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Anthony Lewis: A Biased Chronicler of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict By: Itzhak Sharav
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 15, 2002


Itzhak Sharav - 5/15/2002

ANTHONY LEWIS, who gave up his regular New York Times column last December 15, and Norman Podhoretz, currently editor-at-large of Commentary and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, debated each other last April 8 on the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Referring to the anti-terrorist campaign undertaken by the Israeli army in towns and cities on the West Bank, Mr. Podhoretz drew a parallel to the war waged by the United States against terrorism, and expressed his opinion "that what the Israelis are trying to do in those territories is no different, either morally or strategically, from what we ourselves have been trying to do in Afghanistan, which is to say: To root out a terrorist infrastructure, which is protected by a regime." Mr. Lewis’ retort included the following statement: "Most Palestinians are like you and me. They are not terrorists. They are ordinary people. But when tanks have smashed your cars and your homes and your television stations and everything else, you are a little angry."

Left out of the Lewis narrative, dripping as it did with sarcasm, were the horrific series of countless acts of suicide bombings by Palestinians that brought death and destruction, and made life unbearable for Israelis, who could no longer feel safe anywhere in their country. After all, those crimes targeting mostly civilians, both young and old, which culminated in the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya last March 27, preceded the Israeli army incursion into the West Bank in its search for terrorists and their arsenals. Regrettably a mission of that sort was likely to result in collateral damage that was inflicted unintentionally on noncombatants, amongst whom the terrorists lived and operated. The same happened recently in Afghanistan, as it also did not long ago in the former Yugoslavia. But given the intolerable situation of daily suicide bombings, what else could the Israeli government have done? How different, for that matter, would have been the reaction of any other responsible government under similar conditions? Apparently, when it comes to Israel, Lewis holds it to celestial standards of behavior that would spell national suicide, if practiced in the real world in which we live.

Lewis’ Bill of Particulars against the Israeli authorities was laid out in additional detail last April 25 in The New York Review of Books. In an article titled "Is There a Solution?" he took Israel to task for having "often responded to acts of terror by punishing people who had not committed the terror, using F-16s to destroy Palestinian Authority police buildings and shelling other sites from naval ships." Lewis did not find it worthwhile mentioning that those police buildings and other sites were emptied out of their staff due to advance warning by the Israelis. To the contrary: By using the words "punishing people" he may have mislead the uninformed reader into thinking that those facilities were populated at the time of the bombing. Wallowing in withering criticism of any Israeli action taken in self-defense, Lewis ignored altogether the fact that the Palestinian Authority in violation of the Oslo agreement had attempted to smuggle forbidden weapons (in the Karine A ship that was seized by Israeli Navy commandos) including rockets that could reach most of Israel’s population centers, and had lied when questioned about the Karine A affair by the United States Government; had refused to condemn terrorism and dismantle its infrastructure, permitting instead its affiliated militias to join the terrorist network; had sheltered terrorists, whose extradition was demanded by Israel, and at most "jailed" them through sham arrests that amounted to a "revolving door" process; and had hailed dead terrorists as "martyrs." That aside, as the saying goes, in Lewis’ eyes hitting vacant Palestinian Authority installations amounts to "punishing people who had not committed the terror."

Lewis’ exquisitely crafted code of lofty moral standards, from which Israel’s enemies are evidently exempted, includes a "catch 22" provision that in effect forbids the embattled country to take any action against terrorists. How else are we to comprehend the following accusation leveled at Israel in The New York Review of Books article: " Israel carried out assassinations of alleged Palestinian terrorists, a practice that amounted to conviction and execution without trial."? What Lewis fails to tell the reader is that Israel would have preferred to put the men on trial, but the Palestinian Authority, having first turned a blind eye to the terrorist activities of the accused in violation of the Oslo agreement, subsequently proceeded to turn down all Israeli demands for extradition of the wanted men. Following Lewis’ prescription would have meant a de facto acquiescence by Israel in the right of the Palestinian Authority to serve with impunity as a safe haven for terrorists intent on destroying the Jewish state. Obviously Israel - determined to survive - had no choice but to follow a course of action that required - to paraphrase President George W. Bush - that either the terrorists be brought to justice, or justice would be brought to them.

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The above selections from Lewis’ recently spoken and written words should not come as a surprise. An examination of the record to date, which was undertaken in this article, shows that when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its evolution since September 13, 1993, (the day Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn, in the presence of President Bill Clinton, as a consequence of the Oslo agreement), Lewis has demonstrated time and again a consistent anti-Israel bias that led him to omissions and outright distortions of facts that are not to be expected of any serious writer, not to mention a journalist of stature.

