Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Middle East Media Sampler 7/1/2012: Media vs Yitzchak Shamir

From DG:
1) Yitzchak Shamir

Barry Rubin shares a personal recollection of a meeting with Yitzchak Shamir on the eve of the Gulf War, along with a number of American diplomats. ("Mr. Bird" is one of the diplomats.)
Shamir sought to break the ice with a friendly question. “So,” he said to the delegation’s leader, “how long are you planning to be here? A week?” 
I don’t know if he was joking about the impending deadline but a look of pure fear and panic leaped onto Mr. Bird’s face. “Are you kidding!” His voice shook with dismay. “We’re getting out of here tomorrow!” (Those were his precise words.)
Almost immediately, however, he realized that he was making himself look like a fool. He tried to calm down and recover. So he added, albeit with equal ham-handedness, “But I guess you have to stay here.” (Honest, that’s what he said.) 
Rubinstein answered with a big smile on his face: “Oh, no. We don’t have to stay here. We just happen to like it here.” I will never forget the even bigger smile on Shamir’s face. Mr. Bird and all the little birds who fancied themselves great statesmen and Middle East experts had no idea what had just happened.
Prof Rubin recalls, also that the United States didn't keep its pledge to protect Israel from Scuds and reward it for its cooperation (in not joining the fight against Saddam.) In fact Shamir got the back of President Bush's hand and King Hussein of Jordan who helped arm Saddam was invited to the White House.

He also noted that Shamir was not charismatic, a fact that hurt him in numerous instances. It allowed opponents to define him.

For example in 1988, Prime Minister Shamir referred to Israel's enemies (or critics) as grasshoppers. Charles Krauthammer debunked the charge, showing it to be a textbook example of media distortions of Middle East coverage:
Now, it turns out that Shamir did not say that Palestinians will be crushed like grasshoppers. The word "crushed" serves to make the grasshopper reference look sadistic and bloodcurdling, but it is pure invention. What Shamir did say is that "those who would destroy what we are building . . . they are in our sight like grasshoppers." 
Here is where the ignorance comes in. Anyone who is familiar with Hebrew culture would know that the grasshopper reference, which to begin with is an odd political metaphor, is a quotation from perhaps the most famous story of national panic and dissension in the Old Testament. When wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites sent spies to scout the Promised Land. Upon returning, they delivered a report of abject defeatism: "And there we saw giants . . . and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight" (Numbers 13:33). (The news so alarmed the Israelites that they demanded to return to the safety - and slavery - of Egypt. They were punished for their faithlessness by being made to wander 40 years in the wilderness.) 
Anyone in Shamir's audience would have recognized the reference. The meaning of the metaphor is clear: It refers to size and strength only, not to the presence or absence of human characteristics. The Biblical spies were saying: In comparison to our enemies we felt small and weak. They were not saying (they were, after all, speaking of themselves): We felt subhuman, insect-like.
The fact that Krauthammer debunked Shamir's critics in 1988, didn't stop Andrew Sullivan from dredging up the charge last year.  Ron Kampeas rebutted Sullivan.

Also, after he was defeated for re-election Shamir was quoted as saying he would stall peace talks with the Palestinians. As a New York Times headline said, Shamir Is Said to Admit Plan To Stall Talks 'for 10 Years'.

What Shamir said (and I was told that the interviewer agreed) was that he expected negotiations to take ten years, not that he intended to stall negotiations. Furthermore note that even Yitzchak Rabin didn't intend to cede as much territory as is now considered "what everyone knows" is necessary to bring peace. (The obituary is incorrect in explaining Shamir's succession of Begin as Prime Minister. It was a subsequent election when Shamir and Peres agreed to a rotating premiership as part of

In an otherwise hostile obituary to Shamir (written by the one time Israel correspondent, Joel Brinkley) in the New York Times:
In 1988, at a meeting of the political party Herut, he sat slumped on a sofa, gazing at the floor as party stalwarts heaped praises on him. Shortly thereafter, he said: “I like all those people, they’re nice people. But this is not my style, not my language. This kind of meeting is the modern picture, but I don’t belong to it.”
Shamir was not much concerned with the polish that is so important to politicians nowadays. This incident shows the degree to which he was aware that he was not playing the game the way he was expected to. Was Shamir's obituary less ambiguous than Arafat's?

