Analysis from Israel

Back in July, trying to make sense of developments like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued that we live in an age when people are indifferent to truth–when facts are “little annoyances easily upended.” That, however, is a self-serving excuse. The real problem is that people no longer trust the media and other gatekeeping institutions to tell them the truth, and therefore feel the “facts” provided by these institutions are unreliable things on which to base decisions. And that distrust is merited, as two recent examples show.

The first is the obituary for Shimon Peres that ran in the print edition of the International New York Times. It described the collapse of the Oslo peace process as follows:

Mr. Peres, Mr. Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.

Needless to say, this picture of events is totally false. The “era of good feelings” didn’t sail serenely on until Sharon “shattered” it by visiting the Temple Mount. It was actually shattered almost immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by a wave of Palestinian terror that claimed more Israeli victims in two and a half years than all the terror attacks of the preceding decade.

Yet two things make this warped presentation of reality particularly remarkable. First, in an obituary for Shimon Peres, you’d think it would be hard to ignore facts that played a seminal role in his political career. The multiple suicide bombings of early 1996, which the obituary omits, were the direct cause of his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election, a loss that permanently ended his prime ministerial ambitions.

Second, this wasn’t an innocent mistake stemming from ignorance. The obituary’s online version actually does include a paragraph about the bombings and the election, right after the paragraph about the Nobel Prize. It also correctly says that the violence “accelerated” after Sharon’s visit to the Mount, rather than depicting this visit as shattering a nonexistent calm.

In other words, some editor in the Times’ European offices deliberately distorted the obituary writer’s facts to present a false picture of how the Oslo Accords collapsed. He or she cut any mention of the 1996 bombings; substituted the false sentence about “the era of good feelings,” which doesn’t appear in the online version; and then replaced the “acceleration” of the conflict with the false assertion that Sharon’s visit “shattered” the peace.

Nor is the reason for this distortion any mystery. The standard narrative in most of Europe, and also at the Times, is that Oslo’s collapse was Israel’s fault, while the Palestinians were largely blameless. Informing readers that massive suicide bombings began immediately when Oslo’s architects—Rabin and Peres—were still in office contradicts that narrative. So faced with a conflict between the facts and his or her preferred narrative, an editor at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers chose to rewrite the facts. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by his profession.

The second example was last week’s astonishing report by the Council of Europe’s human rights agency, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which effectively urged the British media stop informing readers that terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists are in fact committed by Islamic extremists. Granted, it didn’t say so explicitly. If you read the recommendations devoid of context, they merely urge “more rigorous training for journalists to ensure better compliance with ethical standards” and that “the authorities find a way to establish an independent press regulator.” But it’s quite clear what ECRI intends by these seemingly innocuous recommendations because they are immediately preceded by the following paragraph:

ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups. ECRI considers that, in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent ISIS-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety. In this context, it draws attention to a recent study by Teeside University suggesting that where the media stress the Muslim background of perpetrators of terrorist acts, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent backlash against Muslims is likely to be greater than in cases where the perpetrators’ motivation is downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.

So unless you assume the recommendations have no connection to the paragraph immediately preceding them, it’s hard to avoid concluding that ECRI, in fact, wants the press to hide the Muslim identity of Islamic terrorists and attribute their motive to something other than Islamist ideology. In other words, it wants the press to lie to the public about who the terrorists are and why they’re committing attacks. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by the European Union.

I don’t like our brave new fact-free world any better than Cohen does. But it’s the inevitable result of one very ugly fact: Institutions people used to trust, like the media and the EU, have forfeited that trust by repeatedly lying to the public in order to promote their own agendas. And the only way to start repairing the damage is for these institutions to acknowledge their own role in destroying the credibility of “facts” and then finally start telling the truth as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.

Originally published in Commentary on October 10, 2016

4 Responses to The Fruits of Lying to the Public

  • tim johnson says:

    Just on a logistical level: the online version had more and more accurate information probably because it was edited later than the International print edition; not th eother way around, that an European editor excised stuff for print….the way it works, is online stuff can get up and out faster, but it also can be edited later after the “paper paper,” is put to bed….
    which would mean the early version was inadequate: could be a product of the rush to deadline or bias or both….
    Your thesis on this is possible but probably not what happened….

    • Evelyn Gordon says:

      Though what Tim says is valid for many news stories, it’s actually not true for obits: Most major newspapers prepare obits of major public figures well in advance. At the very latest, the Times would have prepared its Peres obit the moment he had his stroke, which was two weeks before his death, and it’s quite likely that it had the obit on file even before then. Thus the print editor would certainly have had access to the full web version when he prepared the print obit.