As he had done on numerous earlier occasions, Lewis claimed in his last column that "Fundamentalist Judaism and extreme Israeli nationalism have fed the movement to plant settlements in Palestinian territory, fueling Islamic militancy among Palestinians." To bolster his central argument that the Israeli settlement policy - not the very existence of the Jewish state - is the root cause of Palestinian terrorism, Lewis conveniently made no mention of the many terrorist attacks committed by the fedayeen, as they were called at the time, since 1951, long before the Palestinian territories came under Israeli control as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. The fedayeen, who - like their terrorist successors of today - had targeted civilians: men, women and children, penetrated deep into Israel proper from bases in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, President Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who openly shared the fedayeen's ultimate goal: Israel's annihilation, and provided them with arms with which to achieve their strategic objective, famously praised in a speech delivered on Aug. 31, 1955 "the sons of Islam" who "will cleanse the land of Palestine." (A reminder, that Palestinian terrorism originated before the 1967 war, was provided by Arafat himself, who, as reported from Rammalah by Times correspondent Douglas Frantz, last January 1, marked on that day the birth of the movement "he started exactly 37 years ago [namely, January 1, 1965, I.S.] by planting a bomb near a water pipeline in Israel.")

A columnist's opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories does not, by itself, make for bad journalism. After all, some Israelis, American Jews and non-Jews, and other well-meaning people, believe that most of the settlements should be dismantled as part of a comprehensive peace agreement that will allow Israel - a tiny country, which has been attacked by its neighbors, depending on how one is counting, at least three times - to exist within secure boundaries, as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 242. Lewis, however, ignores all of these complicating factors. Instead, he rewrites in his final column the history and origins of Palestinian violence, and makes light of its murderous dimensions by a minimizing reference to "Islamic militancy among Palestinians", as if the Israelis are faced with not much more than the irritant of dealing with religiously assertive Palestinians in the throes of Islamic fervor, when in reality the State of Israel must confront, on a daily basis, terrorism aimed at its destruction.

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Lewis' anti-Israel bias extends well beyond the conflict with the Palestinians, encompassing Arab-Israeli relations in general. Thus, reading Lewis' version of the start of the Six-Day War, one would never get a glimpse of the ominous drama that preceded it , nor would the reader learn that the war was forced on Israel by its neighboring states. The columnist's rendition of the sequence of events, in an article marking the pending anniversary of the war, which appeared last June 2, is riddled with obfuscation. The column opens as follows: "On June 5, 1967, Israel went to war with Egypt. Jordan and Syria joined in the fighting." Inexplicably, Lewis neglects to mention that in the preceding month, in clear violation of international maritime law, President Nasser, claiming that a state of war existed between Israel and Egypt, closed the Straits of Tiran, an international waterway, to Israeli ships and vessels of other nationalities bound for the Port of Eilat, Israel. He then proceeded to amass in excess of 1,000 tanks in the Sinai Desert facing Israel, and to move more than 100,000 troops, in concert with Syria and Jordan, to the Israeli frontier, all the while issuing threatening statements and triumphal declarations about the coming battle to liberate Palestine of the "Zionist entity." These hostile acts forced Israel to mobilize, and, consequently, the Israeli economy ground to a standstill, as the army, consisting mostly of reservists, was pinned down for three weeks on the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian fronts.

Left with no choice, Israel struck on June 5. Many of us, who are over 40, remember those events, as well as the sense of despair that gripped Jews and other people of good will around the world, who, reading in the press that Israel is on its last breath, feared that a second holocaust was imminent. Yet, Lewis a veteran journalist, (a man, 75 years of age, who is old enough to remember that Hitler, who invaded Poland, was blamed for the start of WWII, rather than Britain and France, which responded to the blatant Nazi aggression by declaring war on Germany), chooses not to recount the casus belli of the 1967 conflict. The opening sentence of the June 2 article, while sounding like a dry matter-of-fact recitation in an even tone of events in their chronological order, could have been used, without a single alteration, in communiqués issued by the propaganda ministries of the Arab countries. Columnist Lewis, by pointing a finger at Israel as the initiator of the Six-Day War, has in effect managed, in one shameful stroke, to transform and recast Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the reactive and sympathy evoking role of victims who were led to war, rather than aggressors who had launched one. Clearly, despite his legal training, and his oft-repeated emphasis on the importance and sanctity of legal principles, Lewis has trampled on one cardinal rule that requires not only the telling of the truth, and nothing but the truth, but also the telling of the whole truth.

 

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The columnist had gone, however, beyond obfuscation and half-truths. When needed, to support and enhance his argument, Lewis has resorted to misrepresentation of facts, and contradiction of his own past statements, counting presumably on the short memory of his readers. A prime example in this context, which deserves a close look and detailed scrutiny, is an article titled "No Peace, No Security" that was written when Benjamin Netanyahu - a reputed "hawk" and a prominent bete noir of Lewis - served as Israel's prime minister. Noted for its callousness, the piece appeared on September 4, 1997, a day after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem had claimed the lives of three schoolgirls and another civilian passerby. (A second article by Lewis from that period, which was published on August 25, 1997, will be discussed later.) Engaging in a stunning display of revisionist history at work, Lewis used the "opportunity", presented by the latest Jerusalem atrocity, to argue that Palestinian terrorism stopped when Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held office. According to Lewis, terrorism resumed, when - following Rabin's murder in November 1995 - Israel, by then led for a short interval by a caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, "assassinated a well-known bomb-maker and Hamas retaliated with terrible killings."

