The New York Times Lament

The New York Times has long made it a habit to inflate the number of Palestinian refugees displaced during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. From 850,000 (1952), it repeatedly escalated the number, with no evidence to support its claims, to 870,000 (1953), 900,000 (1954), and “almost one million” (1955).

In his March 11 article about the “Netanyahu-Trump Partnership,” Jerusalem Bureau Chief David M. Halbfinger dismissively cited “Israel’s argument that millions of Palestinians should no longer be counted as refugees.” But there is good reason to dismiss Halbfinger’s dismissal — it is false.

The meticulous research of historian Efraim Karsh, accessible in his Palestine Betrayed (2010), reveals the reality: a total number between 583,000-609,000 Palestinian refugees. They departed for various reasons: their leaders (especially in Haifa) urged them to do so, promising their return once Israel was annihilated; to escape approaching Israeli soldiers; and, in one instance only (Lydda), because Israeli military forces, encountering strong Arab resistance, drove them out.

The most reliable estimate of still-living Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war is approximately 30,000, all of whom, by definition, are at least 71 years old. It would do Israel no demographic harm to permit their return — without, to be sure, their children, grandchildren, or other extended family members. Its chance of Palestinian acceptance, to be sure, is nil. Why would Palestinian leaders or their followers relinquish a false claim that preserves their victim status when even The New York Times still embraces it?

But suffering Palestinian “refugees” are merely a small part of Halbfinger’s — and the Times — critique of Israel. Far worse, Halbfinger’s opening words assert, is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “secret weapon” in his struggle for reelection: “It is President Trump.” To be sure, as Halbfinger concedes, Israel has reason to be grateful to the Trump administration that is so relentlessly despised by the Times and other liberal media. It has (echoing the current indictment against Netanyahu) “showered” the Israeli leader “with gift after politically charged gift”; cut aid to the Palestinian Authority (some of which is paid to families of convicted terrorists); and dismissed the (false) claim of five million Palestinian “refugees.”

With little evident understanding of Israel’s time-honored propensity for coalition governments needed to reach a Knesset majority, Halbfinger imagines/wishes that Netanyahu’s defeat “is now a serious possibility.” Why? Because his Likud party is “trailing that of a popular former army chief, Benny Gantz, in the polls.” Even if Netanyahu wins, Halbfinger surmises (erroneously), he may be “unable to form a government” because Gantz has vowed not to enter a coalition partnership with him.

But Gantz’s lack of support is hardly crucial to the forming of a Likud-led government. Like all of his predecessors, Netanyahu will have to stitch together a ruling coalition from smaller parties eager to retain, or gain, government power. To be sure, Halbfinger and his newspaper would lament that outcome. But in Israel, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” does not require capitulation to Times wishes.

Halbfinger notes – wishfully – that the current criminal case against Netanyahu “could dislodge him from power once and for all.” More likely, he fears, President Trump will continue to “toss his way” more “plaudits” or even the “meatier bone” of recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — as if that is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy determined to protect Israel. Has the Jerusalem Bureau Chief visited that backbone of northern Israeli security?

In an incomprehensible assertion, Halbfinger claims that “there is no antecedent for the kind of feedback loop” that exists between Trump and Netanyahu, “at least in stylistic terms” — whatever that means. But Harry Truman and David Ben-Gurion got along just fine; American recognition of Israel was the result. Ronald Reagan understood the need for a militarily strong Israel and responded enthusiastically to “the only strategic asset in the region on which we can rely.”

If The New York Times was not brimming with discomfort over a Jewish state that does not embrace its liberal credo, it might actually locate a Jerusalem Bureau Chief who does more than repeat liberal clichés. But that could subvert all the news that’s fit to print.

About the Author
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009). His new book, Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, will be published in February by Academic Studies Press.