Henry Siegman’s Expertise: Bashing Israel at Every Turn

Henry Siegman is living proof that claiming expertise on the Middle East and acquiring a few titles related to the topic is not the same as actually being an expert. Formerly a “Mideast expert” at the Council on Foreign Relations and head of the American Jewish Congress, Siegman’s commentary has appeared in many major media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books and others—both American and British.

An examination of his body of work reveals his analyses to be little more than thinly veiled propaganda promoting the Palestinian perspective on the conflict with Israel. Indeed, the commentary echoes the most extreme themes of the Palestinian narrative, with the writer heaping shrill criticism on Israel while excusing Palestinian rejectionism—even when this requires repeatedly ignoring, fabricating and misrepresenting facts and routinely contradicting earlier assertions.

Falsehoods that Distort and Denigrate

Perhaps the greatest repudiation of Siegman’s credibility as an “expert” are his repeated errors.

A forgiving observer might excuse blunders in predicting events—for example his reference, not long before Israel announced its intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, to an Israeli “plan” to make sure “Gaza remain[s] in Israeli hands” (International Herald Tribune, Sept. 25, 2002); or his insistence after Ariel Sharon announced the Gaza disengagement plan that the Prime Minister “has probably come around to the position that he must kill the idea” (Council on Foreign Relations interview, Oct. 7, 2004); or his claim, only nine days before Hezbollah’s July 12, 2006 cross-border kidnapping raid—an attack undoubtedly spurred in part by the success of a similar Hezbollah raid in 2000—that Israel’s release of hundreds of Arab prisoners in exchange for the Israelis captured in 2000 “did not cause Israel in the long run any harm” (National Public Radio interview, July 3, 2006). After all, the Middle East is a volatile region, and accurate predictions are not always so easy.

But there is no such excuse for Siegman’s all too common errors of fact.

• One egregious falsehood, corrected by the Los Angeles Times on July 16, 2006, was Siegman’s outrageous allegation that “since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza last year … Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli artillery and airstrikes virtually on a daily basis.” (June 18, 2006, “Israelis killing Palestinians, and vice versa: Is ‘moral equivalency’ really so wrong?”)

The newspaper ran a correction after CAMERA provided editors with statistics refuting the writer’s claim. Even according to figures published by the partisan Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), on most days since the Israeli withdrawal no Palestinians at all were killed—neither Palestinian civilians, nor Palestinian combatants; not by Israeli airstrikes or artillery and not by Israeli gunfire; not even in “work accidents” or internecine Palestinian fighting (all of which seem to be included in the PRCS figures). The specific incidents described by Siegman (Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli artillery or airstrikes), in fact, were extremely infrequent.

A careful look at March, April and May 2006, the three months immediately prior to the publication of Siegman’s column, is revealing. According to Associated Press dispatches from the months, Palestinian civilians died as a result of Israeli artillery or airstrikes on just one day in March, four days in April and two days in May. Yes, the inadvertent deaths of civilians are regrettable. But no serious analyst could argue that seven days out of 92 constitutes “virtually … a daily basis.”

The allegation of wanton Israeli killing of Palestinians was, however, the message Siegman evidently sought to convey—whether the facts pertained or not.

• While in the Los Angeles Times piece Siegman distorted the level of Israeli-Palestinian violence by overstating Palestinian casualties, the commentator communicated another variation on Arab victimhood in a Sept. 25, 2002 International Herald Tribune piece by soft-pedaling Palestinian violence.

Siegman criticized Israel for not responding positively to “six weeks of Palestinian quiet” that had supposedly just passed, and for appointing Effie Eitam, a pro-settlement politician, as Minister of National Infrastructure during this so-called period of quiet.

David Buhbut, 67, was brutally murdered on Sept. 17, 2002. Buhbut and other Israelis were killed during what Siegman described as a period of “Palestinian quiet”

But on the very day Eitam was appointed, Sept. 18, 2002, the charred body of an Israeli citizen was found. A day earlier, Palestinians shot him in the head, set his body on fire, and left it in a neighborhood dump. Two other Israelis were killed that day, one when Palestinians opened fire on an Israeli car and one during a suicide bombing at a bus stop. A couple of weeks earlier, an Israeli was killed when a 100 kg bomb was detonated under an IDF tank and another was killed when a Palestinian gunman opened fire from a crowded school at Israeli troops, all this as a Palestinian van carrying 1350 pounds of explosives was stopped in northern Israel before it could be detonated. Two weeks before that, a soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. And ten days earlier, a Palestinian terrorist murdered an Israeli woman and injured her husband.

