The integral question

Nahum Barnea's new collection shows that his reputation for impartiality is well deserved. But can the same be said for his recent work?

Nahum Barnea 88 248 (photo credit: )
Nahum Barnea 88 248
(photo credit: )
My Journeys with a Notebook (In Hebrew) By Nahum Barnea Yedioth Ahronoth Books 308 pages; NIS 98 A distinct line separates the conscientious journalist from the regular political reporter. Every now and then, however, a reporter acquires the qualities and reputation of being a conscientious observer, and from then on is liable to be judged not only by the veracity of his stories but also by the quality of his judgment. For more than 30 years, Nahum Barnea has managed to build a reputation as an inquisitive, impartial and reliable reporter dealing mainly with affairs of state. And for all this time he upheld this image. But of late, some sources and journalists, deliberately or inadvertently, have insinuated that Barnea was a personal friend of Ehud Olmert and out of this grew speculations alleging that he was writing, or avoiding writing, to help his "friend," the prime minister. Stories were also published implying that the owners of Yediot Aharonot, Barnea's paper, were friends of Olmert, and therefore, so the tale went, Barnea was writing what the owners liked. The bulk of Barnea's new book, My Journeys with a Notebook, covers his writing prior to Olmert's premiership. The book is composed of selected reports and articles that Barnea produced during these years. For the regular unbiased reader, it is bound to confirm anew that he could produce lively and often literary texts that have not lost their vitality and relevance. But the collection might raise the question whether there was any meaning to the inclusion or exclusion of his pieces about Olmert. The fact that the book does not, for example, include critical articles assailing Olmert for his conduct in the Second Lebanon War might, for the more suspicious reader, imply that Barnea may have intended not to annoy the prime minister. Was this selection accidental or deliberate? I saw no way of getting the truth but to ask Barnea directly. I wanted to know whether the views represented in the book do or do not represent his opinion of Olmert. Barnea's response made it absolutely clear. He wrote numerous pieces in Yediot in which he harshly attacked Olmert's mishandling of the war. He was never Olmert's "personal friend" and as far as the scandals are concerned, a few months ago he published an article saying that if the story of the American Jewish friend's claim that he used to bring envelopes with thousands of dollars to Olmert was proven, Olmert should resign, and if the allegations are not true, Olmert should step down because a national leader cannot have such friends. Regarding the exclusion of his articles attacking Olmert, Barnea admitted that maybe he should have taken into account that people might draw erroneous conclusions from this. My reaction was quite clear: The book should be judged on the basis of his entire writings. The book has to be seen as part of the evidence built for years in the pages of his paper. As for the Winograd Commission report in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, Barnea cited numerous denunciations of Olmert's failed leadership. The way to assess Barnea's style is to carefully watch how he treats the political leaders of his time. In the early 1960s, for example, Moshe Dayan was perceived by him as a symbol of the "brilliant future." Barnea thoroughly enjoyed Dayan's Hebrew, his speech and his writing. Dayan avoided the flowery language preferred by some politicians. But as the years passed, Barnea modified his view of Dayan. In October 1977 he wrote, "Dayan's cult was the worst of all the political cults we had." Dayan, he observed, still evoked great admiration, but there were also quite a few who blamed him for numerous blunders. Barnea quoted Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the Hebrew University, who cited dozens of cases in which it was right to question Menachem Begin's political integrity. Following the First Lebanon War Begin resigned and practically stopped saying anything in public or in private. He finally died in 1992. For Barnea the distinguished journalist, Begin "believed in the rule of law, in human rights" and in keeping strict limits on the security services. His successor, Yitzhak Shamir - to whom Begin reluctantly passed the torch - "came from some other place." After Begin's death, however, Barnea wrote some scathing things about him. Begin, he said, "believed all his life in 'just solutions,'" but even when his proposed solutions were not just, he deluded himself that they were. This is Barnea's perception. Begin's decision to embark on the Lebanon adventure in 1982 was based on the assumption that there was a magic formula, that in a few days the PLO would disappear and a government friendly to Israel would be established. The Syrians, in this magic scheme, would just "get out." But none of these conjectures came off. It was late in 2003 that Barnea suddenly discovered that Olmert was engaged in a far-reaching process of ideological heresy. In a conversation initiated by the then Likud minister, Olmert advocated far-reaching territorial compromise. He was aware that his ideas were anathema to his Likud colleagues, but was convinced that there was no other choice if we aspire to live in a Jewish and democratic country. Olmert admitted that his views were in contrast to Begin's and Shamir's, but pointed out that when Begin found himself in 1977 heading the government, he avoided imposing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza. That is still an interesting reminder.