Haaretz's cheerleading for the Iran Deal raises the question: Were they a willing part of Ben Rhodes' "echo chamber"?
"Echo chamber" — two words that Ben Rhodes uttered to the New York Times Magazine were enough to expose the media's failure. The issue has been raging in the US for over a week now, since David Samuels’s piece first appeared, but aside from some minimal coverage, it has received almost no attention in Israel. And that's very strange, because what Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications said about the gaggle of “freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal” is very serious: "They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say," Rhodes bragged.
This was primarily aimed at the American media, but it has an Israeli aspect: Haaretz newspaper.
Those who have followed the Israeli media certainly remember how coverage of the Iran Deal looked from Schocken Street’s perspective: Haaretz did not even bother hiding that it had taken a side, and its reporters constantly echoed White House talking points in Israel. Now, in light of Rhodes's confession and the storm he caused, very serious questions have arisen regarding Haaretz's conduct in the affair, its journalistic prestige, and its professional reliability.
In response to our questions, Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken explained, "I don't have the tools to evaluate if what was said in the New York Times Magazine article is true or not," but regarding which side the paper took—here he explicitly admits:
Regarding Haaretz's position on the deal with Iran, it's no secret that we supported the American agenda of reaching an agreement. We thought an agreement was better than no agreement. We thought the position of the Prime Minister was mistaken, and that if it had any effect on the outcome, it was the enlistment of Democratic Congressmen in favor of the President. As a result of the agreement Israel obtained a window of 10-15 years in which, if it takes the right steps, it can positively change its strategic situation in the longer run as well, including among states such as Iran.
Schocken is indeed having difficulty dealing with the cluster bomb dropped by Rhodes and the consequences of his words for the stature of the media, but a survey of Haaretz articles in the relevant period raises the suspicion that the respected Israeli paper also fell into the trap. Rhodes' echo chamber, it seems, also carries an Israeli resonance.
[Update: when asked today on Galey Tzahal radio station regarding Haaretz's poor coverage of David Samuels’ piece, Schocken said: "I didn't think it mattered."]
Samuels' article lists two specific messages or "spins" that Ben Rhodes pushed: that in dealing with Iran, the only two options are "an agreement or war," and that the change in Iranian leadership from the "extremist" Ahmedinejad to the "moderate" Zarif and Rouhani was significant enough to enable engagement with Iran.
The slogan "an agreement or war" was made by the President time and again. Sometimes he also added — indirectly hinting at Netanyahu's speech in Congress — that those who argue that there is another alternative are fooling themselves. Readers of Barak Ravid in Haaretz know these messages well. Ravid took care to extensively quote the President not once, not twice, but three times: "Without an agreement there will be another war in the Middle East," shouted the headlines. "Netanyahu is wrong," Ravid echoed.
Perhaps you will say: these are news items. But as we know, even such items have a place when you're conducting a campaign. The proof: none of the proposed alternatives, which were neither “an agreement” nor “war,” received more than perfunctory coverage in Haaretz (there was no lack of such alternatives. See, for instance here, here, here, here, and here). When questioned about this, Ravid admitted openly that when it comes to the nuclear deal:
I believe that with Netanyahu both the "what" and the "how" are mistaken. The approach of all or nothing when it comes to negotiations with Iran, the creation of the feeling that Israel opposes diplomacy and only supports a military action, the lack of significant diplomatic initiative towards the Palestinians and the Sunni countries in the last six years, the confrontational approach towards the Western powers, the conflict with the American administration and President Obama and the meddling in internal American politics via an alliance with the Republicans—all these have hindered the goal of blocking the Iranian nuclear program from becoming what it could have become.
So, Obama's apocalyptic message of "an agreement or war" was echoed in Haaretz without resistance and perhaps even with conscious help. Amir Oren also took part in this, in an article in which he called for a revolt: "One compulsive man who is endangering eight million Israelis," he called Netanyahu, adding that, "He and Yaalon are ready to burn down the house." After the signing of the Iran Deal, Chemi Shalev joined in and explained that "in contrast to the poison Binyamin Netanyahu and his cronies inject on a daily basis, Obama and members of his administration do not intend to harm Israel, but to strengthen it."
The total support of the White House's campaign on the nuclear deal was strongly felt in other matters, too. Akiva Bigman described this in Mida: so it was regarding Netanyahu's speech at Congress, when Barak Ravid prophesied, and shockingly discovered a few hours later that he was right, that "Obama and Kerry will not meet Netanyahu" during his trip to Washington. Amir Oren gave the Prime Minister a failing grade and suggested the consolation prize of the Defense Minister's portfolio in a Herzog government. Chemi Shalev called the speech an "existential threat," no less. Just to top it off, Haaretz was the only paper not to publish a picture of Netanyahu in Congress after the speech. Instead, they chose a picture of Arab-Israeli MK Hanin Zouabi.
