It is no secret that the secular Israeli press considers
itself to be the guardian of the sacred task of "educating"
the masses regarding the righteousness of the left-wing
cause, especially when it comes to the current peace
But it is now becoming increasingly clear that Prime Minister
Ehud Barak and his cohorts have come to the conclusion that
the left-leaning tendencies of the press can be used to their
advantage, even if it means fabricating stories and
"political developments" out of whole cloth.
A recent study by the Israel Institute for Democracy
describes one such episode, namely the euphoria that took
hold of the Israeli regarding the much-talked-about-though-
never-realized "final agreement with Syria."
The media worked overtime loudly declaring that a peace deal
was only days or weeks away. Only when the lies of the
headlines were shattered on the wall of reality at the
Clinton-Assad Summit meeting in Geneva did the scope of the
scandal become known.
"Well known journalists and experienced commentators fell
prey to the preferences of their sources and of themselves
regarding the imminent success of the Israeli-Syrian
negotiations," writes Avner Hofstein of Yediot
Almost without reservations, the press adopted the stance
that an agreement with Syria was completed, and that a
withdrawal from the Golan had been agreed to. All of the
other delays, threats and hesitations were part of
predictable tactics. Throughout the entire period, and with
the intention of coming to the Clinton-Asad Summit meeting in
Geneva, the reporters tended to relate to peace with Syria as
a fait accompli.
"The feeling that beneath the freeze, brisk activity is
taking place, was an outgrowth of the optimism which Ehud
Barak's people had been expressing since the summit meeting
at Shepherdstown," Hofstein recalled.
This optimism was strengthened by the report of Amnon
Abramowitz on Channel One in the beginning of March: "I would
say with the required caution, that within approximately
three to five weeks, the agreement with Syria which will
include the solution of the problem with Lebanon, will be put
before the Knesset, the government and the Israeli public.
"I would now venture to say that the agreement is complete,
and already packaged," Abramowitz continued. "I can say that
the professionals have completed their work; the details are
clear; the draft is ready, and the time to finalize the
decision has come."
Three weeks later, when the Israelis were told about the
arrival of Clinton and Assad at the Summit meeting in Geneva,
they considered it "clear proof" that the supposition was
correct, Hofstein pointed out.
The editors of Channel One news program were filled with
professional pride, especially on the background of the
doubts the newspapers circulated on the day following
Abramowitz's sensational report. Again and again, they
repeated Abramowitz's remarks, and the editor of the program,
Elisha Speigleman noted with satisfaction: "We already told
you this before."
However, when it became clear that no agreement was or
apparently ever will be presented to the government and to
the public, Abramowitz and his editors didn't think that it
was necessary to explain themselves or to apologize to their
Hofstein notes that Abramowitz was not the only culprit.
Throughout the month of March, the list of journalists, who
were enamored with the idea of the imminent agreement with
Syria, swelled. These journalists gave added weight to the
"technical reactions" that testified that something was
At the same time, they brushed aside underlying hints such as
Syria's refusal to renew the direct negotiations, its
defamatory remarks about Israel in the Syrian papers, and
Assad's intransigence regarding the right to swim and fish in
Meanwhile, Amnon Abramowitz refuses to admit that he erred.
He noted that those in the immediate circle of the Prime
Minster indeed conveyed the impression that the time for the
decision was nearing, and that the meal was ready, but that
the question of whether Assad would agree to eat it, remained
On the other hand, Shalom Yerushalmi a Maariv reporter
felt that his sources misled him. At first he reported in his
column in the local tabloid Zman Yerushalayim that the
deal was sealed, but later on apologized to his readers, and
laid the blame on the doorstep of the Prime Minster and his
aides, who, as he said, "spread high hopes among the
commentators and reporters, tempting us to believe that we
had substantial information at our fingertips."
"A week after I published my column, I spoke with a reliable
source in the Office of the Prime Minster," Yerushalmi said."
And he told me that not only is everything finalized, and
that they are coming to sign in Geneva, but also that they
are about to schedule a date for the meeting between all
three sides. In other words, the check is ready, and all that
has to be done is to sign it. That is how he expressed
Yerushalmi divides up the blame: "It could be that we are to
blame, because of our blind acceptance of whatever the Office
of the Prime Minster says, and our failure to develop
alternate sources, not among the Arabs or the White House.
But perhaps the chevra in Barak's office also acted
inappropriately. After all they have a responsibility. This
story undermines many of the norms by which we work. Next
time, even if I receive information from the horse's mouth
itself, I won't trust it."
Oded Granot, a Maariv commentator on Arab issues, told
Avner Hofstein: "I have a bad feeling that some of my
colleagues were victims of the dis-information campaign,
which presented the agreement as completed and ready. There
is no doubt that promises like that, which announce the
advent of an agreement, serve the interests of the Office of
the Prime Minister, and help it advertise its activities.
"The problem is that it is impossible to correlate things,"
he said. "With whom can a correlation be made? The Foreign
Affairs Ministry is out of the picture. The Americans made a
conceptual mistake, and the difficulty to penetrate Assad's
mind is genuine. Unlike with Egypt and Jordan, in this case,
there is no one we can call."
Ronen Yishai claims: "They used me, without a doubt. The
story was leaked to me, as part of the maneuvering of a
negotiation which was meant to create a certain ambiance and
to convey a message: we're amenable. But then that's
legitimate, since the facts were basically correct." Amnon
Abramowitz doggedly insists on not admitting the mistake he
made at the outset. "I don't accept the determination that
this was an instance of manipulation. Those in the Prime
Minister's circle made the impression that they had conveyed
a correct portrayal of the situation.
Actually they were far more cautious than Clinton, Mubarak
and Arafat, for whom everything appeared rosy.
The write-up in Ha'Ayin Hashevi'it ends with the
reaction of Dr. Eyal Zieiser, the head of the Syrian desk in
the Dayan Center. Dr. Zieser believes that the media
exaggerated all along.
"The press served as a piece in a game. A few weeks before
the summit, when I saw that the Syrian media was speaking
about the banks of the Kinneret as their land, I understood
that they were referring to an inviolate condition from
Assad's point of view."