Newspapers publish obituaries of famous figures in order to sum up their life’s work. The Washington Post, however, used an obituary to belittle Israel’s prime minister. In so doing, the newspaper not only discarded decorum and decency, it illustrated how deep its biases go.
Moshe Arens, a former Israeli politician, died at the age of 93 on Jan. 7, 2019. By any measure, Arens was a legendary figure, serving three times as defense minister and once as foreign minister. He was, The New York Times reported, an influential ambassador to the U.S. who “proved adept at making Israel’s case in the United States and came to be valued by Reagan administration officials as an Israeli government insider.”
An aeronautical engineer turned statesman, Arens was “one of the longest-surviving members of Israel’s founding generation”—even seeking the premiership.
As the Algemeiner noted, Arens was “was current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary mentor in the 1980s” and helped “pave the way for Netanyahu’s rise to political power.” The Washington Post, however, chose to phrase this part of Arens’ biography differently, writing: “Mr. Arens’s most enduring political legacy is probably his role in launching the career of Netanyahu, a charismatic furniture salesman — and family friend — whom Mr. Arens hired as his No. 2 after being appointed ambassador to the United States.”
Readers unfamiliar with Israeli history—which, if one is open to a charitable interpretation, might include Washington Post obituary writers as well—might think that Arens just plucked a furniture salesman out of the blue. The Post’s description, however, is both misleading and incomplete.
In fact, Netanyahu was a “32-year-old frustrated sales executive at an Israeli furniture company,” according to an Arens obituary penned by Bibi biographer (and frequent critic), Ha’aretz’s Anshel Pfeffer. There is, of course, a significant difference between the two jobs of “salesman” and “executive”—not only in duties, but, if implicitly, in prestige, as well.
Moreover, by the time that Netanyahu was chosen by Arens, Bibi was already a combat veteran of the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal, which is roughly analogous to the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. Netanyahu was a decorated officer, having been shot in one operation. The future prime minister also possessed dual degrees from an elite school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and had founded the Yonatan Netanyahu Anti-Terror Institute, named after his brother, a Sayeret Matkal officer who had fallen in a hostage rescue mission at a Uganda airport.
That’s quite a resume and one that the description of “furniture salesman” hardly hints at. The Post’s gratuitous jibe at Netanyahu is, of course, meant to demean the Israeli prime minister. As a single line in a larger article it might not mean much, at first glance. But the decision to belittle the Israeli prime minister in another man’s obituary is quite revealing. It showcases how deeply ingrained The Washington Post’s anti-Netanyahu bias is; the paper simply can’t resist an opportunity to take a punch at him.
The obituary also illustrates another problem with The Post. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) has documented, Washington Post reporting on the Israel-Islamist conflict has long been plagued by omissions of important details and context.
For example, The Post wrote that Arens appeared “frequently on news programs to argue on behalf of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982.” The newspaper doesn’t tell readers why Israel initiated what the IDF called Operation Peace for Galilee. But The New York Times obituary of Arens does, noting, “in 1982…Israel was drawing headlines and international criticism for invading Lebanon to flush out the Palestine Liberation Organization.” At the time, the PLO was a designated terrorist group responsible for murdering Israeli civilians—on the Jewish state’s soil and elsewhere.
Similarly, The Post noted that Arens’ first posting as defense minister occurred when his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was forced to resign “in the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut.” Readers aren’t provided any more details. But once again, The New York Times does slightly better, pointing out that “Sharon, a decorated general… had been forced to resign after a tribunal found him indirectly but personally responsible for the massacre by Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalange militiamen at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut.”
William Shakespeare once wrote, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” Yet, in using a man’s obituary to besmirch the current Israeli prime minister, The Washington Post lifts the curtain and reveals its own ethics. When it comes time to evaluate the newspaper’s legacy, the newspaper’s biases should play a starring role.
(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared in the Algemeiner on Jan. 14, 2018)