Shortly after Israel launched its campaign to stop Hizbullah’s rocket attacks and rescue kidnapped Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, criticism rang out from the usual sources. Some Arab leaders, journalists in the reflexively anti-Israel portion of the British press, and American pundits like Noam Chomsky and Pat Buchanan all lambasted the Jewish state. Of course, those condemnations are to be expected.
But it may have come as a surprise to some when, even as Katyusha rockets were falling on Israeli towns and cities, a former head of the American Jewish Congress also leveled sharp criticism at Israel. In fact, Henry Siegman’s attacks on Israel are no less predictable than those coming from the rest of the anti-Israel crowd.
Siegman was until recently a “Mideast expert” at the Council on Foreign Relations. His “expertise” has often appeared in the Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Review of Books, and other major media outlets.
An examination of his body of work, however, reveals it to be little more than thinly veiled propaganda promoting the Palestinian perspective on the conflict with Israel.
Siegman’s commentary echoes the most extreme themes of the Palestinian narrative, with the writer heaping shrill criticism on Israel while excusing Palestinian rejectionism – even when this requires repeatedly ignoring, fabricating and misrepresenting facts and routinely contradicting earlier assertions.
Errors, Errors Everywhere
Perhaps the greatest repudiation of Siegman’s credibility as an “expert” is his propensity for error.
A forgiving observer might excuse blunders in predicting events – for example his reference, not long before Israel announced its intention to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, to an Israeli “plan” to make sure “Gaza remain[s] in Israeli hands”; or his insistence after Ariel Sharon announced the Gaza disengagement plan that the prime minister “has probably come around to the position that he must kill the idea”; or his claim, only nine days before Hizbullah’s July 12, 2006 cross-border kidnapping raid – an attack undoubtedly spurred in part by the success of a similar Hizbullah raid in 2000 – that Israel’s release of hundreds of Arab prisoners in exchange for the Israelis captured in 2000 “did not cause Israel in the long run any harm.”
The Middle East, after all, is a volatile region, and accurate predictions are not always so easy.
But there is no such excuse for Siegman’s all too common errors of fact.
Last June, for example, Siegman outrageously claimed that “since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza last year … Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli artillery and air strikes virtually on a daily basis.”
Even according to figures published by the partisan Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), on most days since the Israeli withdrawal no Palestinians at all were killed – neither Palestinian civilians, nor Palestinian combatants; not by Israeli air strikes or artillery and not by Israeli gunfire; not even in “work accidents” or internecine Palestinian fighting (all of which seem to be included in the PRCS figures). The specific incidents described by Siegman (Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli artillery or air strikes), then, were extremely infrequent.
A careful look at March, April, and May 2006, the three months immediately prior to the publication of Siegman’s column, is revealing. According to Associated Press dispatches from those months, Palestinian civilians died as a result of Israeli artillery or air strikes on just one day in March, four days in April and two days in May. Yes, the inadvertent deaths of civilians are regrettable. But no serious analyst could argue that seven days out of 92 constitutes “virtually … a daily basis.”
The allegation of wanton Israeli killing of Palestinians was, however, the message Siegman evidently sought to convey – whether the facts pertained or not.
Again disregarding the facts, Siegman downplayed Palestinian violence when, in September 2002, he criticized Israel for not responding positively to “six weeks of Palestinian quiet” that had supposedly just passed, and for appointing Effie Eitam, a pro-settlement politician, as minister of national infrastructure during this so-called period of quiet.
But on the very day Eitam was appointed, Sept. 18, 2002, the charred body of an Israeli citizen was found. A day earlier, Palestinians had shot him in the head, set his body on fire, and left it in a neighborhood dump. Two other Israelis were killed that day, one when Palestinians opened fire on an Israeli car and one during a suicide bombing at a bus stop. A couple of weeks earlier, an Israeli was killed when a 100 kg bomb was detonated under an IDF tank and another was killed when a Palestinian gunman opened fire from a crowded school at Israeli troops.