In fact, one can search as far as two years back, to the onset of Palestinian violence in September 2000, and not find even one month without multiple, fatal Palestinian suicide bombings, shootings or other attacks. So much for “six weeks of Palestinian quiet.”

• Siegman again whitewashed Palestinian violence and misled readers when he wrote of “revelations by Israel’s most senior intelligence and security officials that the intifada of September 2000 was not planned by Arafat, but a spontaneous eruption of Palestinian anger …” (New York Review of Books, Nov. 2, 2004, “Sharon and the future of Palestine”).

The assertion is beside the point. Even if Arafat did not directly plan the violence, there is overwhelming consensus, ignored by Siegman, that Arafat allowed, encouraged and even directed the continuation of the violence. It is also intellectually dishonest to cite a source that is persuasively contradicted by many others—and never mention those others. Siegman quotes Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli intelligence chief, who has said he believed the intifada was “a spontaneous eruption.” But he conceals from readers, for example, the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee Final Report which cites an unnamed Israeli Defense Force intelligence officer explaining it was “known to the IDF” through various means that Palestinians had planned the violence. (See footnote 8 to the Report.)

Likewise, Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz told the Village Voice that the so-called intifada was “a very organized and very planned violent strategy chosen by the [Palestinian Authority] to try to achieve political goals from the very beginning” (Feb. 27, 2001, “Shoot to maim”).

Even an article sympathetic to Arafat in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted that, at a meeting between Ehud Barak and “a group of military people and advisors” including the head of the research division at Military Intelligence, Amos Gilad, “all the speakers agreed that if Arafat did not get what he expected to achieve [at the Camp David peace talks], he would turn to limited violence” (Akiva Eldar, June 11, 2004).

Siegman himself contradicted the claim of a spontaneous eruption of violence just a few paragraphs further in his piece. While discussing a separate topic, he quotes Amos Malka, the IDF chief of intelligence under Ehud Barak, saying

All military intelligence assessments spoke of Arafat wanting to go through with the political process to reach a two-state permanent settlement…. If his demands were met, he would have signed. If not, by the end of 2000 he would have headed toward a crisis to create domestic and international pressure on Israel.

Perhaps most telling is that Siegman covers up numerous candid admissions by senior Palestinian sources themselves who, concurring with Malka, described the violence as anything but spontaneous.

Journalist David Samuels spoke with Mamdouh Nofal, a former adviser to Yasir Arafat, about the days leading up to the Palestinian “intifada.” In the July 25, 2005 Atlantic Monthly, Samuels wrote:

The second intifada … began with the intention of provoking the Israelis and subjecting them to diplomatic pressure. Only this time Arafat went for broke. As a member of the High Security Council of Fatah, the key decision-making and organizational body that dealt with military questions at the beginning of the intifada, Nofal has firsthand knowledge of Arafat’s intentions and decisions during the months before and after Camp David. “He told us, ‘Now we are going to the fight, so we must be ready,'” Nofal remembers. Nofal says that when Barak did not prevent Ariel Sharon from making his controversial visit to the plaza in front of al-Aqsa, the mosque that was built on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, Arafat said, “Okay, it’s time to work.”

Palestinian Communications Minister Imad Faluji was even more blunt. On March 3, 2001, the Lebanese Al-Safir newspaper quoted Faluji admitting:

Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is wrong …. This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations … (Translated by MEMRI. See also Associated Press, March 2, 2001, “Palestinian Cabinet minister says Palestinian uprising was planned.”)

Nofal and Faluji’s assertions are corroborated by other Palestinian statements. On July 30, 2000, the official Palestinian Authority publication Al-Sabah announced: “We will advance and declare a general intifada for Jerusalem. The time for the intifada has arrived, the time for jihad has arrived.” And according to Khaled Abu Toameh (Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2002), the official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida quoted Sakher Habash, an official in Arafat’s Fatah party, saying on Dec. 7, 2000 that “after the Camp David Summit it became clear to the Fatah movement, as brother Abu Ammar Arafat had warned, that the next phase requires us to prepare for conflict with Israel …”

