Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of December 24, 1999
By David Bar-Illan
If the almost total mobilization of the media to the cause of withdrawal from the Golan had not been so worrisome in a democratic society, it could have rated as the most amusing comedy of the season. The alacrity with which almost all newsmen and commentators jumped to attention and tried to outdo each other in supporting government policy recalled the way their spiritual ancestors changed political positions according to the latest party line communique from Moscow.
One of the few exceptions was Emmanuel Halperin, host of Channel 1's late-night News, who interviewed Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ori Orr soon after Clinton's announcement of the resumption of the talks. Orr's smug, arrogant and altogether obnoxious manner recalled the perpetual haughtiness Israeli generals used to sport after the Six Day War.
"Was it all a fraud, was it 30 years of brainwashing?" asked Halperin, referring to the IDF doctrine that the Golan was crucial to Israel's defense. "And were the opinions of all those American generals who said the Golan was indispensable to Israel's survival completely invalid?"
Orr seemed not only to have no trouble toeing the new party line, which represents a 180-degree turn from the old, he averred that the Golan is actually a security burden, not an asset. After all, he said, we lost more soldiers defending it in 1973 than in capturing it in 1967. It is at moments like these that Harry Truman's unprintable opinion of generals assumes the luminosity of Confucian wisdom. But Halperin's outspoken doubts stood out as a rare exception.
Other news hosts - from the venerable Haim Yavin through the feverishly inventive Channel 2 anchors, to the intemperate Yael Sternhell on Channel 1's 7:30 Edition - could neither contain their enthusiasm for government spokesmen nor conceal their hostility for anyone who dared disagree.
TO INCREASE their bullying power, the Channel 1 crew bolstered their ranks with guest co-hosts of identical or even more dovish political proclivities. With Aryeh Golan and Haim Baram in tow, they put on a credible imitation of the monolithic state radio in the days of Mapai, minus, alas, the nationalism that was still in evidence then. It almost made one nostalgic for the days when Jerusalem Post editorials had to be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is easy enough to prove with statistics how lopsided the guest list is on these programs. But numbers tell only half the story. On the rare occasion that credible representatives of the opposition did appear, they were heckled, interrupted, mocked and derided by their interviewers. The only thing these would-be apparatchiks have not done is turn off the microphone when interviewees presented persuasive arguments.
But they all sounded like paragons of objectivity compared to Channel 1 star commentator Ehud Ya'ari, whose harangues were hardly distinguishable from Syrian press releases. Israelis should understand the Syrians' frustrations, he intoned. When the talks began in Madrid under Yitzhak Shamir, the poor Syrians had to suffer the bad manners of Yossi Ben-Aharon and Yigal Carmon. (This is a reference to a meeting in which Ben-Aharon had the hutzpa to pull out Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass's book about how Jews use gentile children's blood to make matza. Slamming it on the table, he asked his counterpart, Muafek Alaf, how he could reconcile talk of peace with such antisemitic incitement.)
The Syrians first trusted Rabin, continued Ya'ari, but then he turned away from them and made a deal in Oslo with the Palestinians. Then Peres broke off the talks in 1996. And Netanyahu, too, withdrew from the back-channel negotiations just when they thought they were getting everything they wanted. Poor Syrians! No wonder they refused to shake hands.
Ya'ari's sycophancy has become his trademark. He must believe, probably with good reason, that only by playing up to Arab leaders will he get exclusive interviews with them. But to exonerate Assad and blame Israel for the failure of the negotiations in 1991-1999 is the kind of groveling that crosses the line of the acceptable. That Ya'ari repeated this canard various times, on radio and television, and with unabashed missionary zeal, emphasized the tendentious nature of the message. Perhaps the US administration was so upset by Shara's refusal to shake hands and its impact on the Israeli public that it decided to rationalize Syrian behavior by placing the blame on Israel. Why Ya'ari should serve as an instrument for such inversion of history is anybody's guess.
The printed press was every bit as uniform. Particularly amusing was its search for something to remove the bad taste created by Shara's hand that didn't shake. At one point it gleefully announced that in the secrecy of the negotiation chamber, Shara and Barak did shake hands. It was a false report, generated by an eager member of Barak's entourage.
Far more serious was the deliberate distortion of Syrian pronouncements. When Shara did not mention the mantra "June 4, 1967" in his abrasive and insulting speech at the White House, the Israeli press pounced on it as a signal of compromise. This was followed by repeated assertions that the Syrians were not insisting on returning to the 1967 lines.
But all these reports were nothing more than part of a disinformation campaign. The Syrians kept reiterating their demand for a return to the 1967 lines at every opportunity. Just this week (December 21) Shara told the London Al-Hayat that the first component of an agreement must be an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines. And the editorials in the official government papers Al-Ba'ath and Tishrin repeated his demand specifically and explicitly. None of this was reported in Israel's ostrich media.
The 'Economist' likes Barak.The vast majority of the world press likes Israeli leaders who make concessions. Even Menachem Begin, vilified as a terrorist and fanatic when he became prime minister, turned into a media darling after Camp David. Well, at least until he committed the unpardonable sin of saving the world from Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb.The phenomenon is so universal that no one seems to wonder why the media in democratic societies are so eager to see a democracy yield to dictatorial regimes, particularly since the same media would never dream of demanding such concessions of their own governments. But the idea that Israeli concessions equal peace is so entrenched that it has become an accepted truth.
Yet even the sympathy and support for conciliatory leaders cannot suppress the anti-Israel pro-Arab bias, often fed by abysmal ignorance and chronic misinformation, which afflicts some British journalists. An article by Middle East editor of the Financial Times David Gardner in last week's Economist (December 18) is a case in point. Nauseatingly patronizing, Gardner approves of Barak's readiness to withdraw. But this does not stop him from calling Israel's prime minister "the thinking man's thug."
David Bar-Illan was communications and public policy adviser to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a former editor of The Jerusalem Post.