Ehud Barak and others attack The New York Times’ reporting

May 20, 2002


1. "Barak lashes critics" (Ha'aretz, May 20, 2002)
2. "Friedman's follies – all the peace-processing that's fit to print" (Weekly Standard, May 27, 2002)
3. "No 'Times' for a boycott" (Jewish Week, May 10, 2002)


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach:

(1) A piece in today's Ha'aretz: In an interview in the forthcoming edition of the New York Review of Books, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak lashes out at "Susan Sontag" of the New York Times, and others. (Ha'aretz says Susan Sontag, but they most likely mean the Times's former Jerusalem correspondent Deborah Sontag, who wrote a lengthy analysis of Barak's policies.) Barak also says that Arafat's aim is the elimination of Israel in stages. Arab dictators "are products of a culture in which to tell a lie… creates no dissonance," says Barak.

(2) An article from the new edition of the American magazine, The Weekly Standard, entitled "Friedman's follies – all the peace-processing that's fit to print." Martin Krossel criticizes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for various columns. He says that Friedman's column on the so-called Saudi peace initiative reads "like a bad B-movie script". (I attach this article not because I agree with all of it, but as a matter of interest since Mr. Friedman has great influence on various politicians and diplomats.)

(3) An article by Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the (New York) Jewish Week, criticizing the current boycott of the New York Times being organized by New York Jews and others over of the Times' "Palestinian-slanted coverage." (Those behind the campaign claim that "thousands" of readers have cancelled their subscriptions.) (Rosenblatt is a longtime subscriber to this list.)



Barak lashes critics
By Aluf Benn
May 20, 2002

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, Israeli Arabs could become the "spearhead" of the Palestinian struggle "and that may necessitate changes in the rule of the democratic game... in order to assure Israel's Jewish character," former prime minister Ehud Barak says in an interview in the next edition of the New York Review of Books.

Speaking with historian Benny Morris, Barak says it is possible that in a future deal, heavily populated Arab areas inside Israel – like Umm al- Fahm – could be transferred to the sovereignty of an emergent Palestinian state. He says such a transfer "could only be done by agreement – and I don't recommend that government spokesmen speak of it (openly). But such an exchange makes demographic sense, and is not inconceivable."

In the interview Barak responds to articles by Susan Sontag in The New York Times, and by former White House official Robert Malley with Hussein Agha, who have written that some of the blame for the failures at Camp David 2000 must be laid on Barak and then-president Bill Clinton. He says Yasser Arafat wants a Palestinian state over all the land that is now Israel.

Barak says Arafat's aim is the elimination of Israel in stages, starting with "legitimate" demands that Israel become a "state of all its citizens," and then take over through "demographics and attrition" with the Palestinian refugees serving as "a political-demographic tool" for undermining the state's existence. The Palestinians don't plan to "kick out" the Jews, says Barak, but want to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. "I believe that is their vision," he told Morris. Using salmon as a metaphor, he said the Palestinians would continue seeking return until the last of the "salmons" that remember where they spawned is gone.

Barak attacks Arafat's mendacity. "They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie... creates no dissonance," says Barak. "They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian cultures. Truth is an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purposes and that which doesn't."

Barak says that after the articles appeared charging him and Clinton with partial responsibility for the failure at Camp David, Clinton called him while Barak was vacationing in Sardinia. "What the hell is this," said Clinton about Sontag's article. "Why is she turning mistakes we made into the essence? The true story of Camp David was that for the first time in the history of the conflict, the American president put on the table a proposal... very close to the Palestinian demands, and Arafat refused even to accept it as a basis for negotiation, walked out of the room, and deliberately turned to terrorism. That's the real story - all the rest is gossip."



Friedman's follies – all the peace-processing that's fit to print.
By Martin Krossel
The Weekly Standard
May 27, 2002

Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times column of last February 17 reads like a bad B-movie script. Finding himself in Saudi Arabia on a press trip, Friedman explains he "took the opportunity" of a dinner with Crown Prince Abdullah to try out on the crown prince an idea he had floated in an earlier column.

What if the 22-member Arab League proposed a Middle East peace plan offering Israel diplomatic relations, normalized trade, and security guarantees in exchange for a total Israeli military withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War? Friedman characterized this as "full withdrawal, in accord with U.N. Resolution 242, for full peace between Israel and the entire Arab world."

An astonished Abdullah responded, "Have you broken into my desk?… This is exactly the idea I had in mind… I have drafted a speech along those lines.

My thinking was to deliver it before the Arab summit, and try to mobilize the entire Arab world behind it… I tell you if I were to pick up the phone now and ask someone to read you the speech, you will find it virtually identical to what you are talking about. I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don't reject or despise them."

