Guardian distorts Obama’s remarks on settlements at Ramallah news conference

A March 22 edition of the Guardian’s ongoing Middle East Live Blog, edited by Matthew Weaver, included the following dispatch on President Obama’s March 21 news conference with Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Palestinians had hoped for a gesture of friendship from Obama on his four-hour visit to Ramallah, instead, the president berated their leader Mahmoud Abbas for insisting on a freeze on new settlements as a precondition to re-starting peace talks, calling them merely “an irritant”. 

The text in the highlighted sentence contains a hyperlink which takes you to a March 21 Guardian report by Matthew Kalman reporting from Ramallah, titled ‘Obama wins few friends on flying stop to West Bank‘, which contained the same characterization of Obama’s remarks at the news conference:

Obama berated Abbas for insisting on a freeze on new settlements as a precondition to re-starting peace talks, calling them merely “an irritant”.

So, is that really what Obama said about the settlements at the Ramallah news conference with Abbas?

Hardly.

Here’s the relevant passage, (from a full transcript of the news conference) from Obama’s response to a journalist’s question about the issue of settlements:

Now, one of the challenges I know has been continued settlement activity in the West Bank area.  And I’ve been clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leadership that it has been the United States’ policy, not just for my administration but for all proceeding administrations, that we do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace.  So I don’t think there’s any confusion in terms of what our position is.

I will say, with respect to Israel, that the politics there are complex and I recognize that that’s not an issue that’s going to be solved immediately.  It’s not going to be solved overnight.

On the other hand, what I shared with President Abbas and I will share with the Palestinian people is that if the expectation is, is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point for negotiations.

So I think it’s important for us to work through this process, even if there are irritants on both sides.  The Israelis have concerns about rockets flying into their cities last night. And it would be easy for them to say, you see, this is why we can’t have peace because we can’t afford to have our kids in beds sleeping and suddenly a rocket comes through the roof.  But my argument is even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement…

The President’s clear point was that “settlements” are indeed an impediment to peace, but that they represents an issue (as with others) which can only be worked out through negotiations – not as a precondition before talks could proceed.

Further, if you want to argue that Obama was calling settlements a mere “irritant”, then, based on his full reply, you could similarly argue that he also characterized rocket attacks as a “mere irritant”.

The lead of the Guardian Middle East Live blog could just as easily have been the following: 

The President referred to thousands of rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli men, women and children merely as an “irritant”

But, of course, that would be a selective and completely dishonest characterization of what the President said, wouldn’t it? 

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