That same day, a Palestinian van carrying 1,350 pounds of explosives was stopped in northern Israel before it could be detonated. Two weeks before that, a soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. Ten days earlier, a Palestinian terrorist murdered an Israeli woman and injured her husband.
In fact, one can search as far as two years earlier, to the onset of Palestinian violence in September 2000, and not find even one month without multiple, fatal Palestinian suicide bombings, shootings or other attacks. So much for “six weeks of Palestinian quiet.”
Siegman again whitewashed Palestinian violence and misled readers when he wrote of “revelations by Israel’s most senior intelligence and security officials that the intifada of September 2000 was not planned by [Yasir] Arafat, but a spontaneous eruption of Palestinian anger ….”
The assertion is beside the point. Even if Arafat did not directly plan the violence, there is overwhelming consensus, ignored by Siegman, that Arafat allowed, encouraged and even directed the continuation of the violence.
It is also intellectually dishonest to cite a source that is persuasively contradicted by many others – and never mention those others. Siegman quotes Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli intelligence chief, who has said he believed the intifada was “a spontaneous eruption.” But he conceals from readers the long list of high ranking officials who have indicated the violence was indeed planned: Amos Gilad, former head of the research division at Military Intelligence; Amos Malka, the IDF chief of intelligence under Ehud Barak; former Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz; Mamdouh Nofal, a former advisor to Arafat; former Palestinian communications minister Imad Faluji; and others.
(The list of errors goes on. For a more comprehensive look at Siegman’s distortions, see the article “Henry Siegman’s Expertise: Bashing Israel at Every Turn” at CAMERA’s website, www.camera.org.)
Siegman’s frequent factual errors do not, alone, make him a propagandist. But as the above examples make apparent, the distortions invariably tilt in the direction of portraying Israel negatively and are routinely accompanied by the harshest of anti-Israel rhetoric.
The language used by Siegman in discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict is revealing.
Often, there is little difference between his rhetoric and that of the most extreme anti-Israel activists.
Repeatedly, Siegman invokes language associated with apartheid South Africa to describe the Jewish state. The country wants “enclaves resembling Bantustans … in which the Palestinians would be consigned,” he once said.
It is “precisely South Africa’s ‘disengagement’ that defined its racist regime,” he argued, adding that Israel “persists in following the South African model ….”
Siegman has actually implied parallels between Israeli “evil” and Nazi Germany. Israel’s policies seem “too unjust, too evil, to be true, particularly for a Jewish state that considers its very existence a living reproach to the German people, and to the world, for the injustices and suffering inflicted on the Jewish people,” he stated.
On numerous occasions, Siegman even accused the country’s leaders of conduct compatible with Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracies: Ariel Sharon and his aide “knew they had the administration and both houses of Congress so completely in their pocket,” he wrote in a 2004 column. Ever intent on promoting this canard of Israeli control over the United States government, Siegman repeated the reference to Sharon having the American government “in his pocket” in two other columns that year. And in yet another column, he explained that this is made possible because Sharon so successfully “manipulates Washington.”
Again borrowing language from Israel’s detractors, Siegman occasionally describes Israel’s security barrier, which is a metal fence along over 95 percent of its length, as a “wall.” In Siegman’s eyes, Israeli settlers are characterized by “murderous rage.” Israel’s occupation inflicts “unspeakable cruelty.” The country’s military operation in Gaza in response to a Hamas kidnapping “targeted only the civilian population.” And the Orthodox Jewish community, both in the United States and Israel, is ideologically in lockstep with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin.
Hypocrisy and Double Standards
Siegman seems to shift his demands of Israel as necessary to enable continued criticism of the country. These relentless attacks on Israel, meanwhile, stand in striking contrast to the gentle treatment accorded Palestinians and their leaders.