A question must be raised then: If, Lewis, (who, it appears, is not willing to exempt from criticism any living Israeli prime minister; ironically not even Peres, the most prominent and indefatigable Israeli "dove"), is right in his claim that the peace process "was working" in those early days following the Oslo agreement, then who - if not Israelis - were the intended targets of that famous denizen of Gaza, the bomb-maker, and why wasn't he apprehended and brought to justice by the Palestinian Authority? On the contrary: the "Engineer", as Yahya Ayyash was affectionately nicknamed by his many Palestinian and other appreciative admirers, was included in a select list of "martyrs" eulogized by Chairman Arafat. The columnist's rendition of these events is typically loaded, and in the aftermath of September 11 appears for what it is: bizarre and incomprehensible. Thus, Israel's operation, which was meant to bring justice to a mass killer of innocent civilians (sounds familiar?), who continued to ply his lethal trade in a city ceded by Israel to the Palestinian Authority, is described as an "assassination", with its negative connotation of brutality and lawlessness. There is no mention of the Israeli casualties that were the result of Ayyash’s handiwork, and which forced Israel to undertake, as a last resort, the step it did, as any government would have done in such a case, and as, indeed, the United States has been doing ever since September 11, when it was placed in a similar situation. The murderous Hamas organization, on the other hand, just "retaliated" - the verb chosen by Lewis to suggest reaction, rather than initiation of violence - when, in fact, Hamas had seized on the Israeli action as a justification for continuing to do what it had been doing all along, namely: killing Israelis. And as to a description of Ayyash - Lewis who, evidently, could not bring himself to use a fitting adjective such as "notorious" or "infamous", chose instead "well-known", as if the "Engineer" was a highly regarded craftsman, say: a gifted violin-maker, not a bomb-maker.

Furthermore, and most damning in the eyes of journalists, who respect their craft - Lewis was flat wrong on the facts in his assertion that terrorism stopped during Rabin's term in office. The Jerusalem suicide bombing of September 4, 1997 took place four years after Rabin and Arafat had signed the Declaration of Principles. According to statistics posted on the Web site of Israel's Foreign Ministry, of the 239 Israeli residents that were murdered by terrorists during that period, more than half were killed during Rabin's remaining two years in his office, prior to his murder on November 4, 1995. Nor were terrorist mass killings and suicide bombings a phenomenon confined to the post-Rabin period: The killing of eight civilians at a bus stop in Afula, the suicide bombing of a bus in Hadera that claimed five lives, four of them civilians, and the suicide bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv that resulted in 22 civilian fatalities - all of these atrocities were committed in 1994, well before Peres, and then Netanyahu, succeeded Rabin to the premiership.

Faced with such unceasing terrorism, it was, in fact, Rabin himself - only more recently, and only posthumously, lionized by Lewis - who began to rethink the future of the peace process. For this he was promptly taken to task by none other than Lewis. In a March 17, 1995 piece, titled "The Price of Indecision", the columnist chided the prime minister for having "fallen into hesitation in carrying out the Oslo Plan." Evidently, unlike Rabin, who was charged with responsibility for the safety of the people of Israel, Lewis did not consider the chain of horrendous mass murders of civilians - a good number of them either elderly, or the very young accompanied by their mothers - going about the business of daily life, a sufficient cause for "hesitation." He concluded, therefore, that the lack of significant progress in the peacemaking process was due to an indecisive Israeli government, which "seems unable to make confidence-building gestures." Incredulously as it sounds, Israel - having to face, with a dreadful and nerve-shattering sense of inevitability, the horrific specter of scores of dead, injured, and maimed - has been faulted by the columnist for its poor and clumsy manners: a lack of proper "gestures."

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Lewis' columns, which offer a lengthy apologia on behalf of Arab terrorism, its perpetrators, promoters and supporters, have caused him to engage in tortuous reasoning, where the following outline applies: Arab anti-Israel "militancy" (terrorism) in general, and Palestinian terrorism in particular, are to be viewed as the direct result of the Israeli occupation that followed the 1967 Six-Day War (despite the fact that the terrorist acts started well before the '67 war, which was initiated by Israel's neighbors), and any forceful counter-measure undertaken by Israel in response to terrorism constitutes the reason for a new wave of anti-Israel atrocities, which are the result - here we go again - of the Israeli occupation to begin with. It also follows, that Israel should not expect the Palestinian Authority - it's putative partner in peace - to crack down on terrorists operating from within its areas. Bottom line: The moral imperative, articulated by Lewis, simultaneously vests Arab anti-Israel terrorism with legitimacy, and forbids Israel to fight back against such terrorism..

