'Haaretz' articles seen as 'nuisance'

Are inaccurate media reports hurting US-Israel relationship?

haaretz logo 63 (photo credit: )
haaretz logo 63
(photo credit: )
US President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders in a July meeting that Israel needs to "engage in serious self-reflection." Israel's new US ambassador was "summoned" to the State Department to be lectured about Israel's building settlements in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called two top aides to Obama "self-hating Jews." All of these reports appeared in Haaretz. And they've all been disputed or denied by the principals involved. Nevertheless, the tales have become an important part of the day-to-day narrative on the US-Israel relationship. Partisans and pundits on both sides of the political divide have seized on the anonymously sourced stories to herald their own preconceived notions of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. US and Israeli officials say these apparently inaccurate reports haven't had any significant impact on the USIsrael relationship, but Middle East experts say the prominence of such reports - and the leaks and spin that produced them - could be a sign of tension. They also may be a sign of the declining standards in Israeli journalism. All three stories were written by the same Haaretz correspondent, Barak Ravid, and he is standing by their accuracy. The first report came earlier this summer, after Obama's July 13 meeting with a group of US Jewish organizational leaders. Ravid wrote that Obama said Israel would need "to engage in serious selfreflection" in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Conservative critics of Obama responded with outrage. The editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, wrote an angry online post focusing on the quote, challenging Obama's right to "lecture the people and leaders of Israel on the need for self-reflection" when he never faced the difficult choices they encounter or the personal sacrifices they've made. In the weeks following the meeting, however, JTA contacted nearly all the Jewish officials who attended the meeting, and none recalled ever hearing such a phrase from the president, nor could they find such a quote in their notes. Multiple White House aides at the meeting told JTA that they have no recollection of the phrase being used or any record of it in their notes. Ravid told JTA in an e-mail that he got the quote via "sources that were in the meeting with the president," and that no White House official had denied it to him. A couple weeks later, a Ravid story characterizing the Israeli government on its 100th day in office as being in disarray said that "Netanyahu appears to be suffering from confusion and paranoia." The article added, "To appreciate the depth of his paranoia, it is enough to hear how he refers to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, Obama's senior aides, as 'selfhating Jews.'" The quote was not attributed to a source. Ravid said he "cannot elaborate on the sources for the story," but that he stands behind its accuracy "100 percent." Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told JTA that Netanyahu "never spoke those words." Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador in Washington, said in an interview in August that he reached out to Emanuel and Axelrod on behalf of the prime minister and said Netanyahu was "furious" with the report. But before the denial, supporters of Obama's Middle East policy seized on the quote as evidence that the Netanyahu government was difficult to work with. In addition, both Joe Klein in Time magazine and Haaretz editoratAluf Benn in a New York Times op-ed referred to the quote as if it were a matter of public record. Finally, Haaretz stories in both July and August said that the Obama administration had "summoned" Oren over differences on settlement policy. But an embassy spokesman and Oren himself have publicly denied any "summoning," which implies a crisis in relations. Both said that the first time the concerns were relayed they came as part of a get-to-know-you meeting just after Oren became ambassador, and the second time they came in what Oren called a "soft-spoken" phone call. Ravid responded that Oren in a phone conversation had declined to comment on the latter meeting before the story was published. "There is no dispute about the fact that twice in two weeks, the Israeli ambassador in Washington received harsh complaints about Israeli policy in east Jerusalem from very senior officials in the US government," Ravid said. "The media reports in Haaretz or any other publication are not the cause for the problem in Israeli-US relations." Some conservative members of the Israeli government may be trying to manipulate the tension that has arisen over the settlements by leaking stories to portray a more dire situation, observed Yoram Peri, director of the Gildenhorn Center for Israeli Studies at the University of Maryland and an expert on Israeli politics and media. Peri cautioned that one must separate public rhetoric from real diplomatic process, which happens mostly behind closed doors. Israeli and US officials say stories that inaccurately portray the situation are not much of a problem. "These are simply bumps in the road," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. An Israeli government spokesman called the disputed reports "a nuisance," but said "they don't have any kind of effect on the relationship." "The relationship is strong and good and warm," the spokesman said. "It appears that there are elements that would like to see it otherwise, but it's not affecting the good discussions we're having."