Henry Siegman and Yasir Arafat

Abu Toameh also recounted other evidence of pre-planning for war by the Palestinians before the explosion of September 2000. He wrote that “according to reports from Gaza in mid-August, some of the PA’s paramilitary forces were holding battalion-level training exercises.” In addition, “Palestinians started feeling the tension when members of Force 17, Arafat’s elite presidential guard, were seen digging trenches and heavily reinforcing their positions with sandbags. Within days, most of the PA police stations and bases looked like military fortresses. As the Camp David summit was underway, Arafat’s Fatah organization, the biggest faction of the PLO, started training Palestinian teenagers for the upcoming violence in 40 training camps throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” In sum, “the atmosphere in the Palestinian street was one of ‘the eve of war’” (Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2002).

Again, a serious analyst would weigh all the evidence, which in this case argues strongly that a violent eruption was desired and deliberate on the part of Arafat. Siegman opts, though, in virtually every instance, for selected bits of reality that serve his themes of Israeli recalcitrance and Palestinian innocence.

• In exculpating Palestinians for starting the violence, Siegman additionally deceived readers by misstating the conclusions of the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee Report on the outbreak of hostilities. The report, Siegman claimed in his Nov. 2 New York Review of Books essay, said the violence was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s “calculatedly provocative visit … to the Temple Mount.”

But it said no such thing. After relaying the views of both sides—”Although Israelis viewed the visit in an internal political context, Palestinians saw it as highly provocative to them”—it noted that the Fact-Finding Committee was “provided with no persuasive evidence that the Sharon visit [to the Temple Mount] was anything other than an internal political act.” That is, although Siegman purported to describe the report’s conclusions, he in fact contradicted its findings that the visit was seemingly intended to influence Israeli domestic politics and not to provoke the Palestinians.

• This was hardly the only time Siegman has purported to describe statements or documents while in actuality blatantly contradicting the original.

He claimed, for example, that “in a series of pre-Passover [2004] interviews published in all of Israel’s major dailies …, [Sharon] stated that a withdrawal from Gaza would ‘severely harm Palestinians’ and put an end to their dream of a Palestinian state.” (International Herald Tribune, April 26, 2004)

But Sharon did not say that the withdrawal would “end” the dream “of a Palestinian state, but rather that it would be a “blow” to an unspecified Palestinian dream, seemingly the dream that each of their demands would be met in full. Here is what Sharon actually stated in his pre-Passover interview with Ma’ariv:

The [withdrawal] plan is generating a lot of anxiety among the Arabs. They are trying to counteract it wherever they can. Disengagement is good for Israel and they too understand that. Approval of the plan would be a severe blow to the Palestinians and their dreams …

When you fence off entire regions and settlements, you terminate many Palestinian dreams. [With] negotiations they could have gotten much more. (April 5, 2004)

If there are any doubts Sharon was not speaking of ending the Palestinian dream of statehood, the former Prime Minister dispels them directly later in the interview:

A [Palestinian] state could only be established within the framework of [President Bush’s] road map to peace. I have agreed to establish a demilitarized Palestinian state in borders which would be determined at a later date.

• Sharon’s words were again warped by Siegman in a July 25, 2005 column in the International Herald Tribune. “On June 30,” Siegman wrote, “Sharon himself said that he would not be deterred by settler protests from completing the Gaza disengagement, since its purpose was to strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank, a goal Sharon continues to share with the settlers….”

However, a transcript of Sharon’s speech from that day shows that Sharon said nothing about strengthening Israel’s hold on the West Bank, and nothing about sharing such a goal with settlers. In fact, by twice referring specifically to “keeping the settlement blocs in Israeli territory,” Sharon was clearly alluding to an Israel withdrawal from other parts of the West Bank. (The transcript is available at www.pmo.gov.il.)

• Siegman yet again misrepresented an interviewee when he described a Ha’aretz exchange with Israeli historian Benny Morris. During the interview, Siegman claimed, Morris “justifies” Israel’s “deliberate killings of civilian populations” during the country’s War of Independence (Online discussion with Henry Siegman on Washingtonpost.com, Nov. 11, 2004).

Morris’s actual words in the interview speak for themselves: “There is no justification for acts of massacre,” he said. “Those are war crimes” (Ari Shavit, Jan. 9, 2004, “Survival of the fittest”).

