRC member Paul Gazin’s complaint did not find any violation of the CBC’s journalistic standards. Enkin stated (emphasis added): “It is reasonable when dealing with politicians of any country to judge them by their actions more than by their words. What they say matters, but what they do matters more.” In sum, CBC has staked out the position – agreed to by its Ombud – that Netanyahu is a dishonest politician not interested in peace talks with his Palestinian counterparts.
Enkin claims (emphasis added): “He (reporter Petricic) did not say Mr. Netanyahu was solely responsible for the lack of talks.” Of course, failing to inform CBC viewers of Abbas’ avoidance tendencies can lead CBC viewers to the only conclusion that Netanyahu was solely responsible for the lack of peace talks.
Additionally, Mr. Whitten and the CBC also rejected our request that a correction be aired in response to an April 9 CBC Radio report by Mideast correspondent Derek Stoffel who falsely claimed that the Israelis “want the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before talks can begin again”.
Whitten claimed (emphasis added): “Israel may not have “stipulated” that it is a condition to be met first. Prime Minister Netanyahu may not have explicitly “said” it is a “pre-condition” to talks. But he has made it abundantly clear over the years, as has the Israeli government, that it wants that recognition, and without it there can be no diplomacy.”
With sophistry, CBC reporters and editors continue to wrongly claim that Israel calls for preconditions to peace talks when no such requirements are part of the current Israeli negotiating posture. That the CBC is of the opinion, or as they put it, has made an “assessment based on facts,” that Netanyahu is obstructing the resumption of peace talks, indicates that an appearance of bias prevails against Israel at the CBC. That the CBC communicates this stance publicly, shows how unabashed this bias may be.