Talks between Barack Obama and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships over the past fortnight have unleashed a flood of media interest in the settlements Israel has been constructing on Palestinian territory for more than four decades.
The US president’s message is unambiguous: the continuing growth of the settlements makes impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state, and therefore peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is one he is expected to repeat when he addresses the Muslim world from Cairo tomorrow.
The implication of Mr Obama’s policy is that, once Israel has frozen the settlements, it will have to begin dismantling a significant number of them to restore territory needed for a Palestinian state.
Understandably, in an era of rolling news many media outlets have been scrambling for instant copy on the settlers, relying chiefly on the international news agencies, such as Reuters, the Associated Press (AP) and Agence France-Presse (AFP).
These organisations with staff based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv churn out a stream of reports picked up by newspapers and broadcasters around the globe.
So, given their influence on world opinion and the vital importance of the settlement issue in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can readers depend on the news agencies to provide fair coverage? The answer, sadly, is: no.
Even on the most basic fact about the settlers — the number living on occupied Palestinian territory — the agencies regularly get it wrong.
There are about half a million Jews living illegally on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Give or take the odd few thousand (Israel is slow to update its figures), there are nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem.
Sounds simple. So what is to be made of this fairly typical line from a report issued by AFP last week: “More than 280,000 settlers currently live in settlements dotted throughout the Palestinian territory that Israel captured during the 1967 Six Day War”?
Or this from AP: “The US considers the settlements — home to nearly 300,000 Israelis — obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state”?
Where are the missing 200,000 settlers?
The answer is that they are to be found in East Jerusalem, which increasingly means for agency reporters that they are not considered settlers at all.
In many reports, East Jerusalem’s settler population is left out of the equation. But even when the news agencies do note the number of settlers there, they are invariably referenced separately from those in the West Bank or described simply as “Jews”.
Worse, this misleading approach has had a trickle-down effect. Major newspapers’ own staff make the same basic errors.
Thus, the New York Times blithely reported last week that the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had made a “brusque call on Wednesday for a complete freeze of construction in settlements on the West Bank”.
In reality, she had said that the US president wanted “to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.” The implication was that the White House wants a freeze on all settlements, including in East Jerusalem.
This is not linguistic nitpicking.
Israel’s attempt to differentiate between the status of the West Bank and that of East Jerusalem, even though these adjacent territories are equally Palestinian and were both captured by Israel in 1967, lies at the heart of the conflict and its resolution.
Israel’s official position, accepted by its politicians of the left and right, is that in 1967 Israel “unified” Jerusalem by annexing its eastern, Palestinian half, and made the city the “eternal capital of the Jewish state”.
The 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem — given a status of “permanent residents” rather than Israeli citizens — are not regarded by Israelis as living under occupation.
Further, after 1967, Israel redrew the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to incorporate a huge swathe of the West Bank stretching almost down to the Jordan river. Annexation became a way not only to grab East Jerusalem but also to build settlements on a much larger area of land to sabotage Palestinian hopes of statehood.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared recently of East Jerusalem that it “is not a settlement and we’ll continue to build there”.
That view was shared by Ehud Olmert, who ordered thousands of homes for Jews to be built in the Palestinian part of the city in his final months in office, despite commitments he made for a settlement freeze at the Annapolis peace conference in late 2007.
Most of the Israeli media can be depended on to toe the government line on East Jerusalem. But why are many foreign journalists doing the same? Some doubtless are ignorant, others lazy.
But agency reporters and their editors, who are well-versed in the intricacies of the conflict, are neither. Invariably, however, those making the final editorial decisions — as opposed to their Palestinian stringers who supply raw copy — are too close to Israel to remain entirely dispassionate.
Some are Israeli citizens, or married to one. But, even among those who are not, the overwhelming majority of senior editorial staff live inside Israel, and soak up the Israeli coverage, either in Hebrew or English. They also eat in Israeli restaurants and go to Israeli parties, making them susceptible to adopting the consensual Israeli perspective.
All too easily, agency journalists end up mirroring — and adding a veneer of legitimacy to — Israel’s opinion about East Jerusalem.
Senior agency staff have admitted to this blind spot in their coverage. “We think of the East Jerusalem settlers as a separate category,” said one, who requested anonymity. Why? “Because that’s Israel’s view of them.”
Questioned further, he agreed that they should probably be included in the figures for settlers. “It’s something we’re discussing,” he added.
There is no time to lose. Without care, other deceptions Israel is keen to foist on the US administration could also end up becoming ingrained in agency copy.
Israel wants a distinction made between the so-called outposts, which are home to a few thousand settlers, and the 120 established settlements; and between the smaller settlements west of Israel’s separation wall and the bulk on “Israel’s side” but still in Palestinian territory.
It is the duty of reporters to remind their readers of the internationally accepted understandings about the settlements. They should not forget that international law, and possibly now the White House’s vision of peace, requires the removal of 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem too.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.