This piece of theater was scripted to disguise the fact that the crown prince had intended all along to have Friedman make his proposal public. Abdullah wanted a PR coup in light of September 11, which had tarnished Saudi Arabia's image. He got his wish. After Friedman wrote his column, the "peace plan" took on a life of its own. It was praised by statesmen and journalists; and it got the crown prince a summit meeting with President Bush.

Thomas Friedman has a knack for influencing both public debate and the words and actions of statesmen. Back in 1990, it was he who suggested to James Baker, then secretary of state, that Baker insult Israel by publicly declaring, "Everybody over there should know what the [White House] telephone is: 1-202-456-1414. When you're serious about peace, call us." Now, all these years later, his idea for inserting a NATO force between Israelis and Palestinians has picked up support inside the Beltway.

Friedman is a media star. "Tom's Journal" is now an occasional feature on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Friedman is a favorite foreign policy wonk of talk-show hosts from Charlie Rose to Don Imus. He recently won his third Pulitzer Prize, and he has received the National Book Award. His books "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" are required reading on Friedman's favorite subjects, the Arab-Israeli conflict and globalization.

Why is Friedman so influential? Certainly people listen to anyone who writes for the world's most prestigious newspaper. But there is more to Friedman's stardom. Reacting to the Saudi peace plan column, New York magazine's media critic Michael Wolff described Friedman as "a Hollywood character – Mr. Smith goes to Riyadh… He's naturally anti-intellectual. In a sense, he's anti-Times. He's evangelical."

Especially in his books, Friedman shows brilliant storytelling and reporting ability. He is a master of the quip and the cute turn of phrase. He can make arms control entertaining. His earthy language seems engaging on radio and television. But Friedman is also popular on the talk-show circuit precisely because he rarely breaks from the views of the Times or expresses an opinion outside the journalistic mainstream.

Of course, being "anti-intellectual" has its hazards. It can make a columnist superficial – and wrong. So it is that events keep failing to bear out Friedman's dire predictions – about, for example, NATO expansion, U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty, and progress toward a National Missile Defense, all of which he said would ruin U.S. relations with Russia. Instead, last week's establishment of a new partnership between NATO and Russia shows

U.S.-Russian relations to be in fine shape. So it is, too, that Friedman, undeterred by experience in places like China, goes on preaching globalization as a means to force authoritarian regimes to create democratic institutions.

Similarly glib is Friedman's proposal to insert NATO troops into the West Bank and Gaza. He never says how many troops will be needed to stop terrorist infiltration of Israel or what exactly the troops are supposed to do. When Israelis are attacked, will the NATO soldiers emulate the recent Israeli incursion into the West Bank, going house to house to arrest terror suspects? Or will they prevent Israel from retaliating? Friedman doesn't say.

Nor does he consider Israel's sad history with international forces. Before 1967, a United Nations force was supposed to prevent war between Israel and Egypt. But when, on the eve of the Six Day War, Egyptian president Nasser decided to attack Israel, he simply ordered the U.N. force to leave. It obeyed, and Egypt's attack proceeded unobstructed. Israelis are understandably reluctant to entrust their security to a foreign force.

Friedman is often critical of Arab leaders and Arab societies, but Israel is his main villain in the Middle East. For the most part, he draws little distinction between the region's only democracy and its authoritarian or totalitarian adversaries – except when arguing that Israel cannot stay Jewish and democratic while holding on to the West Bank and Gaza. And Friedman is clear: The chief obstacles to peace are Israel's refusal to withdraw from the territories and its unwillingness to dismantle Jewish settlements there.

His wrath has thus been directed at successive Likud leaders, Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon. In his April 24 column, Friedman wrote, "Mr. Sharon is so paralyzed by his obsession of eliminating Mr. Arafat, by his commitment to colonial settlements and by his fear that any Israeli concession now would be interpreted as victory for the other side, that he can't produce what most Israelis want: a practical non-ideological solution that says, 'Let's pull back to this line, abandon these settlements, and engage the Palestinians with this proposal, because that is what will preserve Jewish democracy, and forget the other stuff.'"

Of course, Friedman is not alone in making the "occupation" the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he is no less wrong for having company. Arab terrorism began long before Israel occupied the territories, and even long before Israel became a state. And it continued after Israel turned over the West Bank and Gaza to Yasser Arafat in compliance with the Oslo Accords.

When Palestinians rioted in Jerusalem in 1997, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Weekly Standard, "Those Palestinians throwing stones and hurling firebombs are not living under occupation. The single most misunderstood fact about the Middle East today is that, of the 2,300,000 Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, 2,250,000 live under the rule of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Of the Palestinians who were formerly under Israeli rule, 98 percent now live under Palestinian rule."