• It seems that only when Siegman quotes anti-Israel activists does he refrain from distorting their actual message. When he approvingly quoted Ha’aretz’s Amira Hass, for example, he accurately relayed her accusation that Israel has “Jews-only roads” in the West Bank. Unfortunately for Siegman, this has only added to the long list of his erroneous statements—the “Jews-only roads” claim is patently false. While some West Bank roads have been designated for Israelis only in the wake of terrorist attacks on vehicles and individuals, this includes Muslim and Christian Israelis who travel on the byways along with Jews. The racist claim evidently fits Siegman’s charge-sheet against Israel; it just happens to be one more false indictment.

Siegman’s frequent factual errors do not, alone, make him a propagandist. But as the above examples make apparent, the distortions invariably tilt in the direction of portraying Israel negatively and, as will be further demonstrated below, are routinely accompanied by the harshest of anti-Israel rhetoric.

Demonizing Israel

The language used by Siegman in discussing the Arab Israeli conflict is revealing. Often, there is little difference between his rhetoric and that of the most extreme anti-Israel activists.

Repeatedly, Siegman invokes language associated with apartheid South Africa to describe the Jewish state. The country wants “enclaves resembling Bantustans … in which the Palestinians would be consigned,” he said in a 2004 interview (Council on Foreign Relations interview, Oct. 7, 2004).

It is “precisely South Africa’s ‘disengagement’ that defined its racist regime,” he argued, adding that Israel “persists in following the South African model …” (New York Review of Books, Nov. 2, 2004).

(Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, once wrote in a letter to the head of the Presbyterian Church USA: “To assert that there is a moral equivalency between the racist policy of apartheid and the efforts to protect the citizenry of Israel is unconscionable.”)

But Siegman has gone even farther, implying parallels between Israeli “evil” and Nazi Germany. Israel’s policies seem “too unjust, too evil, to be true, particularly for a Jewish state that considers its very existence a living reproach to the German people, and to the world, for the injustices and suffering inflicted on the Jewish people,” he stated. (International Herald Tribune, Jan. 26, 2005).

A cartoon on the Radio Islam Web site (www.radioislam.org) echos Siegman’s repeated theme of Israel “manipulating” America

On numerous occasions, Siegman even accused the country’s leaders of conduct compatible with “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” conspiracies: Sharon and his aide “knew they had the administration and both houses of Congress so completely in their pocket,” he stated in a Council on Foreign Relations interview (Oct. 7, 2004). Ever intent on promoting this canard of Israeli control over the United States government, Siegman repeated the reference to Sharon having the American government “in his pocket” in the Oct. 13, 2004 International Herald Tribune, and again in the Nov. 2, 2004 New York Review of Books. In yet another column, he explained that this is made possible because Sharon so successfully “manipulates Washington” (International Herald Tribune, April 26, 2004).

Again borrowing language from Israel’s detractors, Siegman occasionally describes Israel’s security barrier, which is a metal fence along over 95 percent of its length, as a “wall” (i.e. June 3, 2003, International Herald Tribune).

Settlers are characterized by “murderous rage.” Israel’s occupation inflicts “unspeakable cruelty.” The country’s military operation in Gaza in response to a Hamas kidnapping “targeted only the civilian population.” And the whole of the orthodox Jewish community, both in the United States and Israel, are ideologically in lock step with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. (New York Review of Books, Nov. 2, 2004; International Herald Tribune, Oct. 13, 2004; National Public Radio, July 3, 2006; Newsday, Nov. 21, 1995.)

So are there any “good” Israelis in Siegman’s eyes? Judging by his dismissive reference to Israel’s “so-called peace camp,” maybe not. (New York Review of Books, Nov. 2, 2004)

Hypocrisy and Double Standards

Siegman seems to shift his demands of Israel as necessary to enable continued criticism of the country. These relentless attacks on Israel, meanwhile, stand in striking contrast to the gentle treatment accorded Palestinians and their leaders.

In 1997, Siegman called for a negotiated peace which would leave Palestinians with the Gaza Strip and “most of the West Bank.” Israel, he said, could keep settlement blocks along the Green Line, and the “demilitarized” Palestinian state would be “constrained in its sovereignty” so that Israel’s security needs would be met. (U.S. Middle East Policy and the Peace Process, Council on Foreign Relations Press, July 1997). In late 2000, after Arafat rejected a peace offer at Camp David that closely matched Siegman’s proposals, and with Palestinian riots turning deadly, Siegman then argued “there is no compelling reason why Israel cannot unilaterally withdraw to the borders proposed by Ehud Barak … leaving Palestinians with more than 90 percent of the West Bank” (Newsday, Oct. 3, 2000). “Israel must withdraw its forces from the West Bank and Gaza, as near as possible to the borders that Mr. Barak offered to withdraw to at the Camp David meeting. The withdrawal should include isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank,” he asserted a week later (International Herald Tribune, Oct. 26, 2000).

