One thing that can be said about the PBS Frontline documentary Netanyahu at War is that despite many serious shortcomings, there are some positive aspects that make it not as bad as previous PBS and Frontline documentaries on Israel.
The fundamental problem with Netanyahu at War is that a war by definition requires at least two participants, and focusing only on Netanyahu, but not also on those who were making war against Israel, makes it impossible to really understand why Netanyahu and Israel took the actions that they did.
It would be like focusing on US attacks on Japan in World War II, and the undeniable suffering of Japanese civilians, without mentioning Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, Japan's alliance with Hitler, etc.
Great emphasis is given to Netanyahu's actions regarding the Palestinians and their leader Yasir Arafat, but there is hardly a word concerning Arafat's history or actions.
Thus, viewers are told that as a young soldier Benjamin Netanyahu was accepted into the top unit in the Israeli army, the then-secret Sayeret Matkal, and that he took part in a successful rescue mission after "militants" had hijacked a Sabena airliner headed for Israel with many Israeli passengers on board.
It's certainly appropriate for viewers to learn of Netanyahu's sterling military record, and how this might have helped to shape his character.
But the "militants" he battled against in the hijacked plane were described only as being from "Black September," and viewers were given no hint that Black September was just a cover name for a Fatah terrorist group ultimately under the command of Fatah's leader, Yasir Arafat.
So wouldn't it have been equally appropriate for viewers to learn about Arafat's notorious record of terrorism, the very thing that the young Benjamin Netanyahu went to war against?
Yet viewers were given no hint of Arafat's key role in the Sabena hijacking.
Viewers are also not told that Black September, a few months later and again under Arafat's command, carried out the Munich Massacre, the bloody assault on the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972 in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed.
Again, wouldn't viewers have benefitted from knowing these facts about Arafat and the Palestinian movement that he led? For what possible reason were they omitted?
Skipping forward to the 1990's and the Oslo process, which Netanyahu opposed as a grave danger to Israel, attention is justifiably given to the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing religious Israeli, Yigal Amir.
According to the film makers, and a number of the people whom they interview on camera, Netanyahu shares some of the blame for the assassination because he supposedly did not denounce anti-Rabin incitement at Likud rallies, including chants terming Rabin a traitor, and a poster of Rabin in a Nazi uniform.
For example, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, is allowed to charge that:
There were moments when Netanyahu was advised that there are real nut cases in the National Religious camp, that we see that we need to calm down, even gesturally.
Netanyahu never did that. He never did that to his enormous discredit.
In fact, contrary to Remnick, Netanyahu did exactly that. For example, in this rally on April 17, 1995 Netanyahu remonstrated with some in the crowd who were chanting that Rabin was a traitor:
Netanyahu: He [Rabin] is not a traitor. He's not a traitor. He's mistaken. He's greatly mistaken. And he will end up stepping aside. But he's not a traitor. He is not a traitor. No, no. No, he is not. We are dealing with political rivals, not enemies. We are one nation.
And regarding anti-Rabin incitement at the large rally at Zion Square in Jerusalem on October 5, 1995, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, no friend of the Likud or Netanyahu, reported:
The crowd chanted 'Rabin Traitor' and Mr. Netanyahu silenced them, saying such calls do not belong here. 'We will not replace the government through fire and blood but through the ballot box, and through it alone.
As for the Nazi poster, Netanyahu could not have seen it from hundreds of feet away at the rally, but when he was made aware of it via television reports, he denounced the poster on the Knesset floor.
It is to the enormous discredit of David Remnick that he recounted this false tale without doing even the elementary fact checking that his magazine is supposedly known for.
And there is more to be said about the Nazi-Rabin poster it was created by followers of Avishai Raviv, a supposed far-right activist who was actually working for Israel's domestic security agency, the Shin Bet. Raviv was tasked with infiltrating Israeli right wing groups, but rather than just acting as an informer Raviv acted as an agent provocateur. He brought the infamous Nazi poster to a Netanyahu rally and made sure that journalists saw it.