It is this line of reasoning that prompted Lewis to criticize former Prime Minister Peres not only for having approved the execution of bomb-maker Ayaash, but also for having ordered, later that spring, air attacks, which the columnist deemed to constitute a "grossly disproportionate response" to the rocket shelling of northern Israel by Hezbollah terrorists stationed in southern Lebanon. This particular criticism of Peres, which appeared in an August 25, 1997 column titled "By the Sword", when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was already in office, should be contrasted with Lewis' treatment of the Hezbollah. The discerning reader might notice that grammar and vocabulary too have been recruited in the service of the cause, and are suggestively loaded. Thus, when referring to the shelling of Israel by the Hezbollah, Lewis mutes his tone and blurs the message by using the passive verb form, as in: "When rockets landed in northern Israel," ("landed"? by themselves? was it an accident, or were they fired intentionally, and if so, by whom?). Filled with indignation, however, when it comes to the Israeli response to the shelling, the columnist regains his clarion voice, and reverts to the active verb form, leaving no room for doubt, as to who is the transgressor: "Mr. Peres ordered a grossly, etc." And all throughout this rendition of events, Lewis eschews the word "terrorists" referring instead to Hezbollah "guerrillas", a conceivably less jarring and more endearing term that could apply to, say, heroic freedom fighters. (It should be noted that Hezbollah, which is sponsored and financed by the Iranian and Syrian regimes to a large extent, has earned a place on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations because of presumed participation in terrorist acts such as the 1983 suicide truck bombing of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, and the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, to name just a few. Alphabetically, Hezbollah is a close neighbor, on the State Department’s list, of Hamas, which has established a network of very active cells in the Palestinian territories.)

The August 25 column, referred to earlier, was published less than a month after 14 people were killed and 178 were wounded in two consecutive suicide bombings in the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Understandably, the attacks prompted urgent calls by both American officials and Israeli leaders for a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority on Hamas and other groups responsible for the bombings. Arafat's response was described by Times correspondent Joel Greenberg on August 21, 1997, in a dispatch from Gaza, as follows: "Defying Israeli and American demands that he crack down on Islamic militants, Yasser Arafat kissed and applauded leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Holy War movements today and warned that Palestinians were prepared to resume their violent revolt against Israel." Lewis, however, saw matters in a different light. In his August 25 column, he followed his criticism of Peres, by focusing in the next paragraph on the misdeeds of Netanyahu, as a prelude to a coda: excusing Arafat's behavior. Invoking the spirit of Rabin - the reader should remember by now, that the columnist discovered Rabin The Good only after his death - Lewis, who once chastised Rabin, now castigated Netanyahu, who "abandoned the Rabin principles of partnership and consultation with the Palestinians." He also complained that "After the recent suicide bombs in Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu imposed collective punishment on all Palestinians for the terrorist acts of an unknown few." But to be effective in his defense of Arafat's behavior, Lewis had to overcome a problem consisting of two parts: First, the collective punishment that he complained about, could have ended, were Arafat to crack down on the terrorists, which - as he announced in the Gaza gathering for all the world to see - he refused to do. Second, Arafat's public embrace in Gaza of terrorist leaders ("Islamic militants" according to Lewis) evoked outrage in Israel and in the United States that the columnist had to acknowledge.

The solution was vintage Anthony Lewis, a bravura performance of a spinmeister. Here is what the columnist reported to his readers: "The punishments would not end, Mr. Netanyahu said, until Mr. Arafat 'cracked down' on terrorists. Of course it was politically impossible for Mr. Arafat to yield to such a demand. His public wanted him to stand up to pressure from Israel and the United States, which supported the demand for a crackdown without any attention to Mr. Netanyahu's provocations and humiliations. Hence the embrace." Translation: Arafat can have it all. Suicide bombings that repeatedly kill and injure scores of Israelis "are the acts of unknown few." The 50,000 or more security services personnel employed by the Palestinian Authority (approximately double the limit stipulated in the Oslo accords) can neither identify, nor locate the perpetrators of various terrorist acts and their leaders. (Never mind that the Palestinian Authority has released Hamas extremists and other terrorists from jail, true to its "revolving door" policy.) Therefore, Palestinians should not be exposed to collective punishment meted out by Israel. Also, since the Palestinian Authority must follow the wishes of the Palestinian people, therefore, it should not be expected to comply with the Oslo accords and confiscate illegal arms, disarm and disband militias, extradite known terrorists and their leaders, whose names had been provided to the Palestinian Authority by Israel. "Hence the embrace", as the columnist with the legal training attempted to explain, at the end of his brief, Arafat's warm welcoming of master terrorists in lieu of their arrest. A succinct conclusion that Israel - to Lewis' disappointment - rejected, as a prescription for disaster.

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A side effect of Lewis' unquestioning sympathy for the cause of the anti-Israel Arab "militants", has been a myopic view and a diminished understanding of the full extent of the threat that these terrorists and their supporters have been posing not only to Israel, but also overseas, including the no longer distant shores of the United States. The columnist's dogged opposition to the attempts of the Clinton Justice Department to deport Palestinian "activists" who operated on behalf of a notorious terrorist organization, while staying in America illegally, was from the beginning wrong in principle. But continuing to hold on to such objections in a column written in 1997, in the aftermath of the (first) bombing of the World Trade Center almost four years earlier, was a wrongheaded act, bordering on the perverse. I was thus prompted to write the following letter to the editor, dated February 17, 1997, which acquired eerily fresh resonance in the aftermath of September 11. (The letter was not published by the Times, though other letters and articles of mine had appeared in the paper.):

 

"There Ought to Be No ‘Enough’ in the Fight Against Terrorism

In ‘Enough Is Enough’ (column, February 17) Anthony Lewis calls upon Attorney General Janet Reno to put an end to the United States Government's attempts ‘to deport eight Palestinian activists who live in California.’

