EYE ON THE MEDIA,
By BRET STEPHENS
Jerusalem Post, Dec. 26, 2002
'Every word she says is a lie, including 'and,' 'but' and 'if.'' What Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, so one could say about Saeb Erekat. Among Palestinians, the 46-year-old Jericho boss and chief PA negotiator is the single most widely quoted person in the English-language press, with 11,382 citations since 1988. (By contrast, runner-up Hanan Ashrawi comes in at 8,062 for the same time period, and Sari Nusseibeh gets fewer than 2,000).
Erekat gets kid-glove treatment from ordinarily hard-fisted reporters: an admiring 1998 Wall Street Journal profile reads like a memo on why he should succeed Yasser Arafat. On TV, he remains the go-to man for all the major networks. That he was chief mouthpiece of the Jenin massacre myth, bandying about figures of 500 Palestinian deaths as though it were incontrovertible fact, hasn't noticeably dimmed his credibility. Especially, it would seem, at The New York Times, where Erekat's byline appeared last week under an op-ed called "Saving the Two-State Solution."
TO GET a sense of how extraordinary this is - not just anybody gets published in the Times - first consider the case of Anne Bayefsky, a leading human-rights scholar and a visiting professor at Columbia University. In May, Bayefsky published an op-ed in the Times titled "Ending Bias in the Human Rights System." Pegged to the appointment of a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the article called for reform of the treaty system and bureaucratic mechanisms governing international human-rights law.
"A United Nations high commissioner for human rights will always need to withstand political pressure from member states to engage in a highly selective application of human rights norms," she wrote. "To succeed, a high commissioner must be guided by the principle of universality, yet root his or her work in the rights of the individual person."
There was, however, more to this supremely anodyne piece of writing than meets the eye. According to Bayefsky, the article went through "six new drafts, four additional drafts with smaller changes and corrections, seven drafts from the editors and six hours of editing by telephone."
Why? It wasn't a matter of prose style. Times editors objected to a line about the need "to confront the UN's internal resistance to professionalism and transparency" as well as the fact that human-rights violators such as Libya "prefer devoting UN funds... to criticizing Israel, lest attention wander too close to home."
The Times also wanted it explained that Israel "is both politically offensive to many member states and very weak at the United Nations" - a line to which Bayefsky refused to put her name.
Indeed, the published version was so diluted, the editing job so censorious, that Bayefsky went public with her saga in the pages of Justice, the journal of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.
From the look of it, Erekat requires no similar recourse. His op-ed begins with a lie - "Palestinians are committed to two equal states for two equal peoples" - and ends with a veiled threat - "If the international community and the Israeli public miss these opportunities they will have only themselves to blame for the consequences we will all suffer." In between, one canard follows upon another. Yet none of this seems to inspire anything remotely like the kind of scrutiny Bayefsky endured simply for putting facts to paper.
Begin with Line One: "Palestinians are committed to two equal states for two equal peoples." Already, one must discount the sizable body of Palestinian opinion - between 40 and 50%, according to Palestinian polls - that rejects the claim outright. But grant Erekat a declarative statement: Still, how does it square with Arafat's absolute refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Or his call to Israeli Arab leaders to join his intifada: "Yes, we will still write in blood the map of the one homeland and one nation." This doesn't sound like two equal states for two equal peoples.
Now fast forward to Line Two: "Israel's insatiable appetite for constructing settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, however, is making a two-state solution impossible, in the process frustrating all efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully." Reasonable people disagree about the justness or wisdom of settlement activity; personally my feelings are mixed. But let's dispatch with the notion that the existence of settlements simply propels Palestinians to violence, as if they were incapable of mature moral reflection, or that anything less than complete acquiescence to Palestinian demands can make for a peaceful settlement or a two-state solution.
There is also this nagging issue of terrorism, a word Erekat utters nowhere in an article ostensibly about "saving" the two-state solution.
Moving right along, we learn that Israeli settlers number 400,000, including those in east Jerusalem, that Sharon has built 60 new settlements since taking office, and that settlements "control almost 42% of the West Bank, not including Palestinian East Jerusalem." Erekat ascribes some of these figures to Israeli advocacy groups such as Peace Now. Yet this is a highly tendentious tactic, somewhat akin to a Canadian foreign minister scoring George Bush by citing Anthony Lewis as the ultimate authority on US affairs.