The same trend is apparent in the discussion of the military aid the Obama administration is trying to propose as compensation for the deal. Ravid's reports from the White House were the opening shot of a barrage by Chemi Shalev, Amir Oren, and Amos Harel, who repeatedly argued that the nuclear deal is done and any additional action would only harm Israel. This trend continued after the signing of the nuclear deal, when there was still a fear that it wouldn't last.
Once again, the same chorus sings the same song: John Kerry warned ("If Congress rejects the nuclear deal, the world will blame Israel"), and Barak Ravid rebuked ("Netanyahu crossed red lines in his struggle against the nuclear deal"); Amir Oren, as already mentioned, called on army officers to revolt ("officers who cooperate with…this approach are abandoning their national responsibility"); and of course Chemi Shalev with his apocalyptic scenario from "American spokesmen" ("The United States will be isolated, the sanctions regime will collapse, Iran will celebrate, and the region will take giant steps towards a destructive military confrontation…. [Then] a campaign will begin against Israel and her lobby, from both on-point and anti-Semitic motives").
Truly, an echo chamber.
The Attack of the "Moderates"
The second spin Samuels emphasizes in the article is the attempt to pull the wool over the public's eyes with the story that with the change in leadership in 2013 a new era had begun in Iran—an era of smiling moderates with whom we can do business. The truth, as Rhodes himself admitted in his response to the article, is that talks with the Iranian regime began already in Ahmedinejad's time in 2012. Rhodes even admits that Obama had set for himself the goal of a deal with Iran already in his first term.
This is no secret: Dr. Michael Doran demonstrated this in detail in his article, where he quoted Ben Rhodes himself, who admitted to Democratic Party activists that the deal is "probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy." In the eyes of the administration, he emphasized, "this is healthcare…, just to put it in context." For Obama—and this is also disclosed in the article on Rhodes in the New York Times — the nuclear deal is an essential part of the overall strategy of retreat from the Middle East, as well as America's role in the world in general. Obama would sign an agreement at any cost, and he would even have enlisted Ahmedinejad if the latter agreed to sit with him at Geneva.
But to sell that to the public he needed to spin it a yarn. "There is hostility and suspicion towards Iran, not just in Congress but also in the American public," Obama himself admitted in one of his speeches, and in addition "Congressmen are very attentive to what Israel says about her security affairs." If so, we can understand how important it was for him to broadcast a "new era" in Iran and market the smiles of Zarif and Rouhani as a change in both policy and outlook.
A survey of Haaretz articles shows that it happily adopted this tale.
"Since Hassan Rouhani's election," in 2013, reported the 'Iran Nuclear Program' page at Haaretz, "The tone in Iran has changed, and in a series of statements on the matter, the new President made clear that Iran is entirely opposed to developing nuclear weapons." So it was with Tzvi Barel, who tried already in December 2013 to convince us that "Rouhani's greatness is that his new style is the policy itself, and not just a marketing gimmick. Direct dialogue with the US, a telephone call with Barack Obama, expediting talks with the group of powers, creating a powerful public image of the advantages an agreement with the West will bring the Iranian economy. All these are a U-turn from the policy adopted by Iran until now." A new world, a new product.
The short and threadbare profile of the Iranian President published by Haaretz during the run-up to the elections points to this trend as well. Nothing was written about how, during Rouhani's tenure on the Iranian National Security Council, the Islamic Republic conceived the idea of bombing the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (1994) and the attack on American soldiers at the Khobar Towers. Not a word was said about the report that Rouhani himself said, a few months before he was elected, that "It's easy to say 'Death to America.' We need to express 'Death to America' with actions." Instead, in September 2013, Barak Ravid reported how Rouhani was fighting the conservatives, and "apparently seems interested…in acting to abolish the use of the call 'Death to America.’” As of now, we can confidently say, he has not succeeded.
Nothing was mentioned of the 2006 report in the New York Times, a publication not known for being right wing, according to which Rouhani admitted that Iran deceived the West regarding the nuclear project. Nothing was written of how in 2003, Rouhani effectively headed the Iranian negotiating team on the nuclear issue and lied to the Europeans' faces when he promised supervision of the nuclear program while uranium was being enriched in bunkers.
On the other hand, Ravid was meticulous about taking a swipe at Netanyahu when Rouhani and Zarif tweeted 'Shanah Tova and Chag Sameach.' And that's even before we spoke of how Haaretz adopted the term "moderate" in articles and headlines, a term that constantly required them to answer the question — "compared to whom?"
We requested Barak Ravid's response to our article; as of this writing he has not responded.
Back to Ben Rhodes. "All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus," he told the New York Times, "Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing." And if they don't know anything, they can be spoon fed with messages acceptable to the government.
The question is where the truth ends and the propaganda begins. We might also ask if there is anything in Haaretz beyond the articles of Gideon Levi, Amira Hass, and Rogel Alpher that made it President Obama's favorite paper. Ben Rhodes's revelations place the words of the President to a Haaretz conference in New York in a particularly revealing light: "Haaretz, the oldest paper in Israel, has never been afraid to speak truth to power," he said, adding that "You are part…of the freedom of expression and the press which are crucial for democracy in Israel."