Schmemann Leads the Herd

The herd impulse among members of the media, the aversion to deviating from views of other journalists, is especially pernicious in coverage of Israel where the guiding thesis today is a simple one: "Hardline" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has disrupted, if not wrecked, an otherwise promising peace process in the Middle East. In this airbrushed–and false–journalistic portrait, the unprecedented terrorist bombings of Israelis by Palestinians in February/March of 1996 that predated Netanyahu, interrupted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and prompted the ouster of the Labor government are nearly invisible. All problems with the Oslo negotiations are traced to the arrival of the Likud leader, and all crises of the last ten months are laid at his feet; at the same time, Palestinians are cast as hapless, frustrated victims whose anger at Israeli policies not surprisingly propels them to assault and kill Jews.

In this formulation there is no examination of the grave Arab violations of commitments made to Israel in return for the ceding of land. Indeed, such media accounting has been virtually non-existent. And no one engages more assiduously in the erasure of Arab breaches of the Oslo agreements than Serge Schmemann of the New York Times. As Jerusalem bureau chief for the nation’s newspaper of record, he does much to shape the attitudes of his colleagues.

A veteran correspondent who once covered the Soviet Union, Schmemann has taken on the familiar Times air of vexation at the tiny Jewish state. Most irritating seems to be Israeli insistence that its citizens are not meant to die, and that those bent on killing them must be exposed and opposed. Schmemann discounts Israeli security assessments, downplaying Israeli public fears, and omitting or whitewashing Arafat’s bellicosity. He habitually tilts his reporting through selective emphasis on the views of those critical of the Israeli government, omitting both official comment as well as the voices of the majority of the Israeli public who support government policies.

Thus, while the Israeli government has repeatedly enumerated Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords, Schmemann has pointedly not reported them. He takes the position that he knows better. Consider, for example, the matter of Israel’s demand that the PLO cease its chicanery about revising its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Schmemann has declared publicly and in correspondence with readers that the document is outdated, unimportant, and anyway has been modified to the satisfaction of the Americans and the previous Israeli government.

This he asserts even though Israel, Yasir Arafat and the United States all signed a document in January 1997, as part of the Hebron Protocols, that lists as first among items still requiring Palestinian compliance the revocation of that same charter. (October 1996 was the most recent deadline by which the Palestinian Authority was to produce a revised charter, and did not.) Apparently the New York Times considers it the proper role of a reporter to impose his preferred view of reality on the public and to conceal facts he doesn’t happen to like.

Other Palestinian violations of the accords, such as recruitment of armed forces far beyond the number allowed by Oslo, acquisition of contraband weaponry, refusal to extradite murderers of Israelis, and use of inflammatory rhetoric by Arafat and his lieutenants including praise of suicide bombers, calls for Jihad and references to the ultimate goal of annihilating Israel, are likewise downplayed or ignored entirely by Schmemann.

Schmemann’s reporting is manipulative on other serious issues as well. In March, when Israel made the decision to build a new neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, government spokesmen began to warn that intelligence sources were aware of Arafat’s having given a "green light" to terrorism. Schmemann sniffed at this, calling it a "supposed terror threat."

Within days, the "supposed terror threat" became a bloody reality in the form of a bombed Tel Aviv cafe where three young women, one pregnant and one the mother of a six-month old baby, lost their lives. Schmemann, however, was unabashed at having belittled Israel’s concerns. His report on the Tel Aviv carnage is notably perfunctory.

"The bombing," he wrote, "revived the familiar sequence–the screaming sirens, the bearded religious men scouring the site for bits of flesh for burial according to Jewish law, the frenzied demonstrators yelling `Death to the Arabs!’, the shocked questions, the chorus of condemnations from abroad." (CNN, broadcasting from the scene within minutes of the blast, repeatedly note that there were no frenzied crowds.)