In1997, Siegman called for a negotiated peace that would leave Palestinians with the Gaza Strip and “most of the West Bank.” Israel could keep settlement blocks along the Green Line, and the “demilitarized” Palestinian state would be “constrained in its sovereignty” so that Israel’s security needs would be met.
In late 2000, after Arafat rejected a peace offer at Camp David that closely matched Siegman’s proposals, and with Palestinian riots turning deadly, Siegman then argued “there is no compelling reason why Israel cannot unilaterally withdraw to the borders proposed by Ehud Barak … leaving Palestinians with more than 90 percent of the West Bank.”
“Israel,” he repeated a week later, “must withdraw its forces from the West Bank and Gaza, as near as possible to the borders that Mr. Barak offered to withdraw to at the Camp David meeting. The withdrawal should include isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank …”
Siegman’s opinions suddenly changed, though, when it seemed Israel might actually make a unilateral move from the West Bank. While criticizing Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Siegman described Israel’s security fence – which lies on that roughly 10 percent of West Bank land he had earlier agreed Israel should keep – as being built on “stolen” Palestinian land.
“Palestinians will not settle for less than a state that is fully within the pre-1967 borders,” he emphatically and approvingly noted.
His self-contradiction hardly ends there. Speaking about Sharon’s coalition partners in 2003, Siegman questioned “how a government comprised of religious and xenophobic nationalist elements can conduct … negotiation[s].”
He slammed “most Israelis” for accepting government coalition partners that he claims “call for … thinly disguised ethnic cleansing,”
He’s even claimed that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s insistence that Hamas end terror and recognize Israel is inappropriate since Olmert’s and Livni’s parents were founders of the Irgun movement in British Mandate Palestine, which had killed civilians during the tumultuous pre-1948 years.
But when it comes to Hamas, an organization whose xenophobia-driven terrorism has targeted and killed hundreds of civilians in recent years, and whose calls for ethnic cleansing and murder are not “thinly disguised,” or disguised at all, Siegman is hardly so concerned.
On the contrary, he lauded Hamas’s “refusal to play by Israel’s old rules,” while suggesting people should “not look at Hamas’s rhetoric … [but] look at what it does.” Providing an example of what Hamas does, Siegman noted: “In spite of Hamas’s refusal to change its theological rejection of Israel, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas led government, ordered his ministers to seek practical cooperation with their Israel counterparts.”
(Although Siegman celebrated this supposed Hamas concession, he lamented in the same article that “Israel’s ‘concessions,’ such as the withdrawal from Gaza and isolated West Bank settlements, are intended to serve narrow Israeli interests.”)
He defended the Palestinians after they elected Hamas, a murderous and anti-Semitic terror group, to head the Palestinian Authority, arguing: “Even hard-liners know that Hamas won the elections not because of their uncompromising ideology but because they ran on a moderate platform of clean government and better services.”
(He contradicted himself later in the article, claiming it was Sharon’s “unilateralism” that “prepared the ground for [the] Hamas victory.)
By contrast, after Sharon won the Israeli elections in 2001, Siegman wrote that although at one time people had “insisted [Sharon’s views] … do not reflect the views and values of most Israelis,” such a distinction “becomes impossible to sustain” in light of Sharon’s electoral victory.
And while constantly excoriaing Israel for not negotiating with or offering concessions to the Palestinians, he excused the Palestinian intransigence at Camp David by explaining that Arafat “tried to persuade Clinton that this was not the right time for a negotiation process that would entail Palestinian compromises ….”
(Siegman presumably feels it is always the right time for Israel to compromise, even when the country is facing an onslaught of terrorism and even after Palestinians elect a government committed to Israel’s destruction.)
Siegman’s long list of factual errors, his intemperate anti-Israel rhetoric, his indulgent if not sycophantic stance toward Hamas, and his endless self-contradiction lead one to wonder why mainstream news organizations have so frequently turned to this erstwhile Council on Foreign Relations “expert.”