Mideast Media Sampler
By David Gerstman
1) Wissam al-Hassan
Last week a car bomb blast in Beirut killed Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan. The New Yorkt Times reported, Blast in Beirut Is Seen as an Extension of Syria’s War:
Within hours of the attack, the Lebanese authorities announced that the dead included the intelligence chief of the country’s internal security service, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, instantly spurring accusations that the Syrian government had assassinated him for recently uncovering what the authorities said was a Syrian plot to provoke unrest in Lebanon.
“They wanted to get him, and they got him,” said Paul Salem, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But if the attack was targeted, the blast was most certainly not. The force of the explosion left elderly residents fleeing their wrecked homes in bloodied pajamas and spewed charred metal as far as two blocks. Residents rushed to help each other amid the debris, burning car wreckage and a macabre scene of victims in blood-soaked shirts.
A followup article, After Attack, Lebanese Opposition Calls for New Government reported:
The country’s politics are further complicated by geopolitical wrangling. While the main Lebanese opposition has long been aligned with Washington and Saudi Arabia, the governing coalition is backed by Iran and Syria.
“We want this government to resign since it’s representing the Syrian regime and protecting the Iranian policy in Lebanon,” Nohad al-Mashnouq, a leading member of the March 14 movement, said on Saturday. “It’s very obvious that the Sunnis are targeted in Lebanon. We haven’t had any Shiites condemning Wissam’s assassination; they just condemned the explosion.”
The protests Sunday are set to coincide with the burial of General Hassan, who had been under threat since he pushed for the arrest in August of a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician who was accused of plotting to bomb Mr. Assad’s opponents in Lebanon.
It’s hard to get a sense from the New York Times that there’s anything more than a power struggle going on.
In An assassination in Beirut, Lee Smith gives a much fuller telling of the story, including why Gen. al-Hassan posed such a threat to Syria.
Wissam al-Hassan was chief of the internal security force’s information branch, and the third top officer of the unit to be targeted. The first was Samir Shehade, who survived a bombing in 2006 and left the country. Next was Wissam Eid, whose number-crunching detective work on the Hariri assassination provided the international investigative team with several leads. Eid survived two attempts on his life before he was killed in January 2008. Hassan himself had been threatened repeatedly. Just this week, an editorial in a pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper identified Hassan as an enemy, likely foreshadowing his murder. Damascus’s contempt for Hassan was out in the open. Several years ago, the regime issued “arrest warrants” for its Lebanese enemies, the compilation of which was essentially a black list naming those who had crossed Assad and his allies and were likely to pay the price. Along with a number of March 14 political figures, Hassan’s name was also on the list as was that of his boss, ISF chief Ashraf Rifi.
ISF officers are prime targets because the information branch is the only one of the four security outfits inside Lebanon that has been effective in fighting terror—i.e., Hezbollah and Syria. The state security is simply weak and inefficient, while military Intelligence and general security have proved complicit with Hezbollah and Syria. Indeed, it seems that the latter service may bear some responsibility for Hassan’s death. He had just returned from abroad the day before the bombing, passing through the airport, which is controlled by general security, headed by Hezbollah ally, Abbas Ibrahim. Some speculate that general security alerted Hassan’s hunters, who had him followed and killed, a modus operandi matching the murders of parliamentarians Gebran Tueni (killed in 2005) and Antoine Ghanem (killed in 2007), both of them Syrian regime opponents slain shortly after their re-entry into Lebanon.
When the March 14 movement came to power under the premiership of Hariri ally Fouad Siniora in 2005, they beefed up the information branch, with Washington’s assistance. The Lebanese armed forces and the ISF, the national police, were the two institutions that the Bush administration sought to assist in helping the March 14 government consolidate the triumphs of the Cedar Revolution. In 2006, the U.S. started its security assistance program with the ISF getting roughly 10-20 percent of what the LAF receives; for instance, for the 2013 budget, the ISF is allocated $15 million, which is mostly for training and equipment, like vehicles, compared to $70 million for the LAF. The Lebanese army has enjoyed some successes, like defeating an armed Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, in the spring of 2007, but most significantly it showed it was incapable of protecting the capital and its citizens when Hezbollah overran it in May 2008. After Hezbollah took over the government in 2009, the army effectively came under the party of God’s control.
Make sure to read Smith’s full article including the final paragraph.
2) Jews, votes and Florida
Four years ago the New York Times published a highly condescending article towards Jewish voters in Florida, As Obama Heads to Florida, Many of Its Jews Have Doubts. The gist of the article was that Jews (specifically those who live in Florida) who were skeptical of Barack Obama were parochial, ignorant and more than a little prejudiced.
So it’s interesting to note that there were two corrections appended to the article.
An article on May 22 about the impressions of Jewish voters in Florida of Senator Barack Obama paraphrased incorrectly from a statement by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, who commented on those views. He said that among the concerns Jews have about Mr. Obama are his past associations and his support for Israel. Rabbi Saperstein did not say Jews are concerned about the senator’s patriotism.
The article also referred incorrectly to the work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The organization lobbies on behalf of its members, who favor a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. It does not work directly for the state of Israel or its government.