  • Sam says:

    How convenient it is that you totally neglected to mention in your post the Hebron Massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein on February 25th, 1994 in which he killed dozens of Palestinian civilians worshiping peacefully at the Ibrahimi Mosque. This was indeed the act that ended the “era of good feelings”, as it preceded by six weeks the first of the bombing attacks carried out by the Hamas movement’s armed wing in retaliation in April 1994. Even if you omit the actions of the Israeli state from your definition of terrorism, surely, the terrorist crimes of an avowed Zionist radical such as Baruch Goldstein and the terrorist Kach movement should fit the bill. And the fact that it was Goldstein’s terrorist outrage that shattered “the era of good feelings” and changed the rules of the game should feature in your narrative. After all, the Hamas movement’s armed retaliation that took place 6 weeks later in April 1994 were the first ever bombing attacks by Hamas against civilian targets inside Israel. According to Matti Steinberg (former advisor to the head of Shin Bet on Palestinian affairs), prior to Baruch Goldstein’s terrorist attach, the Hamas movement’s military arm had a firm policy of refusing to target Israeli civilians inside the Green Line, and wholly focused its military measures on attacking military targets inside the territories occupied by Israel after June 5th, 1967. This policy was only changed as a direct result of the Israeli terrorist Kach movement’s shocking escalation. What do you say to all of this?

    • Evelyn Gordon says:

      First, that suicide bombings aren’t the only way to kill. According to the Foreign Ministry’s list of Israeli victims of terror, Palestinians killed around 30 Israelis between the signing of the Oslo Accords and Goldstein’s massacre, and the pace was accelerating toward the end of that period: In the weeks preceding the massacre, Israelis were killed roughly every few days. This does not, obviously, justify Goldstein’s act; nothing could. But to say that everything was hunky-dory until Goldstein committed his massacre is nonsense.
      Second, that you’re overlooking a more important correlation. The big spike in Palestinian terror wasn’t after the Goldstein massacre, but later: The Israeli body count rose after Israel’s first territorial handover in mid-1994 and again after its second territorial handover in late 1995. In other words, terror rose whenever the Palestinians acquired more territory to serve as a secure base for planning, training and launching attacks. It’s a bit unconvincing to try to blame that on Goldstein.

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It’s Time to Prepare a Military Option on Iran

North Korea’s demonstration of a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of the United States prompted gloomy commentary in Israel about the failure to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program and, by analogy, the seeming impossibility of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. As Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer put it, Kim Jong-un “proved that a dictator who wants a nuclear weapon badly enough,” and is ruthless and determined enough, “will ultimately achieve it.” Yet the North Korean example proves no such thing because it says nothing about the efficacy of the one tactic America never tried: military action, or at least the credible threat thereof.

North Korea has proven, if anyone had still any doubts, that sanctions and negotiations alone can’t stop a determined dictator from acquiring nukes. In contrast, the jury’s still out on military action. It has only been tried twice, both times by Israel, in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And it’s still too soon to say conclusively that it worked. But at least so far, neither country has nuclear weapons.

Moreover, many of the arguments against military action are fatuous. Take, for instance, the claim that military action is pointless once a country has the know-how to build a bomb, because “You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said of Iran. That’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant. Knowledge is only one of many components needed to build a bomb. Get rid of the others–like Iran’s heavy-water reactor, its stockpile of enriched uranium, and its centrifuges for enriching more–and no amount of knowledge will suffice to produce nuclear weapons.

Then there’s the argument that military action does nothing but buy time. That’s far from self-evident. Some countries might conclude that the effort of rebuilding their nuclear program only to be bombed again isn’t worth it. But even assuming that’s true, buying time has also been proven to be the most sanctions and negotiations can achieve (except in the rare cases where countries actually agree to give up their nuclear programs.

Thus the relevant question is which course of action buys more time, because the more time you buy, the better the chances of an unexpected development—say, regime change in Iran—that could lead to permanent success. Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, for instance, bought just enough time for Iraq to make a critical mistake nobody could have foreseen: the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War and America’s subsequent imposition of an intrusive and effective nuclear inspection regime.

For two reasons, military action probably buys the most time. First, sanctions and negotiations leave much of a country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, whereas military action destroys it. Rebuilding from scratch always takes longer than expanding or improving existing infrastructure, especially if military action is combined with sanctions to impede the rebuilding process. Second, unlike military action, negotiations always require concessions, which can actually facilitate nuclear progress by allowing countries to do openly what they would otherwise have to do secretly. The Iran deal, for instance, allows Tehran to replace its old, slow centrifuges with fast new ones, so that when the deal ends—or earlier, if it follows the North Korean model and cheats—it will be able to enrich the uranium needed for a bomb 20 times faster than it could when the deal began.

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