One day after the United States Supreme Court reinstated a $10 million libel
suit against New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm for quoting fabricated
statements, the New York Times' Allan M. Siegal affirmed the position of
his own newspaper on the subject. He said: "We believe that the material
between quotation marks must be an absolutely literal rendition of what the
quoted person said. We believe that if there is any reason to alter it for
clarity or grammatical improvement, then the quotation marks come off and we
resort to paraphrase and fragmentary quotes."
As in the case of so much journalism today, the words are high-minded
and the self-congratulatory claims of unstinting rigor constant while the
actual product is a depressing testament to shoddiness and bias. On no subject
is the decline of journalistic standards more glaring than in the area of
reporting on Israel. And nowhere more alarming than in America's newspaper of
On June 5, 1994, the New York Times ran a column authored by
Jonathan Kuttab, ostensibly rendering verbatim a negotiating session that
occurred behind closed doors between Israelis and Palestinians on key legal
issues. Even a casual reader with no knowledge of the actual events will detect
the implausibility of the interaction said to have occurred.
Kuttab, a ubiquitous media figure whose denunciations are reported
unquestioningly, is here recounting a meeting to which he was a party and in
which he alleges Israeli torture and abuse of Palestinians. With each charge
the Israeli team is depicted as acknowledging the essential truth of the
allegation in evasive answers, weak protestations, and tacit agreement, or in
cringing physical cues as when Kuttab observes, "To their credit, all four
of them winced and fidgeted, and one covered his head in shame."
Kuttab portrays himself scoring point after virtuous point against the
stumbling and culpable Israeli adversary. And all of it conveyed to Times
readers as the "absolutely literal" utterances of the parties.
According to the Israelis at the meeting, it was understood that, in an
effort to promote an informal and constructive atmosphere, no official records
were to be made of the negotiations. As far as the Israelis know, no tape
recording was made of the sessions.
Yet, the Times column contains extensive passages of what are
purported to be direct quotes from the meeting, such as the following which
begins with Kuttab quoting himself:
"You would not turn an Israeli over to a country like Saudi Arabia
where the thief can have his hand cut off, would you?"
"No, we would not."
"Then why should I turn over my citizens to your jurisdiction
where torture is the order of the day?"
"But we allow Israelis to be extradited to France and the United
"I would be willing to have Palestinians extradited to France and
the United States as well, but with all due respect, you do not fit in that
category at all..."
Kuttab has himself continually instructing the abject Israelis, leaning
across a table with authoritative gestures, as when he declares: "Very
frankly, we want to know that individuals we turn over to you are not tortured.
Do you want us to turn over suspects for trial or also for interrogation?"
"For interrogation as well as trial."
"But with all due respect, you do not know how to interrogate.
All you know is how to beat a confession out of somebody."
"You are only speaking about military courts and military trials.
We promise to treat all these people under existing civilian laws applicable in
the Israeli courts. We are a democracy and you know we have certain guarantees
for the rights of defendants."
"I know all about those guarantees. You seem to forget that I
practice in Israeli courts..."
Kuttab reworks and edits what happened at the negotiating session into
a righteous attack on Israel, an attack the Times considered
constructive to publicize without consulting the Israelis in attendance. But
what, in fact, did happen at the meeting?
The Israeli version differs profoundly from Kuttab's as a
Times editor could have discovered with a phone call. Israeli
participants agree that Kuttab used the sessions as a platform for levelling
charges against Israel, but they viewed his allegations as theatrics,
digressions from the practical aims of the meeting which were to hammer out
agreement on legal issues. They did not sit silently in the face of the
allegations of torture and abuse by Israel, as Kuttab would have it; they denied
the charges. They did not, however, want the session to degenerate into a
debate on these issues and for that reason restrained themselves from responding
in detail, preferring to try to steer the session back to the stated agenda.
They did not imagine Kuttab would violate the confidentiality of the meeting in
submitting his version to the New York Times, nor did they, of course,
imagine the New York Times would print Kuttab's account without any
Not only is Kuttab's fictionalized version a caricature of the personal
interactions of the group, it is a highly misleading rendition of the
substantive issues. Ironically, for example, when, in response to Kuttab's
denunciations of Israeli justice, the Israeli negotiators proposed that any
Palestinian suspects transferred to Israeli authority would be guaranteed the
same rights and treatment they would receive in the Gaza Strip and Jericho
under Palestinian authority, Kuttab and his colleagues admitted this safeguard
would be insufficient.
Indeed, in the course of negotiations Israel has proposed detailed and
stringent human rights guarantees to be applied uniformly by Israelis and
Palestinians, but the Palestinians have refused such provisions, opting for far
more limited protections. The real story here, as Times readers might
have learned, was that, while Kuttab railed against Israel in dramatic
condemnations, it was Israeli negotiators who sought to introduce strong legal
protections for Palestinian Arabs and it was Palestinian negotiators who vetoed
While Israeli delegates waited out the rhetorical grandstanding of the
Palestinian "human-rights advocate," waited with concrete offers of
detailed guarantees, Kuttab's agenda remained what it has been throughout his
career, to assault Israel by whatever means is at hand.
That career is unmentioned in the column's introductory paragraph
written by a Times editor. There Kuttab is identified simply as "a
42-year-old Palestinian lawyer" who "led the Palestinians' legal
committee." Passed over in silence is his role as a founder of the
self-styled human-rights organization Al Haq, a group whose agenda is the
castigation of Israel. Co-founder Raja Shehedeh's venomous attacks on Israel
once prompted Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli frequently critical of his country's
policies, to recoil from the "...hatred that does not know any bounds, and
that blinds the eyes of the ... fighter for human rights..." He deplored
Shehedeh's resort to "groundless propaganda that he hears and fabricates."
Not surprisingly, the Times omits other elements of Kuttab's
record that would cast doubt on his lawyerly integrity. Excluded, for example,
is his own rationalization of collaborator killings by Palestinians as necessary
because "the intifada leadership does not have any jails." (That's a
direct quote from a September 10, 1989, column by Kuttab in the Jerusalem
Likewise, the Times omits such episodes as one reported by
Martin Peretz in The New Republic in which the smooth-tongued Kuttab is
caught lying about Israel. Addressing a group of visiting dignitaries, he
denounced Israeli medical authorities for their callous failure to immunize Arab
babies against polio during an outbreak of the disease, while having recently
undertaken innoculation of Israeli children. Unfortunately for Kuttab, the
group had just come from the Sheikh Jarrah Medical Center, a facility built by
the Jerusalem Foundation, where they had watched Arab babies receiving polio
vaccine provided by Israel.
Nevertheless, when asked whether the Times had done anything to
verify the accuracy of the quotations and substance of Kuttab's column, New
York Times editor Marc Charney replied, "We had no reason to doubt
No reason, because the Times has sunk to a point where
polemicists such as Kuttab, presenting material that is patently distorted and
misleading, are apparently given a forum on the basis of their offering views
with which the paper is sympathetic. That the event portrayed is an obvious
fabrication set off no alarms at the Times where, one can only assume,
the blending of truth and fiction, the print version of the TV docudrama, is now
NOTE: Three days after CAMERA contacted the New York Times to
question the accuracy of quotations and veracity of assertions in the Kuttab
article, and four weeks after the article was published, the paper printed an
Editor's Note stating that the Times had erred in allowing Kuttab to use
quotations marks as he had in the column. The Times has yet to explain
why it failed to check Kuttab's claims with the Israelis in attendance or to
address more broadly its repeated journalistic lapses in covering Israel.