A better source is the Times itself, whose own news reporting speaks of about 200,000 settlers in areas outside of east and greater Jerusalem - which is to say, those settlers whose presence might in some meaningful way prevent a territorially contiguous "Palestine" from coming into being. In doubling the traditional count of "settlers," Erekat stakes a Palestinian claim not just to outlying settlements such as Itamar and Netzarim, but to integral Jerusalem neighborhoods such as French Hill.
Does anyone notice?
The notion that 60 new settlements have been built since Sharon took office is also of a piece with this kind of casual statistical manipulation. Do these "settlements" have names? Streets? Stores? Schools? While the tenacity of the settler movement in setting up new outposts and having them grow cannot be denied, and while the legality of some of these outposts is often questionable (two dozen of them were dismantled by the Sharon government), it is not remotely accurate to call some empty mobile home standing 500 meters down the road from Ariel or Itamar a "settlement."
Then there's Erekat's claim that settlements "control" 42% of the West Bank. In fact, settlements make up some 5% of the West Bank land mass. Where do the other 37% come from?
Erekat writes about the Palestinian lands seized to construct bypass roads, security zones, the security fence and so on, which together presumably make up the difference. But hang on. Why do these settlements require security zones? Why are bypass roads built in the first place?
Erekat's logic here reminds me of Abba Eban's quip about "the child who, after killing his parents, pleads for mercy as an orphan." If Palestinians have lost land to security zones and bypass roads, doesn't it have something to do with Palestinian attacks on settlements and drivers? One might fairly agree to Erekat's figure of 42% rather than my 5%. What cannot be fairly said is that Jews are to blame for the difference.
Much the same goes for Erekat's musings on the security fence. "Israel's so-called security wall, parts of which are nearly 25 feet high and are topped with watch towers and barbed wire, has more to do with seizing Palestinian land than it does with security... It has become clear to many Palestinians that what Mr. Sharon and many others have in mind for the Palestinians is a ghetto 'state.'"
Three things to note here. First, if there's a 25-foot wall separating Netanya from Tulkarm, or my neighborhood from Ramallah, I'd like to see it. Otherwise, it's another piece of Erekat make believe.
Second, if Israelis of both the Right and Left feel they have no choice but to build a security fence, it is only because the Palestinian Authority has made it plain that they will neither negotiate in good faith nor make a good-faith effort to rein in terrorism.
Third, Israelis who expect the security fence to take care of their problems had best get ready for the next phase of the propaganda war, in which Palestinians go from being "occupied" to "ghettoized" - and no less intent on doing something about it.
I'm afraid I could go on almost endlessly. But let's go through this quickly.
Erekat says settlers are stealing Palestinian water resources. Yet almost all settlers are linked to the central Israeli water grid and do not use local wells.
Erekat says Israeli settlement activity violates international law. Read Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva convention and you know that it doesn't.
Erekat says Israel plans to deprive Palestinians of everything but "an insignificant presence in Jerusalem." Yet at Camp David, much of east Jerusalem was theirs for the taking. They refused it.
Erekat urges Israelis to elect "a leadership committed to evacuating settlements" in order to "undermine Palestinian extremists and help bring an end to the horrors of the past two years." Yet that's precisely what Israelis did in 1999, which helped bring on the horrors of the past two years.
Hitler - or was it Stalin? - said something to the effect that people will sooner believe one big lie than many small ones. Saeb Erekat proves him wrong. Lie habitually, lie shamelessly, lie unnecessarily, lie about small things and big things, lie about the past, lie about the future, lie about lies, lie with every "and," "but" and "if," and some of your lies are bound to be believed. Of course, it helps if they are printed in The New York Times.
Letter to the Editor, The Jerusalem Post
A LOUD BRAVO
Published in The Jerusalem Post, Friday, Jan 3, 2003
Sir, - A load bravo to the Post and to Bret Stephens for his Eye on the media columns and for "Liar, Liar" (December 27) on the absolutely crucial subject of professional Palestinian propaganda lies. These lies, and liars like Saeb Erekat, damage the chances of an understanding ever coming about.
|Judging by the damage done to Israel, these propaganda lies should worry us no less than military threats and terror. That is why we, concerned Israeli volunteers, with pen-friends in the world, mostly European Christians and Jews, initiated Take-A-Pen, helping to react in private readers' letters to any bias against Israel. In two years we have grown to an active Web site in nine languages, but when we read and watch the world media we still frequently feel like whipping boys.
When journalists of the huge knowledge and analytical skill of Bret Stephens take their part in the fight against the Palestinian Lie Empire, things will improve.