Israel Rejected a Cease-Fire. The Media Isn’t Telling Us.

Israeli officials just rejected a cease-fire deal that could have brought hostages back because Israel wants to continue waging war. This should be a scandal — but American mainstream media isn’t reporting on it.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun / AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, Israel began its long-threatened attack on Rafah, the southern Gaza city that 1.4 million Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been corralled into over the past half year on the basis that it would be safe from Israeli attack. Israel began this offensive shortly after its officials across the political spectrum rejected a cease-fire agreement put forward by Qatar and Egypt, mere hours after Hamas agreed to it.

The deal would have led to the release of Israeli hostages in return for an indefinite end to the war, but Israeli officials charged that its terms were “far from” their “obligatory demands.” That was two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anonymously told the press on May 4 that “Israel will under no circumstances agree to end the war as part of an agreement to free our abductees.” Now, without even hiding behind anonymity, Netanyahu has unabashedly and publicly vowed to go into Rafah “with or without a deal.” One US official told Reuters that Israeli officials “have not appeared to approach the latest phase of negotiations [with Hamas] in good faith.”

These are the plain facts of the situation: a deal was on the table that would have freed Israeli hostages, Hamas agreed to it, but Israeli leadership rejected it because those leaders oppose ending the war under any circumstances that don’t lead to Hamas’s destruction, leading it to promptly attack Rafah.

So how did some of the leading US mainstream outlets portray what just happened? Bearing in mind that a large share of news consumers read only the headlines, it’s safe to say that most would have no idea about any of this.

In fact, the impression they would probably be left with from perusing the front pages of some of the country’s leading news outlets is that the potential cease-fire agreement — whose terms were, for some unclear reason, inadequate — simply fell apart, as these things tend to do, and that in the meantime, Israel continues to doggedly and in good faith try and make a cease-fire work as it embarks on its attack on Rafah.

If you want a model headline that US news outlets could have emulated to get across the facts of the situation, you could do worse than Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s report on Netanyahu’s anonymous rubbishing of the cease-fire deal on May 4: “Hamas Accepts Gaza Cease-Fire Deal; Israeli Officials Reject Prospect of War Ending.”

But stateside, only one outlet of the seven I examined even came close to accurately depicting the state of play on the ground to US readers: USA Today. “Hamas Says It Accepts New Cease-Fire Proposal; Israel Readies Invasion,” went the paper’s headline — not perfect, but succinctly and fairly effectively capturing reality, despite the limits of headline-writing.

The Big Three newspapers, by contrast, were less clear. The Washington Post declared that Israel was pressing on with its “attack on Rafah as it negotiates possible cease-fire deal.” The headline suggests falsely that Israel is seriously pursuing negotiations for a cease-fire instead of insisting on the fundamentally paradoxical and contradictory demand that an eventual cease-fire deal allow Israel to continue waging war.

It also fails to so much as imply that Israel had been the one to reject a cease-fire deal that would have seen its hostages released. It’s particularly disappointing, since the actual body of the Post report takes care to document the fundamental rift at heart, involving Israel’s insistence on a merely temporary cease-fire so it can continue the war after a pause.

The New York Times, meanwhile, informed readers: “White House Scrambles to Keep Shifting Gaza Peace Talks Afloat.”

“The flurry of actions underscores how fluid the situation is as President Biden and his team try to end the war that has devastated the enclave,” went the Times’ subheading, which, together with the headline, epitomized the approach that has characterized the paper’s headline-writing on the war over this past half-year: events, occurring and moving around at random like the swirling of the cosmos, and ones to which the United States is barely more than a hapless onlooker.

The paper did take care to note that Hamas had “agreed to a cease-fire plan,” but added “that Israel said [it] did not meet its demands” — an Israeli claim that is apparently impossible to independently make a verdict about, say, by looking at Israeli officials’ own statements on the matter. This was, the paper explained, merely “the latest in a long series of negotiating stumbles”: accidents and mishaps happening for no apparent reason.

But special mention must go to the Wall Street Journal, which probed new heights of obfuscation with its front-page headlines. “U.S., Israel Rift Widens Over Rafah,” it announced, adding that “a cease-fire appears elusive,” for no particular reason, presumably, other than that’s simply life.

It gets worse when we turn to cable news. CNN was the best of the lot, with a headline announcing the Israeli attack on Rafah “as cease-fire deal falls short” and noting that “the militant group [Hamas]” had “accepted” the proposal, but quoting Israeli claims that it was “still ‘far’ from meeting demands.” A reader would have no idea from this description that the reason the deal was “far” and “falls short” was because Israel’s “demands” were fundamentally impossible.

Fox and MSNBC, meanwhile, barely even bothered to inform readers any of this was happening. MSNBC at least declared in a headline pushed to the side of the page that “Hamas accepts deal including hostage and prisoner swap.”

For the most part, though, looking at MSNBC’s front page, you would never know there was anything happening in the world besides Donald Trump’s hush money trial and a variety of other matters concerning the former president. Trump was the subject of almost every top MSNBC story, including three separate videos of “Trump trial recaps.” The only two exceptions were one story about the history behind this year’s Met Gala dress code and a year-old story about a CEO’s infamous call for unemployment to humble workers who had become “arrogant” due to the pandemic.

But it’s Fox News that really takes the cake.

It, too, was preoccupied by Trump’s trial, along with a platter of conservative clickbait: a video of Bill Maher talking about how he would respond to Trump winning, a CNN reporter’s horror at having dinner with Trump supporters, New York police’s confrontation with a pro-Palestinian “mob.” There was no mention of a cease-fire anywhere on the front page, aside from a week-old story about a Muslim Boston city councillor including language accusing Israel of apartheid and genocide (an “antisemitic message,” in Fox’s words) in a draft cease-fire resolution.

Buried way, way down the page, a Fox headline informed readers that Israel had begun “‘targeted’ strikes against Hamas in Rafah,” strikes that at that point had already killed innocent Palestinians.

We have seen throughout Israel’s war that, depending on where you primarily get your news from — particularly those most heavily reliant on cable and legacy news — you may find yourself living in a fundamentally different reality from members of the US public who look elsewhere to inform themselves. As the war creeps into what may be its bloodiest phase yet, and Israeli leaders make clearer than ever they will not halt the slaughter unless they are forced to by the United States, the mainstream press is failing in its task of informing the public.