ANALYSIS / Netanyahu, Abbas and the Battle for the U.S. Press

The Palestinian President scored a PR victory this week when his Israeli negotiating partner failed to convince American journalists of his commitment to peace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to strike a blow for Israel in the international media apparently misfired this week when he failed to convince a group of top American journalists of Israel's commitment to peace.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu hosted a group of senior New York Times staff for a personal briefing at his office in Jerusalem. The aim: to make the world understand that it is the Palestinians, not settlers, blocking the path to peace.

Netanyahu, Abbas - AP - Sept 2 2010

Netanyahu did not have a captive audience, however, and the U.S. reports also found time for a parallel briefing from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank.

The prime minister is no stranger to the art of winning over a trans-Atlantic audience – while in opposition he used his fluent, U.S.-accented tones to powerful effect on the American networks. But on this occasion, it seems he failed to carry the debate, and Friday's New York Times editorial, which ran under the headline 'Enough game-playing' made no bones about who is to blame for the impasse.

"We think the burden is on Mr. Netanyahu to get things moving again," the Times said. "The settlements are illegal under international law, and resuming the moratorium, which expired on September 26, will in no way harm Israel’s national interest."

The editorial also opined that Netanyahu had erred badly in spurning an offer from U.S. President Barack Obama of security guarantees in return for an extension of the settlement freeze.

"President Obama made a very generous - too generous, we believe - offer to Israel, to get Mr. Netanyahu to extend the moratorium," the editorial continued. "It included additional security guarantees and more fighter planes, missile defense, satellites. Mr. Netanyahu still refused, insisting that the hard-line members of his coalition would never go along. He then added to the controversy by proposing that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

"Many Israelis worry that he is putting too many obstacles in the way of a deal and raising unnecessary questions about Israel’s already accepted identity."

While the paper did not spare Abbas from criticism – his stance on settlement had been misguidedly absolute – there was no doubt that Netanyahu's rebuff to Obama sparked anger at the Times.

"Enough game-playing. Mr. Netanyahu should accept Mr. Obama’s offer and be ready to form a new governing coalition if some current members bolt," the article concluded, going as far as to hint that the rightwing premier should be looking to the centrist Kadima party as a partner for peace.

Unlike the honey-tongued Netanyahu, Abbas is known neither for charisma nor seductive rhetoric. But whether through his powers of persuasion or merely the strength of his argument, he has scored a victory his rival in swaying one America's foremost opinion leaders.