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Archives From Oslo Era Reveal the US Press Wasn’t Always in Lockstep on Israel

A Truthout analysis of the archival material uncovers how mainstream papers portrayed the asymmetries of the accords.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signs the historic Israel-PLO Oslo Accords on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories on September 13, 1993 in a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. as (from L to R) Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, unidentified aide, U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat look on.

Part of the Series

The Oslo Accords were a set of diplomatic agreements conscripted by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Norway in 1993 to initiate a Middle East peace process. Emblematic of the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the failed agreements and prospects for peace.

The accords supported a sequence of diplomatic arrangements to address the continuing Middle East conflict. The deliberations resulted in a Palestinian Authority that managed Gaza and the West Bank for a half decade and recognized enduring diplomatic discussions in the interest of refugees and borders.

While the United States corporate press continues to erase the historical context of Israel’s settler-colonial occupation of Palestine amid the state’s genocidal war against the Gaza Strip, archival material from the popular press during the Oslo Accord period shows how the mainstream press wasn’t always in lockstep with Israel, and actually challenged the standard orthodoxy in support of the “Holy State.” A Truthout examination of the archival material uncovers how The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe portrayed the asymmetries of the accords and its impacts on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In response to November 19’s New York Times headline and story by Middle East Correspondent Raja Abdulrahim, “Smoldering Gaza Becomes A Graveyard for Children: Thousands Are Killed in Bombardment as Israel Responds to Hamas Attack,” author Doug Henwood wrote that he “never expected to see a headline like this in the [New York Times].” Meanwhile, Race2Dinner co-founder Saira Rao pointed out on X that “the tide is absolutely turning” in the mainstream media, sharing a recent piece by Lauren Leatherby.

Truthout examined instances where the papers of record — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe — wrote against their ideological slants when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict throughout the Oslo era. For example, popular journalists and provocative cartoonists like Tony Auth and Dan Wasserman, depicted the nature of the United States and Israeli governments’ policies of collective punishment. They often aimed their commentary at the U.S. and Israel for disproportionate uses of force.

As Wasserman was known for his outstanding and detailed editorials, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Auth’s journalistic cartoons traversed a large range of sociocultural, political and social issues. With cutting wit, he successfully captured parody, irony and humor to convey perspectives on complicated topics. For example, during the Oslo period especially, Auth emphasized the dynamics, conflicts, cultural nuances and power asymmetries by virtue of U.S. and Israeli policy.

A Truthout examination of the archival material uncovers how The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe portrayed the asymmetries of the accords and its impacts on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In writing for the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Advising Editor Fintan O’Toole, in a headlined piece titled “No Endgame in Gaza,” stated, “Enough” is the word that then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stressed in his remarkable speech of September 1993 at the signing of the Oslo Accords: “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. … We are today giving peace a chance and saying to you and saying again to you: Enough.”

Leading up to the late 1980s, it was well established that the Arab-Israeli conflict was an asymmetrical tinderbox, and that sources of “Palestinian terrorism” contained root causes. In October 1985, American-Arab Relations Committee President M.T. Mehdi wrote in a Times letter to the editor that Palestinian seajacking was a by-product and result of U.S. skyjacking. He explained how U.S. condemnation of Palestinian violence lacked a moral foundation because it views Arab acts of violence as terrorism but calls Israeli acts of violence that have killed and wounded hundreds of Palestinians, Tunisians, and other Arabs “self-defense.”

Furthermore, the popular and mainstream press wasn’t necessarily against exposing, for instance, Israeli police brutality and fraudulent land purchases on the West Bank, as former Reuters Correspondent Bernard Edinger wrote in 1985 when covering the slain Palestinian investigative reporter Hassan Abdul Halim Fakih. Israel’s extremism perhaps opened the door for a modicum of radical pushback here and there in the agenda-setting corporate press. For instance, the noteworthy Jewish Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein published an extended letter to the editor that challenged the thesis of an uninhabited Palestine in the late 19th century. In an opinion piece on Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister, former Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote in November 1986 that “diplomacy is not theology.”

Also in 1986, Henry Finkelstein, representing the New Jewish Agenda in Brooklyn, wrote that for Arab residents, Gaza is like South Africa’s apartheid town of Soweto. In the same year, Queens College sociology professor Steven M. Cohen indicated that half of U.S. Jews supported a Palestinian homeland. Just before the First Intifada, it was common for U.S. Jews to support Gaza and contribute to humanitarian causes, and the press covered it more than they do today, a widespread current discrepancy as noted by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting journalist Ari Paul. For example, Marjorie M. Anderson, an English teacher and member of the Abington Monthly Meeting, a group of Philadelphia-area Quakers dedicated to activism and Middle East peace, lived and worked in Gaza in 1986. Anderson later worked with members of Jewish Voice for Peace in the late 1990s.

[Chris] Hedges was critical of the peace process and wary of its outcomes, stating that, “The Palestinians will not be permitted to have normal foreign relations like maintaining embassies or consulates with other countries.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote of the clashes that continued in Arab territory as Israeli forces shot at Gaza youth protesters, thus providing further motivations for mounting Palestinian resistance. As the first sustained, largescale series of protests in 1987, known as the First Intifada, drew near, Friedman also covered widening protests after the murdering of 35-year-old Inayat Samir Hindi. Although a tame liberal, Times columnist Anthony Lewis would also regularly write about Israel’s tactics of repression in his “Abroad at Home” column.

