Commentary Magazine


No Accountability for Zakaria’s Fiction

Last summer television personality and columnist Fareed Zakaria was suspended by both TIME magazine and CNN for committing plagiarism in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post. Yet the ubiquitous voice of conventional wisdom about foreign policy was soon back in his familiar haunts undaunted by his humiliation and allowed to pretend as if nothing had happened. But the problem with Zakaria wasn’t his lack of acknowledgement of the work of others so much as it is his penchant for ignoring inconvenient facts when advocating the policies that he urges the country to adopt as if they were self-evident.

A particularly egregious example of this trait was made clear last month when Zakaria was writing about President Obama’s trip to Israel. Zakaria wrote a column that endorsed the president’s speech to Israeli youth to pressure their government to make peace with the Palestinians. While, as we pointed out at the time, this appeal was directed to the wrong side of the dispute, Zakaria was entitled to his opinion about Israelis ought to do. What he was not entitled to was his own facts about the situation.

Zakaria wrote the following in support of his belief that the Israelis should go the extra mile and start making concessions:

After all, Israel has ruled millions of Palestinians without offering them citizenship or a state for 40 years.

As anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the conflict in the last generation, this is patently false.

Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians statehood and independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in July 2000 at Camp David. Yasir Arafat refused it to the chagrin of President Bill Clinton, who thought the offer would win him the Nobel Peace Prize he coveted. The Israelis repeated the offer the following January at Taba with advantages and got the same answer. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more generous offer of statehood that gave the putative state of Palestine even more territory. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas fled the talks rather than be forced to give an answer.

One may argue that Israel’s offers were insufficient, even though doing so means taking a position that goes far beyond the parameters for peace that President Obama has endorsed and which would compromise Israeli security as well as its rights. Anti-Zionists can say that an offer of separate Palestinian statehood that requires them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is unreasonable. But you can’t claim that Israel hasn’t made any offers of statehood and retain credibility.

Unless, that is, your name is Fareed Zakaria.

When Israeli blogger Jeffrey Grossman pointed this blatant error out, Zakaria could have quickly and quietly corrected the record and moved on. He did not. And when Grossman wrote to Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, he received the following reply:

The history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is contentious and, as I’m sure you know, subject to widely differing interpretation. Mr. Zakaria’s statement is within the bounds of acceptable interpretation for an opinion columnist.

The response of Hiatt, who has a well-earned reputation for fairness, is puzzling. After all, as Grossman has pointed out, not even the Palestinians claim they haven’t received an offer of statehood. They just say it wasn’t nearly good enough, especially since it didn’t include the poison pill they demand of every negotiation—a “right of return” for the descendants of the refugees of Israel’s War of Independence.

No one is saying that Zakaria isn’t within his rights to dismiss Israel’s offers, but he can’t ignore them and stay “within the bounds of acceptable interpretation.” His comments were not couched with language that gave him any wriggle room about the facts. If the Israelis have made offers—and they have—he’s made an error that requires a correction.

Of course, the reason why he won’t willingly make such a correction because reminding readers that Israel has tried and failed to entice the Palestinians to end the conflict by trading land for peace undermines the fallacious narrative of Zionist intransigence that he’s trying to promote. That’s a point that President Obama acknowledged in the very speech Zakaria was endorsing in his column.

Zakaria plays an authority about foreign policy on television but the closer you look at his views, the shakier his claim to expertise looks. Opinion columnists who need to doctor the facts in order to make their points aren’t merely wrong, they are charlatans of the sort that makes plagiarism look benign. The Post, which stood by Zakaria when he was embarrassed by his shoddy practices last year, needs to hold him accountable.

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