The lengthy judicial proceedings - to which the eight men are entitled under American law, and of which, as expected, they took full advantage – have dragged on for ten years. An ‘outrageous case’ is how Mr. Lewis describes the refusal of the government to give up, after a decade, a legally conducted effort to deport certain resident aliens. Really?

 

Who are these ‘activists’, and what have they done? Mr. Lewis himself describes them as ‘supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that has carried out terrorist activities.’ Headed by Dr. George Habash an avowed radical Marxist, who resides in Damascus, Syria, the P.F.L.P. has carried out notorious acts of terror against civilian targets in Israel and elsewhere. A fierce opponent of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, like his host and protector Syrian President Assad, Dr. Habash continues to advocate, plan and support future violence as a means of torpedoing the accord. In arguing the cause of the eight men, Mr. Lewis states that ‘they have not themselves committed or advocated terrorism’, going on to say that they had only ‘attended political meetings, sold magazines and the like.’ A very fine line indeed: selling publications that spread the P.F.L.P. pro-terror message, raising money, and organizing gatherings, in which the pro-violence position of the P.F.L.P. is espoused, should be distinguished from advocating terrorism?!

The United States Government bears certain solemn responsibilities to its citizens, not the least of which is the maintenance of peace and tranquility across the land. It is now a matter of common knowledge that terrorism originating in the Middle East has reached the shores of America, as evidenced by the bombing of the World Trade Center, and other criminal acts in which convictions have been obtained. The Government would, therefore, be remiss in discharging its obligations, if it were to adopt a passive stance, and treat supporters of terrorism in the cavalier manner suggested by columnist Lewis, who perceives underhandedness even in the fact that of the eight men he defends, ‘six were charged with technical violations of their immigration status.’ Is government with tied hands, government that fights terrorism best?"

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The very worldly Anthony Lewis visited Israel and its neighboring states many times. He traveled a lot, and observed not much. Judging from his articles, the Big Picture eluded him altogether. The columnist is no Alexis de Tocqueville, a somewhat earlier fellow traveler, who learned to appreciate the brand new democratic country he was visiting with "its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions". Lewis, in contrast, regularly announced how saddened he was to conclude, much to his proclaimed disappointment, that the young democratic country he was visiting - the only democracy in the region, though he never made this point - was falling short of expectations - both his, and those of its Zionist Founding Fathers. By using expressions such as Fundamentalist Judaism, without providing a proper perspective as to the essential differences between religious zealotry and extreme nationalism in Israel with their limited hold on Israeli society, and the all consuming destructive effect of radical Islam - on which he never dwelt at any length - Lewis has attempted to "level the playing field" to the relative advantage of despotic Arab regimes, by creating an impression among his readers that Israel, because of internal strife marked by occasional violence, and supposedly growing parochialism, is just as removed, as its neighbors are known to be, from the Western ideals of tolerant open societies.

A favorite stratagem used by columnist Lewis in this context, was to report what "concerned" Israelis, not always named, told him about the threat to the democratic foundations of the state. One especially gloomy piece appeared on December 26, 1996 - the year Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister. Bleak in outlook and permeated with a sense of foreboding about the growing influence of outspoken Israeli nationalists on the one hand, and the very religious on the other, the article introduced a note of nastiness combined with hysteria (when one considers the Jewish locale), as it mentioned a conference held in Jerusalem, following the Rabin assassination, that dealt with the danger posed by preachers of hate, and in which speakers drew parallels "to the fate of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when it failed to prosecute Hitler and his Nazi colleagues for their inflammatory speeches." And if there was any remaining doubt, as to what is the main danger to this small Middle Eastern country, surrounded as it is by enemies, Lewis had an answer, that demonstrates, in retrospect, the extent of his political sagacity:

 

"A number of highly-respected Israelis spoke to me, with anxiety, about the

widening split between the ultra-orthodox and others - about the inability of

the two sides even to communicate with each other. I think the problem is the

most dangerous facing Israel. We know now that there are ways to resolve the

conflict with the Palestinians. No one is sure how to bring the two sides in the

internal conflict together."

As to the issue of internal strife and violence committed by Israelis, as well as calls for violence - a keen and objective observer would have drawn a lesson from the reaction of the Israeli public to the atrocity committed by the deranged settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba, who on February 25, 1994 killed 29 Muslims in a Hebron mosque, and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by Yigal Amir at the conclusion of a peace rally held in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. Such an observer would have also analyzed the public reaction to the threat published by an obscure ultra-Orthodox rabbi against the Chief Justice of Israel. Since Lewis, who wrote about all of these cases, failed to engage in any such meaningful analysis, I sent him the following note on January 22, 1997, (to which I did not receive a reply):

 

"We must keep in mind the need for proper perspective, and avoidance of

hasty conclusions, when reporting on threats and acts of violence. Americans,

for example, are no strangers to assassinations of leaders, and other politically

motivated acts against groups and individuals. However, such reprehensible

activities are not undertaken by the authorities in the United States as a routine

policy tool - film maker Oliver Stone's intimations to the contrary not

withstanding. Moreover, there is no rejoicing over such violence, which is

condemned and rejected by all responsible elements, including the media.

When and if an aberrant deed does take place, it is usually either the act of a

fringe group, or a dangerously obsessed person.