For all practical purposes, the Palestinian Authority until recently had most of the attributes of statehood. A Palestinian police force maintained order. The Palestinians ran, and still run, their own schools, media outlets, and social institutions. The worldwide outcry against the recent incursion is proof that the international community admits Palestinian de facto sovereignty. Israel's promise to withdraw shows that it too effectively recognizes this.

By pretending that the Israeli occupation continued under Oslo, journalists like Friedman helped create the misunderstanding Krauthammer decried. The pundits have told us for decades that Palestinian sovereignty is the key to resolving the conflict. However, Palestinian violence targeting Israeli civilians increased markedly after Oslo. Suicide bombings, for instance, are a new phenomenon. How many Israelis would have joined Friedman in supporting Oslo in 1993 if he had told them that it would increase Palestinian violence?

How could anyone who knows how wrong Friedman was about Oslo ever trust his prognostications again?

It is true that, in some of his columns, Friedman comes close to conceding that the Palestinians and the larger Arab world are mostly responsible for the ongoing troubles. In early March, for instance, he admitted being puzzled by the intensity of Muslim rage against Israel. When large numbers of Muslims die at the hands of Saddam Hussein or in sectarian violence in India, the reaction in the Muslim media is muted. "Yet when Israel kills a dozen Muslims, in a war in which Muslims are also killing Jews," Friedman noted, "it inflames the entire Muslim world."

He saw the paradox as rooted in the "contrast between Islam's self-perception as the most ideal expression of the world's three great monotheistic religions... and the conditions of poverty, repression, and underdevelopment in which most Muslims live today." An American diplomat told Friedman that Israel – not Iraq or India – reminds Muslims of their own powerlessness. "How could a tiny Jewish state amass such military and economic power, if the Islamic way of life – not Christianity or Judaism – is God's most ideal religious path?"

Lately, Friedman seems to have become more sympathetic to Israel's security concerns. Since the suicide bombings began, he has been tougher on Arafat than many other pundits. He holds Arafat responsible for much of the violence of the last 18 months. He chastises Arafat for failing to prepare the Palestinians for a "historic compromise with Israel" and having no plans for running a Palestinian state. In recent weeks, Friedman was supportive of Israel's military actions in the West Bank, and he was silent on the most controversial aspects of the operation such as Jenin and the standoff at the Church of the Nativity.

But Friedman still refrains from asking whether the 1967 borders the Saudi peace plan demands are in fact defensible. Friedman similarly ignores the potential strategic significance of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

He never acknowledges that, wherever its permanent borders are set, Israel might need to maintain a defensive line along the Jordan River to prevent another Arab army from joining with the Palestinians to attack Israel.

True to form, after a telethon in Crown Prince Abdullah's kingdom openly raised money for suicide bombers, Friedman neglected to ask whether a country that shows such enmity toward Jews and Israel is really interested in peace with the Jewish state. Friedman told Charlie Rose that his purpose in serving as Abdullah's mouthpiece was "maybe bringing a glimmer of hope to this Arab-Israeli thing." Bringing hope is what ministers and preachers do. For analysts, it often encourages wishful thinking and ignoring of inconvenient facts. And that's what is found all too often in Tom Friedman's prize spot on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

(Martin Krossel is a freelance writer living in New York. This article appears in the current issue of "The Weekly Standard")



No 'Times' for a boycott
By Gary Rosenblatt
The Jewish Week
May 10, 2002

Exhibit A: the color photograph, front and center, at the top of page 1 of The New York Times on Monday, was of the Salute to Israel Parade. In the background, marchers were coming up Fifth Avenue waving American and Israeli flags. More prominent in the foreground was a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators featuring a sign that read "End Israeli Occupation of Palestine."

Was this A) a sign of the Times' pro-Israel sentiments, giving the parade such prominent, front-page attention; B) an indication of the newspaper's anti-Israel sentiments, giving equal weight to 100,000 marchers for Israel and 600 protesters; or C) a sign of the paper's down-the-middle impartiality, showing both sides of the dispute in one dramatic photo?

A number of Jewish New Yorkers no doubt would answer B, incensed that the annual parade, which by all accounts attracted huge numbers of marchers and spectators in a peaceful but powerful statement of support for Israel, was less the focus of the photo than the pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

(It seems the Times, in retrospect, agreed. An editor's note, though not a correction, the next day on page 2 acknowledged, "the effect was disproportionate. In fairness," it said, "the total picture presentation should have better reflected The Times' reporting on the scope of the event, including the disparity in the turnouts.")

As it turns out, the photo appeared on the eve of a planned 30-day boycott of the Times spearheaded by two local leaders, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and Fred Ehrman, a businessman active in the Modern Orthodox community who said the page 1 photo Monday pleased him because it underscored his beef with the Times' coverage.

"I'm not a sha-sha [Yiddish for 'be quiet'] Jew," Ehrman told me. "We should have learned that lesson from World War II. Protests are part of a democracy and we feel a need to act."

