Times tries to drop settlements funding bomb on Obama-Bibi meeting


With a White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled for Tuesday morning — by all accounts to project an image of accord and friendliness after months of a rough going between Israel and the United States — The New York Times does its best to complicate things with a lede story highlighting the use of U.S. tax exempt funds in Jewish communities in the West Bank.

The problem with this story is not errors of fact. Indeed, it’s widely known and no secret that Americans can claim tax deductions for charitable donations to 501(c)3 organizations that contribute money to Jewish causes in the West Bank, from after-school programs for kids in Jerusalem’s eastern suburbs to bullet-proof vests for security patrols in far-flung Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. Groups from the Jewish Federations of North America to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim participate in such funding, and they say so clearly on their websites, in letters to donors and in public materials. This is a legitimate feature story.

But why run it as a double-column lede with a two-page inside spread (complete with maps and, online, interactive features) on the day Obama and Bibi meet? The Times has positioned this story as if it’s some big investigative scoop that requires response — presumably by U.S. authorities — when in reality its an old and quite well-known story. The point, it seems to me, is to create the misimpression among readers that this is big news, and to stir up trouble for the Obama-Bibi confab.

By contrast, here’s what the Times had to report about Palestinian incitement to violence against Jews on the morning the Palestinian Authority president visited the White House on June 9: Nothing. Same goes for the last meeting between Obama and the Saudi king.

In the story, reported by no fewer than five correspondents, the Times takes pains to highlight the significance of the story, but a close reading show it’s obvious that they’re stretching. The authors write:

The use of charities to promote a foreign policy goal is neither new nor unique — Americans also take tax breaks in giving to pro-Palestinian groups. But the donations to the settler movement stand out because of the centrality of the settlement issue in the current talks and the fact that Washington has consistently refused to allow Israel to spend American government aid in the settlements. Tax breaks for the donations remain largely unchallenged, and unexamined by the American government. The Internal Revenue Service declined to discuss donations for West Bank settlements. State Department officials would comment only generally, and on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a problem,” a senior State Department official said, adding, “It’s unhelpful to the efforts that we’re trying to make.”

Daniel C. Kurtzer, the United States ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, called the issue politically delicate. “It drove us crazy,” he said. But “it was a thing you didn’t talk about in polite company.”

He added that while the private donations could not sustain the settler enterprise on their own, “a couple of hundred million dollars makes a huge difference,” and if carefully focused, “creates a new reality on the ground.”

Most contributions go to large, established settlements close to the boundary with Israel that would very likely be annexed in any peace deal, in exchange for land elsewhere. So those donations produce less concern than money for struggling outposts and isolated settlements inhabited by militant settlers. Even small donations add to their permanence.

Read the story here.

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