On the 20-year anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, December 1987 marked the first time Palestinians engaged in an Intifada. In what was mainly a weaponless uprising and insurrection, the disproportionate and extreme Israeli response helped Palestinians to get worldwide attention as well as international and institutional support for the human rights issue of our time. After the PLO recognized Israel in 1988 and agreed to obtaining less than a quarter of original Palestine territory, Israel did not come to terms.

Leading up to 1992’s secret talks under Oslo was June 1990’s mounting U.S. pressure on Israel to negotiate, October 1990’s Haram al-Sharif Massacre, 1991’s First Gulf War, and October’s Madrid Conference. October 18, 1991, saw the U.S. “letter of assurance” to the Palestinian people. As 1993 approached, in the final year of the First Intifada, Times Israeli West Bank beat reporter Joel Greenberg commented on how the Israeli Supreme Court was unjustly overruling Geneva precedence for deportations.

Meanwhile, Times contributing writer Clyde Haberman wrote about the expulsion of hundreds of Palestinians in the occupied territories. His article featured a photo of Israeli soldiers blindfolding Palestinians during a mass deportation. The menacing imagery graced the front page and inside pages of The New York Times. Haberman wrote another piece citing Gaza and West Bank as a collective prison.

The PLO and Israel drafted the Oslo Accords in Norway in 1993. The treaty served as a series of diplomatic agreements to address the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The discussions resulted in a Palestinian Authority that oversaw the West Bank and Gaza for a period of five years and further established permanent diplomatic talks in the interest of refugees and borders. Times correspondent and bureau chief Serge Schmemann recently wrote of the lost promise of the Oslo Accords and reflected on this “sad footnote to history.” He commented on its continued relevance:

However it plays out, the root of the problem identified by the Palestinians and Israelis in what is still the closest they have come to an accommodation remains the same: The Palestinians will gain freedom only when Israelis find acceptance and security, and Israelis will achieve that bitahon, the broad Hebrew term for security that so pervades Israel’s consciousness, only when the Palestinians have sovereignty over their lives.

Former Nation Senior Editor Roane Carey said recently of the Oslo period, “It was the many frequent closures — a kind of off-and-on, unpredictable blockade — that, along with rapid settlement growth, disillusioned Palestinians about those agreements. Israel experienced an economic boom during the Oslo period, while Palestinians suffered an economic depression. So much for the ‘hopeful’ epoch of the Oslo ‘peace process.’” Carey was referring to a 1996 article by Times West Bank beat reporter Greenberg that described the consequences of the Israeli blockade and border closings in the West Bank and Gaza. Greenberg at the time was effectively a “colleague” of Palestinian journalists in the 1980s and 1990s.

Journalists engaged in principled and courageous press coverage revealed to their readers the asymmetrical nature of the conflicts that persist in the present.

Throughout the 1990s, the mainstream agenda-setting corporate media covered the Middle East’s Oslo period with a combination of assurance and uncertainty, while attempting balanced analyses. The accords’ initial signing in 1993 included the iconic handshake between Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House. It was extensively depicted with hope, optimism and lofty expectations. The accords were considered a historic breakthrough that included principles for Palestinian self-rule.

In terms of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, positioned between Oslo I and II, and after reporting on the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre in which far right extremist Baruch Goldstein carried out a mass shooting, journalist Chris Hedges noted how the ceremony faltered in the last-minute dispute over borders and withdrawal from Jericho in The New York Times on May 5, 1994. From the outset, Hedges was critical of the peace process and wary of its outcomes, stating that, “The Palestinians will not be permitted to have normal foreign relations like maintaining embassies or consulates with other countries.”

Hedges expressed concerns about the impact of the Oslo Accords on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the agreements were vague, did not lead to a sustainable and just outcome, and restricted Palestinian movement. Further, he raised issues related to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements; the lack of progress on key final border status issues; and the overall failure to achieve anything close to a permanent, lasting peace.

On November 4, 1995, an Israeli terrorist opposed to Oslo, Yigal Amir, murdered Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, paving the way for Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term only a few years later. Netanyahu, supported by the Likud Party, was “the best collaborator Hamas could hope for,” while simultaneously expanding Jewish settlements, wrote Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, “Netanyahu later [bragged] about sabotaging the Oslo process, telling a group of settlers in 2001: ‘I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.’”

As Oslo was already designed to fail, the conditions around any prospects for peace deteriorated even further. Both former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, proponents of settlement expansion, intensified friction and undermined Palestinian security and land rights. In 1997, Israel handed over most of Hebron to Palestinian authority but secured and held the enclaves of Israeli settlement.

The mainstream media’s coverage of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s covered the period with a mixture of optimism, critical inquiry and consideration to the changing dynamics of the overall peace process. Thought-provoking visuals of the time were stark, leaving us only to wonder the possibilities for a political cartoonist like Auth or Wasserman today.

U.S. backing, Israeli illegalities and Palestinian reactions hampered the Oslo process, but journalists engaged in principled and courageous press coverage revealed to their readers the asymmetrical nature of the conflicts that persist in the present.

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