The Times has seen "a small increase in cancellations due to editorial coverage," according to Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications. She added that the Times strives for "scrupulous impartiality" and "if occasionally the facts of a particular news situation seem likely to provide more satisfaction to one side than to others, our policy is to restore the balance promptly in our overall coverage."

I know and admire both Fred Ehrman and Rabbi Lookstein, and I understand the sense of anger and frustration that has led them to initiate this protest against the Times. I feel it too, at times, but I think their boycott, however temporary, is a mistake – in practice and in principle.

It's one thing to point out examples of incomplete, insensitive, misleading or untrue reporting to the editors of one of the world's great newspapers. Indeed, it is an obligation. In addition, raising funds for ads in the Times and other publications to highlight such inaccuracies might be educational. And I have long believed it is more fitting for Jewish organizations to place paid obituary and communal announcements in The Jewish Week, as Ehrman and Rabbi Lookstein suggest, rather than in the Times, not only because it benefits this paper financially but because we are the paper of record for the New York Jewish community.

But to advocate an economic boycott, even for a limited time, strikes me as the wrong message and a disturbing approach.

Even the leaders of this effort appear uncomfortable with the word "boycott," preferring to characterize their action as a "protest." But urging people to cancel subscriptions is a boycott, and it's a dirty word to Jews for good reason. We have suffered as a result of them. And if we Jews are prepared to initiate them now, we can't attack them as immoral when they are used against us, or Israel, as they have been in the past.

What's more, we who believe in and advocate for freedom of expression negate that value when we try to use economic power to squelch a point of view with which we may disagree. We should advocate fairness and truth, not the muzzling of a free press.

In practical terms, the proposed boycott can have a backlash effect, having less impact on profits at the Times than on its attitude toward the Jewish community, convincing editors and executives we are unreasonable and irrational. They may conclude, in their own frustration, that nothing they do in their newspaper can pacify us. We will be dismissed as less than serious, and the result could be less motivation to provide balanced coverage. In effect, end of discussion.

But unless we conclude The New York Times as an institution has no interest in providing balanced coverage (and I'm not there yet), it's to our advantage to keep the dialogue going because the facts are on our side. We need more constructive criticism, more marshalling of information, more voices speaking out for fair reporting – not a call to shut ourselves off from reporting and opinions we don't want to deal with.

"Nothing will bounce off the ear of a reporter like the charge of total bias," said Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University. "It's a loser's word."

I also worry about the tendency in our community, born of annoyance and anger, to dismiss the media as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Those are loaded phrases and we should use them with extreme caution. Don't apply them to The New York Times, for example, unless you're prepared to make the same charge against Haaretz and other liberal publications in Israel.

Here's my dilemma: As a supporter of Israel reading about the Mideast, I feel I know The Truth of the situation and become upset when I see media coverage lacking in the moral equivalency I am seeking. As a journalist, though, I appreciate the difficulties of trying to present a balanced picture of a bitter, complex conflict that to an objective outsider may have more than one truth.

As I've written here before, whether or not the Times (and the mainstream media in general) has an inherent bias, which I do not believe, there are certain journalistic traits that translate into negative coverage for Israel. For example, journalists tend to look for conflict, favor the underdog (in this case the Palestinians), present photo images that create empathy for the less-armed side and, most important, obsess on symmetry rather than history or context.

So in the name of objective reporting, Israeli retaliations against armed militants are juxtaposed and equated with terrorist attacks on women and children. Or as Mort Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, puts it so well, the press tends to equate the arsonist and the firefighter.

The lack of moral equivalency in the press – suggesting, as the Times does often in its editorials, that Sharon's use of military force is as wrong as Arafat's use of children as homicide bombers – is exasperating. But we need to respond, not turn away. Thoughtful letters of complaint should be written to the editors; phone calls, e-mails and, if possible, meetings with newspaper executives pointing out the immorality of balance serve a purpose, too.

It's difficult to keep perspective, especially when we are upset, but it's important. When I was in Israel last week, I participated in a symposium at Tel Aviv University on "Israel in the Eyes of the Media," and there was little outcry against the American press. And when I met with several top officials in the Foreign Ministry who monitor the world press, their response to American Jewry's complaints about press coverage was, "let them read just about any newspaper in Europe, any day, and they'll see real bias." By comparison, officials felt the American press was relatively balanced.

That's not to say we should accept coverage we consider to be unfair without speaking out. And if you're fed up with the Times, don't buy it, though you'll be missing important reporting, some excellent columnists and often positive editorials.

But boycotts are a desperate act, a signal that there's nothing more to talk about. I prefer the notion of a free and open press, of responding to inaccuracy with truth, and trusting the public to figure out the difference.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.