Raviv knew Yigal Amir well since their college days, and witnesses claim that Raviv even goaded Amir to murder Rabin (Expose this provocateur, Jerusalem Post, May 22, 1997, by Uri Dan and Dennis Eisenberg).
Viewers deserved to know the full story of Nazi-Rabin poster, but Frontline again let them down.
Martin Indyk's claims about Netanyahu's immediate reaction to Rabin's assassination have also been called into question. According to Indyk:
Netanyahu sat next to me when I was ambassador in Israel at the time of Rabin's funeral. The first step was to bring his body from the hospital through a cortege up to the Knesset where he would lie in state. There was a big assembly of dignitaries and the diplomatic core and politicians and so on at the Knesset waiting for Rabin's body to arrive, the coffin. And I remember Netanyahu saying to me: "Look, look at this. He's a hero now, but if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician."
Netanyahu has stated that he never said any such thing. The PBS website has a summary of the issue here, including links to leaked cables from Indyk just after the assassination.
The film makers also blame Netanyahu as Prime Minister for the failures of the agreements with the Palestinians. Consider for example the following passage in involving the narrator followed by the lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat:
Narrator: Erekat and others say Netanyahu's maneuvering could be maddening.
Erekat: I've seen the frustrations of many people, I've seen the frustrations of Israel's negotiators, I've seen the frustrations of American presidents, and I've seen my own frustrations.
First of all, why would anyone trust or take seriously anything said by Saeb Erekat, who has been proven to be a habitual liar of colossal proportions, including his blatantly false claims that Israel had committed a massacre in fighting against terrorists in Jenin, and that they had destroyed a wing of a hospital.
Erekat's record of duplicity aside, perhaps Netanyahu, with primary responsibility for the safety of his people, was maddening to some foreign leaders. Was Arafat maddening? Was Arafat frustrating anyone? Did any blame attach to Arafat for the failures of the peace process? Were Israelis frustrated by Palestinian terrorism, and by the involvement of their supposed peace partner Arafat in that terrorism?
The film makers don't say, so one must presume they considered Arafat blameless, and wanted viewers to see it that way too. So, for example, there is no mention of Arafat's "revolving door" policy, wherein following deadly terrorist attacks that brought Western pressure, he arrested Hamas and other terrorists, only to release them soon afterwards.
A case in point was the suicide bombing of the Café Apropos in Tel Aviv in 1997, which was carried out by Hamas, but occurred, according to Israeli intelligence, only after Arafat released more than one hundred Hamas terrorists and gave Hamas a green light to carry out more attacks. Three young Israeli women were killed, and more than 48 people were wounded.
Later, after Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak, intensive negotiations were held in the summer of 2000 at Camp David, under the auspices and guidance of President Bill Clinton.
Unfortunately the negotiations failed, despite far-reaching concessions by Barak, which the film makers acknowledge. But they don't go into any real detail as to why the negotiations failed, despite the fact that the chief US negotiatior, Dennis Ross, was among those whom they interviewed. Viewers thus were deprived of hearing what really happened, as recounted in detail elsewhere by Ross.
In brief, Barak went beyond the plans put forth by President Clinton and offered the Palestinians all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, no Israeli control over the border with Jordan or the adjacent Jordan Valley, a small Israeli annexation around three settlement blocs balanced by an equivalent area of Israeli territory that would have been ceded to the Palestinians. As Ross put it in a FoxNews interview:
... the Palestinians would have in the West Bank an area that was contiguous. Those who say there were cantons, completely untrue. It was contiguous... And to connect Gaza with the West Bank, there would have been an elevated highway, an elevated railroad, to ensure that there would be not just safe passage for the Palestinians, but free passage. (Fox News, April 21, 2002)
According to Ambassador Ross, Palestinian negotiators working for Arafat wanted him to accept the Clinton Parameters, but he refused. In response to Brit Hume's question as to why Arafat turned these deals down, Ross said:
Because fundamentally I do not believe he can end the conflict. We had one critical clause in this agreement, and that clause was, this is the end of the conflict.
Arafat's whole life has been governed by struggle and a cause. Everything he has done as leader of the Palestinians is to always leave his options open, never close a door. He was being asked here, you've got to close the door. For him to end the conflict is to end himself.
