Ben Smith’s Fair and Balanced Take

On Monday, Politico‘s Ben Smith ran a long piece that was advertised as a “view from the Middle East” about the Obama administration’s failures in the Middle East peace process. Andrew Sullivan quickly criticized the article for its extensive and credulous reliance on members of the Netanyahu government and other assorted Likudniks. Smith defends himself by pointing to Shmuel Rosner, who denies both that he himself is a Likudnik and that Smith’s article had any conceivable hawkish or pro-Israeli slant. In fact, Rosner argues, “Sullivan was quick to denounce this piece because it stated what all Middle East analysts understand: Obama’s policies didn’t make much sense. And it’s not just ‘Likudniks’ saying this. It is also the Palestinians and the Israeli opposition.”

First, Rosner’s attempt to be coy and deny any ideological slant on his own part is unconvincing. No one except Rosner can tell us who he votes for, but anyone with any familiarity whatsoever with Rosner’s writing knows that he leans strongly to the right. Similarly, Rosner touts the fact that Smith cites three members of Kadima, the opposition party, as evidence that he is giving voice to Israeli doves. But of course, Kadima (the party founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon) is “dovish” only in the most minimal sense of the word. To frame the entire debate as one between Kadima and Likud is to restrict it to a debate between the center-right and hard-right.

Rosner also notes that Smith has (quite generously, he implies) cited not one but two Palestinians in the article — in this case, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat and Ghaith al-Omari of the strongly establishmentarian American Task Force for Palestine. According to the count that Rosner himself gives, this makes two Palestinians as opposed to thirteen Israelis. Moreover, both Erekat and al-Omari are given only a couple brief sentences each, while various Israelis are given much more extended quotes. By my count, Palestinian voices account for 87 words of this 2663-word article — that is, less than 3%. Given that Palestinians make up around half of the population between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, this is simply inexcusable.

Most misleading of all is Rosner’s claim that Smith’s article simply states what everyone knows to be true — that Obama’s policies in Israel/Palestine have been a failure. I, for one, would not dispute this characterization, but Smith’s “view from the Middle East” gives the impression that people “in the region” feel that Obama has failed because he has pressed Israel too hard. In actuality, of course, virtually everyone in the region outside of Israel — not to mention virtually everywhere else in the world — feels that Obama has failed because he has been afraid to press Israel hard enough.

I would have no problem with Smith’s article if, instead of being titled “View from the Middle East,” it had been accurately titled “View from the Israeli Political Establishment.” As is, however, the article is deeply misleading, and Sullivan was right to call out its bias. Smith can be a good reporter, but he unfortunately seems to have internalized the Politico ethos that strives to conform as closely as possible to Washington conventional wisdom.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.