PBS and Abba Eban

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 Foreign Ministry:

  • 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 Israel.

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 shoul
d 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.

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