 

The same applies to Israel, where the massacre of Arabs in Hebron by an

Israeli settler, and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by another

individual driven by fanaticism, occasioned not only anguish, heartfelt grief

and revulsion throughout the horror-struck land, and across the political

spectrum, but prompted also much introspection and soul-searching triggered

by a profound sense of tragedy and national shame. As if these calamities were

symptomatic of public malignancy - evidence of societal failure.

 

There is a vast substantive difference between such reaction and the situation in the Arab countries and the Palestinian territories, where the violence, which is often orchestrated by the regime, is also endorsed and applauded by a

subservient media, and celebrated by exultant mobs in the streets, who rejoice

at the news of scores of Israeli casualties in suicide bombings. I find it strange and inexplicable, that this point is overlooked in your writings about violence-prone societies, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, you devote much space in your columns to the activities of marginal elements in the Israeli

society, such as a vile threat contained in an obscure ultra-Orthodox publication,

which was aimed at the Chief Justice because of certain recent liberal Supreme

Court rulings.

Since in Israel, just as in the United States, the freedom of the press - which you consistently advocate, often criticizing any perceived attempt by a Western democracy to limit it - is extensive in its reach and well established,

hardly anything can be done to curtail such venomous writing, other than public

censure, which has come pouring down from all directions, including Orthodox circles. However, this uplifting sequel - to what otherwise would have been a rather sordid tale – is completely missing from your report, which should have contrasted the enraged reaction of the Israeli public with the frighteningly enthusiastic acceptance by Muslim masses of fatwas issued by clerics, who call for the murder of writers, and others who committed ‘heresy’. In the absence of such an analysis, the reader wishing to draw a proper conclusion from the affair, is deprived of the required perspective, which is all-important, and left instead with assorted trivia and a meaningless recitation of random events."

 

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During several months preceding his retirement from the Times, in what appears to have been an attempt to inoculate and defend himself and his legacy against charges of anti-Israel bias, Lewis had taken to the use of a few tentative statements containing, in passing, brief admissions and criticisms, in a sentence or two, of Arab and Palestinian wrong behavior in the past, and some of it even at present time. These throwaway statements were invariably followed by a "but" serving as an opening to renewed anti-Israel tirades, made much more potent because of the impression of the reader that the columnist's "objective" assessment had shown, that in this imperfect world, where neither party to the conflict can claim utterly clean hands, Israel is the grave transgressor and the culpable party, since its actions are much worse than its adversary's.

Thus, in an August 4, 2001 article "Is There No Choice?" the columnist wrote: "It is true that Mr. Arafat does not generate confidence as a partner in negotiations. He can be evasive, unresponsive. He is not Nelson Mandela." However, a ringing "But" followed immediately, carrying with it the customary omissions and distortions of the record: "But the Israeli government view ignores facts that loom large among Palestinians. Israel has repeatedly failed to carry out promises and negotiated agreements - to make further redeployments from occupied territory, for example." To paraphrase Shakespeare in reverse: Lewis had in effect praised Arafat by faintly damming him with a couple of unflattering adjectives, tentatively presented: "He can be evasive, unresponsive." This description of Arafat could be used as an apology on behalf of the weaker party to the negotiations, who is overwhelmed by the surrounding circumstances, and is reluctant to make a move. Contrasting Arafat with the iconic Nelson Mandela is likely to elicit a shrug: "What do the Israelis expect? How many Third World leaders are there like Mandela?" There is, however, no equivocation in the charge leveled against Israel that it had "repeatedly" reneged on its commitments, of which further redeployment of forces is just one "example." Bottom line: The columnist appears evenhanded, but he has acknowledged Arafat's faults only to dwell on Israel's greater ones.

Those, who - having read Lewis – wondered (prior to the Israeli military operations in the West Bank that followed the Seder Night Massacre) about the reasons for the delays in redeployment of Israeli forces from certain Palestinian territories, should keep in mind that the columnist has left out of his narrative some vital information, that would have explained why the delays. From his columns it appears that Lewis did not even read the text of the Oslo accords. The basic tenet of the agreement, which was honored in the breach by the Palestinian Authority, is the cessation of violence as a means to an end, and its replacement by an agreed political process. Thus, the opening statement of Oslo Accord I declares that the parties agree "that it is time to put out an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process." Accordingly, mechanisms were set up for the redeployment of Israeli forces (Article XIII), and the resolution of disputes by a process ranging from negotiations to conciliation and arbitration (Article XV).

The Oslo agreement, however, was dealt a severe blow early on, as mounting disturbing evidence began to suggest that the Palestinians have adopted a tactic of negotiations alternating with terrorism, based on the need of the moment. The latest manifestation of this tactic is the second intifada, which was launched in September 2000 simultaneously with Arafat's rejection of Prime Minister's Barak’s far-reaching offer made in the Camp David negotiations, chaired by President Clinton. Most notably, in addition to a formal recognition of Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem, the offer entailed removal of most of the Jewish settlements, which would have made possible further redeployment of Israeli forces, so that the Palestinians would have ended up in control of a contiguous entity over approximately 97% of the territories, and would have been compensated for the rest through land exchange with Israel.