In Simcha Raz's biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, he told the story of how Shamir met his wife and married while underground. One of Shamir's contacts noticed that the female courier who reported to Shamir cared very much for him and suggested that Shamir marry her. Shamir demurred claiming that he couldn't very well register with the authorities to marry. So his contact brought the matter to Rabbi Levine who arranged a number of prominent Rabbis officiate at the unofficial wedding.
The Shamir's son Yair, a former CEO of Israel Aircraft Industries was an early investor in Mirabalis that created the ICQ network, which was later bought by AOL for its instant messaging service. The younger Shamir, was one of the pioneers of Israel as a "start-up nation."

2) Dueling headlines 

The Washington Post: Egypt’s president is U.S. critic, but he could be an ally
The New York Times: Egypt’s New Leader Takes Oath, Promising to Work for Release of Jailed Terrorist

Because nothing says "ally" better than advocating for the release of a terrorist.

The New York Times article reported by David Kirkpatrick is disturbing for the way it downplays Morsi's brazenness. First there's:
Mr. Morsi referred briefly to Mr. Abdel Rahman in an almost offhand aside in the context of a vow to free Egyptian civilians imprisoned here after military trials under the rule of the generals. 
“I see signs for Omar Abdel Rahman and detainees’ pictures,” he said. “It is my duty and I will make all efforts to have them free, including Omar Abdel Rahman.” 
A Brotherhood spokesman said later that Mr. Morsi intended to ask federal officials in the United States to have Mr. Abdel Rahman extradited to Egypt on humanitarian grounds. He was not seeking to have Mr. Abdel Rahman’s convictions overturned or calling him a political prisoner.  
An Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, shrugged it all off as empty talk, saying, “There is zero chance this happens.”
That wasn't an "offhand" remark. In comparing the "Blind Sheikh" to the detainees, Morsi was making an equivalence, one that should be offensive to the United States. The spokesman must have realized how awful Morsi's comment must have sounded to most Americans (at least those who aren't newspaper reporters) and tried to walk it back. The spin, accepted uncritically by Kirkpatrick, is not convincing.

Later Kirkpatrick reports:
In an interview with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, Mr. Morsi once said he harbored suspicions that unknown hands might have played a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. 
“When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter, then you are insulting us,” Mr. Morsi said, according to an article Mr. Hamid wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “How did the plane cut through the steel like this? Something must have happened from the inside.” 
Although it is nearly impossible to find an Egyptian who supports terrorist attacks like those on Sept. 11 or the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center garage, many are very skeptical of official American accounts about who was responsible. 
Again, this is reported uncritically. So what if "many" Egyptians are skeptical of American claims? How does that excuse Morsi, a political leader, for feeding that paranoia.
Mr. Morsi’s pledge to seek Mr. Abdel Rahman’s extradition may also play well with Egyptians who perceived Mr. Mubarak as a lackey to Washington. But it runs sharply counter to assiduous efforts over many years by Brotherhood leaders to convince the West that their group advocates only peaceful reform and does not condone violence. 
The premise of this paragraph is that those "assiduous efforts" were sincere. Kirkpatrick doesn't allow that Morsi's statements were, indeed, representative of theBrotherhood true intentions. Kirkpatrick and his ilk have been doing their best to help the Brotherhood convince the West of its peaceful intentions. He doesn't give himself enough credit.

3) Correction

Last week, I criticized an article that appeared ten years ago in the New York Times for failing to acknowledge that Israel lost thirteen soldiers in one battle as it attempted to defeat the terrorist infrastructure in Jenin. I was wrong. The reporter, James Bennett, wrote:
Israeli soldiers and Palestinians said Palestinian fighters had salted the camp with booby traps.
From the second floor of one home, Palestinians pointed to an area, by a blackened building and a palm tree, where they said 13 soldiers died in an ambush. The area is now leveled. In all, 23 soldiers died in the fighting.
I still believe my criticism of the article is valid. My point was that those soldiers died in an attempt to limit the collateral damage. In no way does Bennett suggest that Israel limited the damage they caused by risking troops instead of bombing from planes. In fact the gist of the article is to suggest that Israel used disproportionate force. No claim of excessive force is ignored and no effort was made to verify the claims. In fact at the beginning, Bennett tips the scales subtly:
Israel says Jenin was a center of terrorism, which it is determined to weed out. Israeli officials have spoken of 100 to 200 dead here, and Palestinians have estimated two, three, or four times that number. No one yet knows how many were killed in fighting that has lasted 11 days, and is now all but over, but already the battle here seems certain to be argued over in the contest between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli officials "have spoken" and Palestinians "have estimated." Which verb is more definitive? We know now that even the Israeli estimate was high and that the Palestinian number was wildly exaggerated. What did Bennett think at the time? My guess is that he was more convinced of the Palestinian narrative and numbers; he wasn't willing to consider any evidence that Israel's response was measured or justified.

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