Viewers familiar with the long history of anti-Israel films aired by the
Public Broadcasting Service might have assumed a turn for the better when PBS
added to its fall schedule On the Brink of Peace, an Abba Eban
documentary on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Eban, the veteran Israeli
politician, is still remembered with affection by many Americans as the eloquent
Ambassador of his country to the United States and the United Nations, and as
the host of the PBS documentary Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.
Regrettably, even with Abba Eban as host, PBS is still unable to present an
accurate and balanced documentary about Israel. Instead, after a nearly
five-year hiatus in the airing of films about Israel, PBS has yet again
presented a skewed history in which countries and movements that have vowed to
destroy Israel are portrayed as reasonable, and the failures of the peace
process are laid at Israel's doorstep.
Emblematic of this tilt is the documentary's portrayal of the PLO. Employing
his most authoritative tones, Mr. Eban declares that after the Six Day War in
1967 the PLO "called for the eviction of Israel from captured
territories..." The PLO, and its leader, Yasir Arafat, called for more than
Israel's "eviction" they called for Israel's destruction. And
they did this not in secret, but in threats that were splashed across front
pages the world over when Mr. Eban was Israel's Foreign Minister. To ignore
menacing proclamations such as Yasir Arafat's "The goal of our struggle is
the end of Israel and there can be no compromise," (Washington Post,
March 29, 1970), is to rewrite the history of the PLO beyond any recognition.
The history of the wider conflict is also rewritten, as Eban instructs
viewers that "since the founding of Israel in 1948 there has been
continuous conflict between Israel and the Arab states." No hint is offered
as to what might have caused that conflict. In his autobiography, however, Mr.
Eban did more than hint he stated clearly that the strife resulted from "the
implacable nature of Arab hostility." Similarly, in a speech before the
United Nations following the Six Day War, Eban stated:
In recent weeks, the Middle East has passed through a crisis whose shadows
darkened the entire world. This crisis has many consequences, but only one
cause. Israel's right to peace, security, sovereignty, ... indeed its very right
to exist, has been forcibly denied and aggressively attacked.
On the Brink of Peace portrays even Hamas and Islamic Jihad as
relative moderates, whose goal is "total Israeli withdrawal from occupied
lands." What Mr. Eban does not tell viewers is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad
consider every inch of Israel to be "occupied land." Withdrawal would
leave no Jewish state. As Eban certainly knows, this is precisely the aim of
Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Though the documentary does include footage of the horrific suicide bombings
carried out by Hamas in February and March of 1996, Eban once again minimizes
Palestinian responsibility, claiming the attacks were in retaliation for
Israel's killing of Yehya Ayash. The fact that Ayash, the ace bomber of Hamas,
had already masterminded at least 5 suicide bombings, and that he was actively
planning more when he met his fate, apparently leaves Mr. Eban unperturbed.
The former Israeli Foreign Minister couples his erasure of Arab aggression
against Israel with a misleading appraisal of the Oslo Agreements. Thus, he
greatly overstates Oslo's diplomatic benefits to Israel, claiming that thanks to
the accords "over one hundred new countries expressed their willingness to
establish diplomatic relations" with Israel. In fact, according to Israel's
- 162 nations maintain diplomatic relations with Israel;
- In the 2 years between the Madrid Conference in October 1991 and the
signing of Oslo's Declaration of Principles in September 1993, 34 states renewed
or established relations with Israel;
- In the 4 years since the signing of the DOP, 36 states renewed or
established relations with Israel.
Of those states that entered into diplomatic relations with Israel following
the DOP, however, three resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia, with which
Israel already had relations. In other words, Madrid rather than Oslo had the
greater impact on Israel's diplomatic standing.
In addition to inflating Israel's gains from Oslo, Mr. Eban also overstates
Palestinian allegiance to the peace promised by Oslo. He claims, for example,
that "in opinion polls over 70% of the Palestinians supported the peace
process." In fact, polls indicate wide support for a peace that is tactical
and temporary, lasting only until the Arabs are strong enough to eliminate
The Arabs as seekers of peace and Israel as the intransigent obstacle is not
particularly new propaganda. What is new, however, is that in violation of PBS
guidelines that prohibit conflicts of interest, an organization which promotes
such views of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a key backer of On the Brink of
Peace. While that organization, the Center for Middle East Peace and
Economic Cooperation, is officially devoted to privately assisting the peace
process, a senior staffer, Sara Ehrman, has pushed US officials to treat Israel
more harshly, and has deplored the reluctance of fellow Jews to do the same,
warning that "Arafat is not going to be happy with that."
Ehrman also shares the documentary's view that suicide bombings are a
reaction to alleged Israeli provocations. After a Jewish leader urged Secretary
Albright not to equate Israel's development at Har Homa with the bombing at
Mahane Yehuda, Ehrman stated, "What the hell is this question of moral
equivalency? You mean that provocative acts that are responded to with
desperation are a question of moral equivalency?"
Similarly skewed views have been espoused by the Center's founder, who,
following a visit with Hafez Assad, said Syrian Jews live freely and "Not
all dictators are terrible people, and not all dictatorships are terrible forms
in which to live."
The views of its backers aside, On the Brink of Peace is far from
the most skewed or inaccurate film on the Middle East that PBS has broadcast
that distinction belongs to works such as
Days of Rage or Journey to the Occupied Lands. Still, the return
of anti-Israel bias to PBS underscores the need for systematic reform at the
taxpayer-funded network. Such reform, including the creation of an independent
fact-checking department at PBS, was urged by CAMERA in 1993 following the
network's broadcast of
Journey to the Occupied Lands.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which channels taxpayer funds to
public broadcasters, endorsed CAMERA's call for a PBS fact-checking department
in its 1994 report to Congress. Now that PBS has broadcast yet another flawed
documentary on Israel, and with further films on Israel upcoming, the time has
come for PBS to finally implement the CPB proposal by creating a rigorous and
independent fact-checking department. Such action, though no panacea, will help
to ensure that publicly funded documentaries no longer mislead the viewers who
pay for them. The first PBS films to be fact-checked should include the upcoming
five part series on the Arab-Israeli conflict entitled 50 Years War.
Lacking such a fact-checking department to vet its films, PBS was no more
than a willing conduit for the deceptions of On the Brink of Peace.
Ultimate responsibility must attach to the underwriters, the filmmakers, and the
host. It is regrettable indeed that Abba Eban has lent his name and still
considerable prestige to a project that tends to undermine much of what he has
worked for during 50 years of public service. Blackening Israel's past will not
secure its future.