Mike Wallace’s Middle East Problem

As Mike Wallace nears retirement, virtually all the retrospectives so far on his 43-year career at CBS News recall his reputation for tough interviews and the ability to get the story.  The reputation may be deserved, in general, but at least one subject has tripped up the “60 Minutes” veteran continually over the years — Israel.

The aggressive questioner in Wallace was not in evidence when he interviewed Yasir Arafat in 1989.  As Near East Report observed, Wallace accepted Arafat’s responses largely without question.  He asked if Arafat had renounced “military operations” inside Israel.  Arafat’s response was, “Any people who are facing occupation or oppression have the right to use all methods.”  Wallace did not probe with a follow-up question. 

He also didn’t question Arafat’s claim that he was going to punish the terrorist then thought responsible ( the leader of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command) for the Pan Am 103 bombing in which 270 people were killed. This even though Arafat wasn’t known for punishing terrorists.  (Later the perpetrators were identified as Libyans.)

The late David Bar-Illan, then editorials editor at The Jerusalem Post, suggested that Wallace “acted like a public-relations agent for Arafat” in the 1989 interview.

In a 1987 story on Soviet Jews, including refuseniks, invited to immigrate to Israel, Wallace concluded that “one and a half million Soviets identified as Jews apparently live more or less satisfying lives.”  Wallace acknowledged that Russia had a history of harboring antisemitism, but then said that anti-Jewish activities were against the law, without mentioning that the law was frequently broken — often by the government.  

After talking with refusenik mathematician Victor Brailovsky, whose family had been trying to emigrate to Israel for 15 years, Wallace said, “If it is just Jewish culture the Brailovsky family seeks, they could go to the Jewish Autonomous Region.”  This region in Siberia, Birobidzhan, was Stalin’s solution for the Zionist challenge of Jews wanting to move to Palestine and was never popular in the Russian Jewish community.  In 1987, the year Wallace filed his story, only 12,000 of the 200,000 residents of Birobidzhan were Jewish. 

As Bar-Illan noted, in Birobidzhan “there are no Jewish schools and no study of Hebrew, and … Jews are incessantly pressured to disappear as an ethnic group …”
While Brailovsky was the only refusenik shown in the broadcast, Wallace did interview Samuel Zivs and Mikhal Milschstein, described by Bar-Illan as “the most notorious ‘court Jews’ in the USSR … despised by all self-respecting Jews and representing solely the authorities.”

In 1992, Wallace did another story that touched on Russian Jews, but this time those who had immigrated to Israel.  Wallace interviewed an Israeli street sweeper who had been a doctor in Russia, and an electrical engineer in an unemployment office who said that some ex-Soviet Jews had expected more from Israel.  Wallace didn’t mention the challenges Russians who emigrated to the United States at the same time were having finding jobs, or the fact that more than 400,000 Jews from former Soviet states had emigrated to Israel in the previous three years. Apparently they weren’t as satisfied with their lives under Kremlin control as Wallace reported three years before.

Wallace also suggested that American taxpayers were going to pay for a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel. Congress was considering the guarantee for loans Israel sought to help fund immigration absorption.  In reality, the U.S. guarantee would have been provided only if Israel defaulted on its loans, which it had never done.  

In addition, Wallace indicated that the money was going to be used to help annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  This did not happen, but even at the time Israel had pledged to the United States that it wouldn’t spend the loans in the territories, and the Israeli government had never called for annexation.

In a 1988 segment on “60 Minutes” — 18 years before publication of the almost instantly discredited essay “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt — Wallace advanced essentially the same theme. His report seemed to be an attempt to discredit pro-Israel activists in the United States — especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — and undermine U.S. support for Israeli aid. Wallace, in Bar-Illan’s words, “portrayed the ‘Jewish lobby’ as an insidious, all-powerful, multi-headed Washington Svengali manipulating the U.S. Congress and administration.”

Wallace said a CBS poll found that 72 percent of Americans thought the United States should not give Israel “more aid that it gives any other country.”  That wording was loaded, but a poll taken by the Los Angeles Times close to the airing of Wallace’s report found that 55 percent of Americans favored the present level of U.S. aid to Israel or an increase.  

Near East Report noted that after this segment aired, three congressman spoke the next day to contradict it.  Sen. Al Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) both emphasized the importance of a strong U.S.-Israeli alliance.  Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) cited a study asserting that it would cost the United States $45 billion more in defense spending to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East without Israel or absent U.S. aid to Israel.

In late 1990, Wallace reported on Arab riots on the Temple Mount, in which several thousand people stoned Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall before beleaguered Israeli police shot some rioters in regaining control. He based his report almost exclusively on Palestinian sources, choosing Palestine Liberation Organization mouthpiece Daoud Kuttab as main production consultant, ignored key Israeli sources, took then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s comments out of context, and spliced in a pre-riot tape of then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Benjamin Netanyahu rather than tape a post-riot interview. Essentially, Wallace’s report reversed the order of events, making it appear that the stone-throwing riot followed the police shooting rather than led to it.

In a number of other segments, Wallace’s portrayal of Israel was similarly skewed.  In 1982, “60 Minutes” aired a segment that featured an Israeli who had only lived in the country for three years, speaking out against his new land, but cut the interviews Wallace had done with Israel’s deputy foreign minister and the former ambassador to the United States.  In 1975 and 1984, Wallace filed reports on Syria that minimized the oppression of Syrian Jews and obscured the dictatorial nature of Hafez al-Assad’s regime.

Mike Wallace may be missed by some CBS viewers, but not his reporting on Israel and other related subjects.

(Based on material compiled by Near East Report and “60 Minutes & the Temple Mount (including exchanges with Mike Wallace & CBS,” by David Bar-Illan, Commentary, February, 1991.)

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