So Ross would have been able to offer a key insight that despite complaints about Netanyahu or Barak or other Israeli leaders, it was Arafat who, given the opportunity, refused to end the conlict.
In addition, while the film makers do note that following the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 the Palestinians again turned to violence, launching the second intifada, they omit entirely the fact that Arafat was funding and approving the terrorist attacks. They omit entirely any mention of the documents taken by Israeli intelligence from Arafat's compound in Ramallah, which show detailed invoices sent to him to build bombs, buy bullets and guns, and pay bombers and terrorists. These invoices were signed and initialed by Arafat:
In one, Hussein al Sheik, a senior Fatah activist, asked Arafat that $2,500 be divided among three people: Ra'ad el Karmi, the now-assassinated former commander of the Tanzim in Tulkarem; Ziad Muhamed Daas, commander of a group in the Fatah Tanzim in Tulkarem that masterminded the attack on the bat mitzah ceremony in Hadera, Israel; and Amar Qadan, a senior activist of presidential security Force 16 in Ramallah.
Arafat signed the document under the handwritten note, "Allocate $600 to each of them," Israel said. The Tanzim is a military wing of Arafat's Fatah. Israel refers to it as Arafat's militia.
The other document released by the IDF is said to be a fax, sent September 19 from Karmi to Marwan Barghouti, top Fatah leader, requesting money for 12 people, all on Israel's wanted list. Barghouti recommended $1,000 for each, and sent the fax to Arafat, who wrote "please allocate $350 to each" and signed his name on the side of the document, according to the Israelis.
Again, why were these facts kept from viewers?
And why, instead of facts, were viewers offered numerous baseless assertions from uninformed commentators like David Remnick?
Besides the previously noted unfounded claims from Remnick, the film makers also allowed him to tell viewers that:
The political culture has shifted. In fact, he (Netanyahu) is one of the main political forces that's helped move the entire Israeli political spectrum to the right.
In fact, the opposite is true the Israeli body politic has moved to the left. This is clear, for example, from the fact that Netanyahu and his Likud party, which long opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and the so-called "two-state solution," now accepts such a state, if only it were willing to live in peace with Israel.
It's true that the public wants a right-wing leader to implement the left's policies, but it's also true that the ideological map has moved left. Two states for two peoples' was once the motto of the extremist Hadash [communist party]. Labor never called for it [during the Oslo process]. Now it's been uttered by the leader of Likud, even if he doesn't do anything to bring it about.
That is, Remnick got it exactly backwards. Viewers who gave any credit to what he said ending up knowing less rather than more about Israel and the Middle East. One wonders why the film makers chose to interview people like Remnick and Peter Beinart, who really know very little about Israel and the Middle East, and seem to get most of their information from sketchy web sites.
The film makers also get a great deal wrong, perhaps because they too relied on sketchy web sites. For example they claim that as a result of the Six Day War a further one million Arabs became refugees:
The war has created new refugee camps. More than a million Arabs have been displaced. Homeless and helpless they struggle to survive, while the search for peace, lasting peace, goes on.
This claim is nonsense. and even the Arab states at the time did not make such assertions. While some from the West Bank did flee to the East Bank, ie Jordan, most if not all of them left of their own free will, usually because they were originally from the East Bank, or were pensioners or civil servants who were afraid that if they stayed they would lose their Jordanian income.
And, as the New York Times reported (June 11, 1967), Jordanian radio broadcasts urged the people not to flee, clearly indicating that it was a matter of choice rather than compulsion:
... the refugees are on the move in spite of repeated Jordanian radio broadcasts that say:
"To the Arabs of the West Bank, do not desert your homes. Be patient. Be men and do not desert your homes. Be patient. Do not create another refugee problem."
