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Times Again Reveals Its Political Stripes in Israel Coverage

NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller warned last week that the use of terms like "right-wing" when reporting on Israel could indicate a slanted report. So why does the phrase keep cropping up on its front page?

Discussing his paper's coverage of Israel's incursion into Gaza, NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller warned last week that the use of terms like "left-wing" and "right-wing" could indicate a slanted report:


To describe a politician as "liberal" or "conservative" (while almost always inexact) is generally neutral. To describe the same politician as "left-wing" or "right-wing" may say more about you than about your subject. It identifies you.


So what does it say when the phrase "right-wing" crops up several times in Times reporting, first on Monday's front page, now in Wednesday's front-page coverage of the tight electoral battle between Israel's centrist, morepro-PalestinianKadima Party and the conservative Likud?


Reporters Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner reported on "A Close Battle In Israel Vote":


Israel's centrist Kadima Party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the more conservative Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu were locked in a tight battle for leadership early Wednesday that left unclear the shape of the next Israeli government.


The close race all but guaranteed that the political jockeying to assemble a governing coalition would be intense and lengthy. And it left open the question of whether Ms. Livni, a supporter of a peace accord with the Palestinians, or the more hawkish Mr. Netanyahu would form the next government. Commentators predicted political chaos in the coming weeks. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Kadima was marginally ahead in the parliamentary elections, The Associated Press reported. But it was unclear if Kadima's lead would survive the final count, especially with the votes of soldiers still to be counted, or if the party could muster enough political partners for a stable coalition.


Mr. Netanyahu's party had been the front-runner in nearly all voter surveys for months, but the most recent public opinion polls showed the race tightening. In speeches to their followers early Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu and Ms. Livni each claimed the right to form the next government.


With the latest vote tally in Tuesday's election, Kadima appeared to have 28 out of 120 parliamentary seats, and Likud appeared to have 27. The right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu of Avigdor Lieberman, which had been surging in recent weeks in the wake of Israel's three-week war in Gaza, stood at 15 seats, with the Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak at 13 seats.


Normally the leader of the party with the most votes is given the chance to form the next government, but the right-wing bloc, of which Likud is the largest party, seemed to have won significantly more votes than the left.


There's also plain old presentation bias. Livni is described in flattering personal terms, and her liberal "two-state" position is presented as a necessity, while the description of the more conservative Netanyahu is curt and formulaic. And the story concludes with yet another of Keller's telltale signs of slant.


Ms. Livni, 50, is a relative newcomer to Israeli politics and would be the second woman to become prime minister. A lawyer in private practice and a onetime agent in Paris for Mossad, an Israeli intelligence service, she was first elected to Parliament a decade ago and held her first ministerial post under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She has risen partly on her reputation for honesty and integrity.


She was born to a hawkish Zionist family that opposed any territorial compromise in the name of peace. But along with many members of Likud, she shifted toward the center in the past decade and ultimately helped set up Kadima in the center. She now argues fervently that Israel's future security depends on the establishment of a stable Palestinian state.


Mr. Netanyahu, 59, was prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and stayed in Likud when Mr. Sharon and others formed Kadima, although he considers himself a pragmatist and says he, too, would like to form a centrist governing coalition.


He said that he had formed a good rapport with President Obama in two meetings when Mr. Obama was the Democratic candidate, and that he plans to bolster Palestinian economic and civil institutions before starting more serious political negotiations.


Ms. Livni has countered that a right-wing government led by Mr. Netanyahu would inevitably clash with Washington.