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Sorry, But It’s Sontag Again


For the second week running the Monitor is forced to postpone a celebration of the death last month of one of the wickedest Jews to walk the earth in this or any other generation. The continuing fallout over outgoing New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Deborah Sontag’s novella-length rewrite of recent Middle East history leaves no choice but to put away the streamers and the silly hats and reschedule the party for the next column.

And what a fallout it’s been, starting with the obligatory letters to the editor in the Times from pro-Palestinian Arabs, pro-Israel Jews, and self-hating Israelis and Jews (an over-used term to be sure, but what else does one call individuals who argue their enemies’ case better and with more passion than the enemies themselves?).

The steady flow of letters appeared over several days against a backdrop of a Times editorial essentially defending Sontag’s fictionalized account; Op-Ed columns disputing Sontag’s version of events by former Israeli prime minister Barak and the Times’s token conservative pundit, William Safire; and a column praising Sontag by the Times’s tiresome knee-jerker Anthony Lewis, whose last original thought occurred sometime during the Eisenhower years.

Detailed criticisms of Sontag’s article began to appear almost immediately on the Web and in various magazines and newspapers; probably the best so far have been a withering analysis by Robert Satloff in The New Republic and an almost equally strong essay by Daily News publisher (and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations) Mortimer Zuckerman.

Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, opens his piece on a sardonic note: “Imagine The New York Times covering the sinking of the Titanic with only a passing reference to the iceberg. Absurd? Not really. On July 26 the nation’s newspaper of record devoted 5,681 words to a retrospective by Jerusalem bureau chief Deborah Sontag titled ‘Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed’ and mentioned the word ‘intifada’ just once.”

And therein lies Satloff’s main problem with Sontag, who in her July 26 narrative (as indeed in much of her reporting over the past 10 months) rendered the Palestinian uprising well nigh invisible. To Satloff, Sontag’s downplaying of the intifada reflects both her hyper-ideological journalism (“There is, of course, no ‘left wing’ in her story – only ‘peace advocates’ on one side and ‘right-wing’ politicians on the other,” he notes) and her unwillingness to blame Palestinian violence for the deteriorating state of affairs.

“For a journalist who takes aim at what at what she calls the ‘potent, simplistic narrative’ of Barak’s generosity and Arafat’s culpability, Sontag’s own story is remarkably free of complexity,” he writes. “This refusal to grapple with uncomfortable issues is most pronounced in Sontag’s avoidance of the intifada.

“To her, the failure of the peace process was due to bad chemistry (Barak chatting up Chelsea Clinton instead of Arafat at Camp David) and bad timing (Bill Clinton waiting too long to offer his own peace plan). In her telling, the Palestinian uprising is just part of the background landscape.

“But it is not just part of the background landscape. The uprising so transformed the Israeli-Palestinian political context that by the time the two sides were, in Sontag’s telling, agonizingly close, it no longer mattered…. But to discuss the intifada, its roots, and its impact would complicate Sontag’s tale of imminent peace gone awry, so she sets it aside.

“The result is that lynchings, stonings, mortar shellings and drive-by shootings are acts of violence that, like traffic accidents, just happen. The ‘cycle of violence started,’  ‘an intense spasm of violence erupted,’  ‘two Israelis were killed,’ she writes.”

Satloff ascribes the weakness of Sontag’s piece to “lazy reporting, errors of omission, questionable shading, and an indifference to the basic fact that the Palestinian decision to wed diplomacy with violence, not American and Israeli miscues, damned the search for peace.”

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.

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