Not surprisingly, Lewis concluded in his column of last August 4 that "Barak did not make firm generous offers that Arafat rejected." Relying, all too willingly, on a revisionist assessment of the Camp David negotiations by Robert Malley - at the time a Clinton assistant - that appeared in The New York Review of Books, Lewis cites approvingly Arafat, who in an interview with Deborah Sontag of The New York Times contemptuously dismissed Barak's offer, because it meant that the Israelis "have to control the Jordan Valley, the air above, the water aquifers below, the sea and the borders. They have to divide the West Bank in three cantons."

Lewis' endorsement of Arafat's mocking assessment of an offer that included certain provisions that were obviously meant to protect the vital security interests of Israel, and preserve essential resources, demonstrates, possibly more than anything else he had written, and despite his claims to the contrary, an utter indifference to the continuing existence and welfare of the Jewish state.

After all, Lewis must have known that Security Council Resolution 242, while calling for Israeli withdrawal, recognizes also, as mentioned earlier, Israel's right, like other states', "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries". Seen in this light, Arafat's sly reference to Israel's insistence on dividing "the West Bank in three cantons" is simply a statement of objection to the construction of a pair of Israeli controlled East-West roads, which - by transversing the West Bank - would enable Israel to move forces in time, should the need arise, to counter invading armies from the east, before they cross the Jordan River on their very short way to the heart of Israel: Jerusalem, the Sharon Plains and Tel Aviv. Is Israel demanding too much? Apparently so, according to Lewis, who prefers that the Jewish state, in trading land - a tangible asset, for the intangible promise of peace - should be shorn of its remaining defenses, and count instead on the good faith of its adversaries.

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An unanswered question still remains, even if one subscribes momentarily, for argument's sake, to Arafat's claim that Barak's Camp David concessions to the Palestinians did not go far enough: Why start another destructive intifada (the original pre-Oslo intifada took place in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.), whose cost in lives lost, injuries inflicted, pain and material suffering, is immense, when Oslo Accord I provides mechanisms for peaceful resolutions of disputes? Lewis - whose public persona is that of an earnest liberal humanist, who cares deeply about the poor and downtrodden, and wishes peace on all - did not bother to address this issue. Instead, he reverted back to his shopworn technique of exempting the initiators of violence from responsibility, and blaming the Israeli government for its reaction, which - he warned - would only anger the initial perpetrators. Having taken to task in the past Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak, Lewis' job this time around was relatively easy, since the target was a certified Bad Guy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Soldiering on, the veteran columnist offered an analysis, in his August 4 article that bordered on the farcical, (especially in light of September 11, and the contrast provided by the resolute American reaction that followed.):

"Sharon operates on the premise that every Palestinian act of violence is authorized by Arafat. His answer is to send gunships against Palestinian Authority buildings and preemptively assassinate those he says are planning terrorist attacks. The effect, of course, is to increase Palestinian rage, and make it politically impossible for Arafat to crack down on Hamas or other terrorists if he wanted to. The policy is self-fulfilling prophecy." (Does Lewis suggest that Arafat should get a pass, if he authorizes not all, but only some acts of violence? Should the gunships be sent against residential buildings, instead of Palestinian Authority facilities emptied out of their personnel due to advance Israeli warning? Should those, who according to Israeli intelligence, are planning terrorist attacks be allowed just one more atrocity, or be left alone altogether, instead of subjecting them to pre-emptive "assassination"?)

Should we have expected the Palestinian hostility towards Israel to continue beyond Oslo, and lead to a second intifada? Lewis' biased rumination on the subject is of no help. However, his articles might serve as a Baedeker in one perverse way: It is what Lewis had ignored in columns upon columns - many of them noted for their sanctimonious preachiness - that one should pay attention to. The alarming signals appeared as soon as the signatories to the Declaration of Principles departed from the White House lawn on that bright September 13, 1993.

The signals were contained in Palestinian violations of the Oslo agreement from the very beginning, some of which were mentioned earlier: Failure to confiscate illegal arms, to disarm and disband militias, and to extradite known terrorists wanted by Israel; engaging in a "revolving door policy" in regard to terrorists detained by the Palestinian Authority; and setting up security services exceeding in size the Oslo stipulated limits. To this list should be added another blatant violation of Oslo, which carries the seeds of a troubled future for the next generation - a violation that, like all other ones, escaped Lewis' attention: Incitement to violence against Israel.

Originating at the top (Arafat has praised and eulogized prominent terrorists), it permeates in its vilest anti-Semitic forms the Palestinian media, and reaches down to schoolchildren - the next generation which is supposed to get accustomed to peaceful co-existence with Israelis - through textbooks and other reading materials, containing crude anti-Israel propaganda. (In this respect the Palestinians are just as exposed to anti-Semitic hate mongering, as the rest of the Arab world.)