The same March 22nd account contained a striking Schmemann misrepresentation. So eager was he, apparently, to absolve Arafat of responsibility for inciting the Tel Aviv murders that he inverted President Clinton’s stern public statement admonishing the Palestinians. Schmemann wrote, "In Helsinki for a summit meeting with President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, President Clinton defended Mr. Arafat. `There must be absolutely no doubt in the minds of the friends or of the enemies of peace,’ the President said, `that the Palestinian Authority is unalterably opposed to terror and unalterably committed to pre-empting and preventing such acts. This is essential to negotiating a meaningful and lasting peace.'"

Clinton, of course, was not defending Arafat; he was exhorting–and warning–him to deter terrorism. Schmemann's implausible assertion that Clinton had issued a blanket vindication of Arafat testifies to the reporter's eagerness to shift blame away from the Palestinian leader, regardless of his possible complicity in violence.

Similarly, Schmemann's report on the Tel Aviv murders turned quickly to emphasis on what Netanyahu had done to anger Arafat. The Prime Minister's action on Har Homa and his unwillingness to hand over as much territory as Arafat wanted are said to have "crushed whatever marginal trust Mr. Arafat still had in Mr. Netanyahu's intentions." As throughout his reporting, Schmemann's choice of language and emphasis is revealing indeed. It is not Arafat who has "crushed" the "marginal trust" of Israelis by instigating the slaughter of Jews, but, in truly Orwellian reversal, Arafat is cast as the injured party.

Uneasy perhaps that his slighting of the "green light" warnings, coupled with the subsequent bombing, left him exposed to charges of botched reporting, Schmemann devoted an entire column on March 26th to the question of whether Arafat had, in fact, incited the violence. But the assessment is as distant from the full truth as his earlier reports. He writes that "...the Israeli government has pummeled Yasir Arafat with charges of deliberately resorting to violence and terror, depicting the Palestinians' leader as a master manipulator capable of loosing bloodshed at will to achieve his political ends."

Casting this as an absurd picture of Arafat, despite the Palestinian's career exemplifying precisely such ruthless talents, Schmemann then declares that "diplomats, Palestinians and Israelis familiar with Palestinian affairs" dispute the government view. None of these people are named except Danny Rubenstein
, identified as "a veteran Israeli writer about Palestinian affairs for the Haaretz newspaper." In fact, Rubenstein is a vociferous leftwing critic of the government. (In the same article Schmemann repeatedly attaches the term "right-wing" or "right-winger" to those on the other side of the political spectrum, while the unlabeled Rubenstein is made to seem a neutral analyst.)

All the more dishonestly, Schmemann fails to tell readers that commentators such as Yoel Marcus, one of Israel's most eminent journalists–also at Haaretz– denounced Arafat's "green light to violence," as did many other writers for Israeli newspapers.

Nor was even one government official quoted on the "green light" issue, which is at its heart a question of whether Israel's peace partner is employing murder as a negotiating lever. Yet the head of Israel's Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Moshe Yaalon, for example, had reiterated at a press conference on March 23rd that Arafat gave a "green light" to terrorism and that, even after the Tel Aviv bombing, had failed to instruct PA security forces to act against terror.

But, after all, Schmemann doesn't seem to care much about evidence in the "green light" question. He explains on April 3rd that "whether the Palestinian leader actually gave a `green light' to terrorism or not, it is no mystery that the threat of violence is one of the few cards in his hand." Aside from the moral question of playing a "terrorism" card, which Schmemann appears to be depicting as a legitimate policy option, Arafat had, of course, explicitly foresworn any such option in the Oslo Accords.

Schmemann's breezy and exculpatory line regarding Arafat's use of terror is, like his broader indifference to Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords, reflective of an apparent conviction that only Israel should be obliged to fulfill its commitments. But it should come as no surprise that the New York Times tolerates bias in this area; Israel has been explicitly lectured on the editorial page to keep its part of the agreements regardless of Palestinian violations. Why? To do otherwise, the Times intoned last July, would "discredit the idea of negotiations"!

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