While some see hope of a normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the New York Times chooses to emphasize the negative. More on how the Times’ reporters have recently covered Saudi-Israel relations can be found here.
A New York Times news article about Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia is so egregiously slanted against Israel that it reads as if it were dictated by the Iranian information ministry.
The article describes normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel as “a move that would be opposed by many Saudi citizens.” Why the negative framing? It’s also a move that would be favored by many Saudi citizens. Why doesn’t the Times say that?
Public opinion polling in unfree countries is always a dicey proposition because people aren’t accustomed to expressing freely their genuine views, but a March/April 2023 poll for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 38 percent of Saudi citizens agreed with the statement, “If it would help our economy, it would be acceptable to have some business deals with Israeli companies.” The Institute noted, “affirmative responses to this question in Egypt or Jordan, both officially at peace with Israel for several decades, have hovered at around the 10% range in every recent survey. The relatively high and steady level of Saudi popular support for such initiatives is especially notable because most of the fieldwork for this survey was conducted during Ramadan—a month of heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians around the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as was widely reported in Saudi Arabia.”
Why didn’t the Times report emphasize the positive from that latest (March/April 2023) opinion poll of Saudis, which turned up the astonishing result that the number of Saudis who are willing to contemplate doing business deals with the Israelis is four times the percentage of Egyptians and Jordanians, who have both had peace treaties with Jerusalem for decades? Isn’t that the most telling finding of that poll? The article emphasizes the negative; it is slanted to make it appear that a normalization of ties between Israel and the KSA is nearly impossible. And not just impossible, but from the viewpoint of the article’s main source, Sarah Leah Whitson, undesirable – because anything that would help Israel’s acceptance by its Arab neighbors is to be deplored.
The focus solely on opposing public opinion would be unacceptable in Times reporting on U.S. domestic policy. Imagine the Times writing about, say, gun control or abortion laws or racial preferences in college admissions by merely noting that they are “opposed by many American citizens” without probing the motivation of the opposition or the underlying merits of the policy, and without noting that some people also favor the policies or laws. Maybe those Saudis opposing normalization with Israel oppose it because they were fed antisemitic propaganda for years by state-controlled media, mosques, and school textbooks, some of which are now changing for the better?
The reporters might have mentioned that the Saudi excising of antisemitic passages in its textbooks is likely to lead ever less-hostile attitudes toward the Jewish state.
It’s not only the framing and context about public opinion that is slanted, but the source selection.
Two paragraphs are devoted to quoting Hussein Ibish, who is identified only as “a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.” The Times doesn’t explain what the Arab Gulf States Institute is, but its funders include Aramco, the Saudi oil company, and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law and lobbying firm that has been a $150,000 a month registered foreign agent of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Hussein Ibish is paid indirectly by the Saudis, who support financially, through both the Saudi national oil company and a K Street law-and-lobbying firm, the Arab Gulf States Institute he works for. On the Saudi political spectrum, Ibish stands with those who are so far lukewarm about Saudi normalization of ties with the Jewish state.
Two additional paragraphs are devoted to quoting Sarah Leah Whitson, who is identified only as “executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now” and introduced as an advocate of “tougher policies on Saudi Arabia.” The paragraphs from Whitson are worth quoting in full because they are pretty rich:
Human rights is nowhere on the agenda [for Blinken’s meetings with MbS in Riyadh] other than this reduced, dumbed-down version: We’re going to lobby to get Americans released from prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. She added that she saw little difference between Mr. Biden’s actions and those of President Donald J. Trump, who sought to befriend Prince Mohammed. (Six months after leaving his White House job, Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, received a $2 billion investment from a Saudi fund led by the prince.)
Look at the Biden administration’s actual policy, look at the actual relationship,” Ms. Whitson said. “It’s similar, if not far more humiliating. MBS has been spanking President Biden for the last two years.”
The Times doesn’t tell readers that “Democracy for the Arab World Now” is, according to NGO Monitor, a group, funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, that advocates boycotts and sanctions against Israel, opposes arms sales to Israel, and promotes the “Israel-apartheid” lie….
Sarah Leah Whitson has a long record of anti-Israel activity and antisemitic statements, made at HRW, where she worked for sixteen years as the head of its Middle East and North African Division. She spent almost as much time compiling anti-Israel reports than on all her other projects put together. The New York Times report passes over all that in silence and identifies Whitson only as the “executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now,” introducing her as an advocate of “tougher policies on Saudi Arabia.” Not a word about how her anti-Israel advocacy helps explain her determination to prevent any bettering of Saudi-Israel relations through Saudi adhesion to the Abraham Accords.
Just five years ago, Whitson was not criticizing Saudi Arabia, but was in Riyadh, actively soliciting Saudi funds for HRW, hoping that her anti-Israel record at HRW would stand her in good stead.
At this point, with Israel hoping, with American help, to convince Saudi Arabia to normalize ties and to join the Abraham Accords, Whitson’s preferred way to hurt Israel is to try to prevent such a development. She has been attempting to throw a spanner in the works, reporting both on just how unpopular a move that would be for Saudis (instead of how popular, with nearly 40% of Saudis ready to make “business deals” with Israelis), and also emphasizing how bad Saudi Arabia itself is, as a violator of human rights, in order to ensure that the American government doesn’t try to coax the Saudis into joining the Abraham Accords by agreeing to meet most of their demands, including much greater access to advanced American weaponry and a security guarantee.
The two Times reporters ought to have found out about Sarah Leah Whitson’s 16-year long record of anti-Israel activity at HRW, before relying so credulously on her as a source. They might have held her up as one example among many, of anti-Israel activists who have been horrified by the success of the Abraham Accords, and who are determined to keep Saudi Arabia from becoming the next member of the Accords. They, who never made a fuss about Saudi mistreatment of its own citizens before, are all of a sudden deeply concerned with the Saudi human rights record, as one way to curb American enthusiasm for coaxing the Saudis, through concessions, into joining the Accords. The real target is not Saudi Arabia, but the Jewish state.