 

Another factor that dimmed the peace prospects was the pervasive corruption, which has infected the various institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Though Lewis never mentioned it, Israel, in its own interest, had lobbied for American and European commercial investments in Palestinian enterprises, and governmental aid to the Palestinian Authority. Israel had also provided incentives to its own entrepreneurs to invest in joint projects in industrial parks astride the Israeli-Palestinian borders, which would have provided jobs to many Palestinians. However, the Palestinian Authority's failure to implement various good government measures, including transparent budgets and other sound fiscal procedures, have caused hesitant donor countries to hold back pledged funds badly needed for public works and other constructive purposes. To the extent that resources were available, they were often looted, and the remainder was misallocated, with the lion's share spent on bloated security services, and stockpiling of arms in violation of the Oslo agreement. As a result, just as Israel had feared, a mood of frustration, aimlessness and despair engulfed the masses of unemployed Palestinians, many of whom would become willing recruits for anti-Israel terrorist activities, including suicide bombings. An inevitable chain reaction that further aggravated the Palestinian unemployment situation soon followed: The joint Israeli-Palestinian projects - some of them in their fragile start-up stage - had to be scuttled, and thousands of Palestinian workers were barred from their daily commute to Israel for obvious security reasons.

 

EPILOGUE

Two events, which took place in close proximity to Lewis' retirement from the Times, demonstrate how utterly misbegotten, and removed from reality, was his claim that the Palestinian leadership is reconciled to co-existence with Israel, and had given up the war option.

The first was an eye-opening statement made by Farouq Al-Qaddumi who heads the Political Department of Arafat's organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization, (PLO). The statement, dated last December 12, appeared in the London based Arabic-language paper Al-Hayat, and included among other paragraphs the following chilling analyses: "If Sharon is defeated, the rapid countdown to the end of Israel will begin, because the country was established through historical coercion and will find its end as the USSR and Yugoslavia did." "Resistance is not a conventional war. It is a war based on surprise, in time and in place. In this war, one incites the public for 20 hours, and fights for perhaps two hours." "Four factions have suspended their resistance operations for a while. As I said, guerilla war is like commerce. As Mao Zedong said, we trade when trade is profitable and stop when it's not." (The Middle East Research Institute, MEMRI, sent the Qaddumi text in English translation to its subscribers last December 17.)

The second event, which was mentioned in the beginning of this article, was the January 3 interception, and confiscation of the ship Karine A by Israeli naval commandos operating in the Red Sea. The New York Times reported last January 10, that the Bush administration, having been briefed by Israeli intelligence, has concluded that the ship's cargo of 50 tons of rockets, explosives, anti-tank weapons, and other arms was meant to be smuggled to the Palestinians, and that the Palestinian Authority, despite its denials, was involved in the scheme, which violated the Oslo agreement. The magnitude of the cargo, which was purchased in Iran, and the highly offensive capabilities of the weapons contained in it, (such as Katyusha rockets that could reach Israeli population centers, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Ben Gurion Airport) created consternation even among member nations of the European Union sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Prime Minister Sharon said that if the Palestinians had obtained the weapons, it would have put the country "in an impossible situation where all of Israel becomes hostage to Yasir Arafat."

Perhaps most telling of the disillusionment of the Israeli public with Arafat as a credible partner to peace, was a somber editorial that appeared last January 7 in the very liberal paper Haaretz,, an Israeli daily, frequently critical of government policies. Advocating moderation and mutual concessions, as the way to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Haaretz often serves as a forum for certain intellectuals, academics and others, who belong to the so-called Israeli peace camp. The paper had this to say:

"The Karine A affair teaches that Arafat is preparing for a huge escalation, including the ability to equip hundreds of suicide attackers with explosives and to attack Israeli cities with rockets. No government in Israel, whatever its political horizons may be, would come to terms with any of these three evils, neither jointly nor individually: the accumulation of attack-oriented weapons on its doorstep, prior to its neighbors giving up the dream of living in its place (rather than alongside of it); military cooperation with a declared enemy such as Iran, in its role as the disseminator of the Islamic Revolution; and the continual breaching of agreements in a manner that uproots the desire to strive for new ones. The Palestinians' dangerous weapons adventure strengthens those who argue that Arafat's statements from three weeks ago - when he called for an end to the armed struggle against Israel, and even stretched out his hand in a gesture of peace - was nothing more than a ruse designed to cover up preparations for a fierce conflict."

The "huge escalation" that Haaretz feared at the start of 2002 became a reality within weeks as Palestinian terrorist activities multiplied, and suicide bombings in Israel became a daily phenomenon. Surely, veteran observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not surprised that Anthony Lewis condemned the Israeli reaction to the Palestinian attacks.

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Surveying The New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis’ legacy, as it relates to the post-Oslo Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its origins, is a distressing exercise. To conclude that the columnist's judgment was at best faulty, is to state the obvious. What is troubling, however, is the unprofessional practice, the disloyalty to the art and craft of journalism. Why would someone, who is not a hired spinmeister, but a widely-read columnist writing for a famous daily newspaper, abuse a position of trust, and engage in a systematic and damaging distortion of the historical record of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a frustrating mystery. To expose a journalist as an intellectually bankrupt hack and a fraud is not a pleasant task. It is, though, a necessary job that had to be done for the sake of the historical record. The Times, which considers itself "The Newspaper of Record", should have expected such an expose, and its readers are entitled to it.


Itzhak Sharav is a professor at Columbia Business School. He can be reached at IS7@columbia.edu.


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