Siegman’s opinions suddenly changed, though, when it seemed Israel might actually make a unilateral move from the West Bank. While criticizing Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Siegman described Israel’s security fence—which lies on that roughly 10 percent of West Bank land he had earlier agreed Israel should keep—as being built on “stolen” Palestinian land. “Palestinians will not settle for less than a state that is fully within the pre-1967 borders,” he emphatically and approvingly noted (International Herald Tribune, May 5, 2005).

His self-contradiction hardly ends there.

Speaking about Sharon’s coalition partners in 2003, Siegman questioned “how a government comprised of religious and xenophobic nationalist elements can conduct … negotiation[s]” (International Herald Tribune, Feb. 28, 2003).

He slammed “most Israelis” for accepting government coalition partners that he claims “call for … thinly disguised ethnic cleansing” (International Herald Tribune, May 5, 2005).

He even claimed that current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s insistence that Hamas end terror and recognize Israel is inappropriate since their parents were founders of the Irgun movement in British Mandate Palestine, which had killed civilians during the tumultuous pre-1948 years (New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006).

But when it comes to Hamas, an organization whose xenophobia-driven terrorism has targeted and killed hundreds of civilians in recent years, and whose calls for ethnic cleansing and murder are not “thinly disguised,” nor disguised at all, Siegman is hardly so concerned.

On the contrary, he lauded Hamas’s “refusal to play by Israel’s old rules,” while suggesting people should “not look at Hamas’s rhetoric, … [but] look at what it does.” Providing an example of what Hamas does, Siegman noted: “In spite of Hamas’s refusal to change its theological rejection of Israel, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas-led government, ordered his ministers to seek practical cooperation with their Israel counterparts.” (Although he celebrated this supposed Hamas concession, he lamented in the same article that “Israel’s ‘concessions,’ such as the withdrawal from Gaza and isolated West Bank settlements, are intended to serve narrow Israeli interests.”) (Financial Times, June 8, 2006).

He defended the Palestinians after they elected Hamas, a murderous and anti-Semitic terror group, arguing: “Even hardliners know that Hamas won the elections not because of their uncompromising ideology but because they ran on a moderate platform of clean government and better services.” (He contradicted himself later in the article, claiming it was Sharon’s “unilateralism” that “prepared the ground for [the] Hamas victory) (New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006).

By contrast, after Sharon won the Israeli elections in 2001, Siegman wrote that although at one time people had “insisted [Sharon’s views] … do not reflect the views and values of most Israelis,” such a distinction “becomes impossible to sustain” in light of Sharon’s electoral victory (Newsday, Feb. 7, 2001).

And while constantly excoriating Israel for not negotiating with or offering concessions to the Palestinians, he excused the Palestinian intransigence at Camp David by explaining that Arafat “tried to persuade Clinton that this was not the right time for a negotiation process that would entail Palestinian compromises …” (Council on Foreign Relations interview, Nov. 9, 2004). (Siegman presumably feels it is always the right time for Israel to compromise, even when the country is facing an onslaught of terrorism and even after Palestinians elect a government committed to Israel’s destruction.)

Siegman’s long list of factual errors, his intemperate anti-Israel rhetoric, his indulgent, if not sycophantic, stance toward Hamas, and his endless self-contradiction might make one wonder why main-stream news organizations have so frequently turned to the erstwhile Council on Foreign Relations “expert.”

One might also find it difficult to disagree with the conclusion reached by the New York Sun about the cause of Siegman’s anti-Israel antagonism. After reporting that Siegman’s work is funded by “the European Commission, the government of Norway, Kuwaiti and Saudi businessmen, a Lebanese politician, and, for one year, an official of the commercial arm of the Palestinian Authority, Munib Masri,” a Sun editorial proclaimed: “Mystery Solved” (Aug. 23, 2005).

In the interests of full disclosure, publications carrying Henry Siegman’s future essays, should include those connections, giving readers a clearer understanding of the “expertise” of the author.

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