In addition, when the Arab regimes charged at the UN that Israel was expelling thousands of people from the West Bank, a New York Times reporter looked into the matter, interviewing numerous Palestinian residents and finding no supporting evidence whatsoever:
At no time during a number of long talks with Arabs in this area was anything said to support Arab charges at the United Nations that thousands had been forced to cross the Jordan River from the west bank area occupied by the Israelis... [A Nablus resident] like other persons questioned, said nothing about Jordanians being forced eastward. He commented that many thousands had gone, but said he expected them to come back if the Israelis would permit it. (War Brings Problems for '48 Palestine Refugees, New York Times, June 15, 1967)
Even the United Nations, which is rarely known to tilt towards Israel, found little support for the expulsion claims in a detailed report filed by the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Nils-Goran Gussing. (Note: The web version of this report contains some transcription errors that have been corrected below against the official printed version.) According to the report:
46. In letters circulated to the Security Council [see S/7975, S/8004, S/8110, S/8115 and S/8117], Jordan complains in general terms about Israel attempts to create "yet another Arab exodus", and in precise detail about the expulsion of specific numbers of inhabitants and about intimidation of the population, for example, by dynamiting houses in Nablus...
48. On the first issue, affecting the West Bank as a whole, the Special Representative finds difficulty in defining what constitutes "expulsion" or "use of force" in relation to the movement of populations. During his visit to the area, the Special Representative received no specific reports indicating that persons had been physically forced to cross to the East Bank. On the other hand, there are persistent reports of acts of intimidation by Israel armed forces and of Israel attempts to suggest to the population, by loudspeakers mounted on cars, that they, might be better off on the East Bank. There have also been reports that in several localities buses and trucks were put at the disposal of the population for travel to the East Bank.
49. During his visits to several refugee camps on the East Bank, newly displaced persons consistently informed the Special Representative that they had left the West Bank under pressure and that they had suffered many atrocities.
50. The truth seems to lie somewhere between an Israel statement that "no encouragement" was given to the population to flee, and the allegations about the use of brutal force and intimidation made by refugees. The inevitable impact upon a frightened civilian population of hostilities and military occupation as such, particularly when no measures of reassurance are taken, has clearly been a main factor in the exodus from the West Bank.
In particular, writing about the situation in Hebron, the report stated:
85 (j) Movement of population. The Mayor mentioned that before the entry of the Israel troops, an agreement had been reached that no fighting would take place in this area, and that in fact no fighting had taken place. Yet when the Arab Legion withdrew from the area, people began to flee. Approximately 15,000 to 18,000 out of a population of 150,000 in the area had left. The majority had left before the arrival of the Israel troops; some were still leaving. They had left of their own free will without any pressure from the army. Many had come back, and about 90 per cent of all those who had gone would like to come back. The army treated the population well. There were about 50,000 Palestinian refugees in the area, out of whom approximately 10,000 left. (Forty per cent of the refugees lived in camps.) [emphasis added]
That is, according to the Arab mayor of Hebron, even with the assurance that there would be no fighting, many Hebron residents fled when they understood that the Jordanian army was retreating, and they fled even before seeing any Israeli troops.
The report also featured the following relevant statements from the Israeli authorities:
During the fighting, considerable numbers of inhabitants crossed the Jordan River eastwards. In many cases they were motivated by fear; but the main impulse was economic: the desire to ensure the continued receipt of money transfers from relatives in other Arab States or of salary payments by the Jordanian Government. Many of those who left the West Bank were registered with UNRWA as refugees. The certainty that they would continue to receive UNRWA assistance served as encouragement...
Persons who had resided on the West Bank, and who crossed over to the East Bank between 5 June and 4 July 1967, have been permitted to return to the West Bank, under an Israel Government decision adopted as a gesture of goodwill. Arrangements for the return of such persons are being made through the good offices of the International Red Cross. (emphasis added)
That is, the Israelis, in cooperation with the ICRC, arranged for many of those who had fled to return.
The bottom line is that Netanyahu at War had a few positive aspects, but was marred by numerous false and baseless assertions by the film makers themselves, and by people they chose to interview and present to viewers as credible sources, including a documented liar like Saeb Erekat, and uninformed and biased poseurs like Peter Beinart and David Remnick.
In the end, viewers were not served by this witch's brew of a few facts sprinkled in with too many fictions, falsehoods and deceptions to count.