The first mistake wouldn’t have occurred unless the reporter was looking for the concern (originally) stated by the article. The second resulted from pure ignorance. Given the charges of dual loyalty directed towards supporters of Israel, that’s pervasive in certain “enlightened” sectors of society, the ignorance displayed was not benign. These two corrections show more about the reporter than the article showed about Jews. (In the end Jews voted overwhelmingly for Obama four years ago, so the New York Times needn’t have worried that Jews were insufficiently enlightened.)
In a recent column, Shmuel Rosner wrote:
Earlier this week, during an interview with an Israeli radio station dedicated to my new book, “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney/ A Jewish Voter’s Guide,” the host introduced me as “an expert on the Jewish vote.” It’s a big title that masks a simple truth: one hardly needs to be an expert on anything to accurately predict the Jewish vote in the United States. American Jews have not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since forever, and in most races they have given the Democrats not just a majority, but a vast majority of their votes.
Does a 2 percent or a 3 percent or even a 10 percent change in the Jewish vote warrant that much attention anyway? (Look at all these reports, opinion pieces, analyses, polls and blog posts!) That’d only mean at most a 10 percent change in the votes of just 2 percent of the American population. Jews, it must be said, vote in higher percentages than other Americans, so their actual share of the national vote is about double their share of the population. Still, with most of them residing in states where their votes hardly matter, the implications are generally minor.
In other words, examining the Jewish vote with such passion is often more about the student than about the topic, which is hardly, or only rarely, as consequential as we make it seem. You immerse yourself in a miniscule detail of little value to most other people and debate ad nauseam consequences of infinitesimal variations. That got me thinking that studying the Jewish vote is much like studying the Talmud and a very Jewish thing to do.
Rosner’s observations on the Jewish vote are generally correct. Where I’d disagree with him is why there is an obsession with the Jewish vote. The ignorance betrayed in the 2008 article suggests that one purpose of the obsession is to tie support of Israel to unenlightened parochial concerns.
In a recent analysis Michael Barone concluded:
There is always a tendency to ascribe changes in Jewish voting patterns to issues relating to Israel. Dissatisfaction with incumbents’ Israel policies undoubtedly accounts for the very weak Jewish support, compared to other Democrats, of Jimmy Carter (45 percent) and the record low support for George H. W. Bush in 1992 (11 percent). But responses to issue questions in the AJC surveys suggest that while some of the decline in Obama’s standing is prompted by Israel issues, some is due more to economic and other issues on which Obama has had problems with voters generally. There is always a tendency to ascribe changes in Jewish voting patterns to issues relating to Israel. Dissatisfaction with incumbents’ Israel policies undoubtedly accounts for the very weak Jewish support, compared to other Democrats, of Jimmy Carter (45 percent) and the record low support for George H. W. Bush in 1992 (11 percent). But responses to issue questions in the AJC surveys suggest that while some of the decline in Obama’s standing is prompted by Israel issues, some is due more to economic and other issues on which Obama has had problems with voters generally.
It should be noted that these polls (except for IBD/TIPP) were conducted well before the Democratic National Convention, at which reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was first omitted from the platform, then awkwardly reinserted, and before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statement on red lines and red lights. The bottom line: it looks like Jewish voters will favor Obama by a little less than two to one, and not, as in 2008, by a little less than four to one.
The idea that support for Israel is a narrow Jewish concern rather than a broad American concern is central to activists like Jeremy Ben Ami of J-Street who recently wrote to the New York Times:
When the media buy into these myths about the Jewish vote, the tragedy is that policy makers then shy away from pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace for fear of political consequences that never materialize.
This serves the aims of conservatives whose ultimate goal in peddling this myth is less to affect the Jewish vote and more to frighten Washington out of boldly leading in the Middle East.
Ben Ami is right that Israel isn’t the top priority for American Jews, but he draws the wrong conclusion. Americans, overall, are pro-Israel because they rightly see supporting Israel to be in America’s interests.
3) Extracurricular tweeting
I can tell you from first-hand experience as an academic that pro-Palestine speech is freely encouraged, while pro-Israel speech is far too often labeled “hate” speech and suppressed.
There’s a similar trend in journalism.
I saw the following tweet last week.
The tweeter in question was David D. Kirkpatrick, the New York Times correspondent in the Arab world. I challenged him on it as CAMERA (and later Elder of Ziyon) had debunked the “reporting” behind the claim. Worse, Kirkpatrick didn’t cite the original Ha’aretz article but the Mondoweiss version.
In response to my criticism, Kirkpatrick tweeted:
I had a hard time accepting that and responded:
@kirkpatricknyt @CAMERAorg tweet this: http://www.memri.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3609.htm … (via @memrireports ) tho I suspect what you deem provocative goes only one way.
In fairness Kirkpatrick responded:
Sure, I will tweet! http://www.memri.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3609.htm … (via
@memrireports ) tho I suspect what you deem provocative goes only one way.”
Still I find Kirkpatrick’s behavior here disturbing.
- It took little effort to debunk Eldar’s claim. If he were the least bit curious, Kirkpatrick would have been skeptical. That a false claim such as that has value to him for being “provocative,” raises questions about his values.
- He quoted Mondoweiss, which could fairly be described as a hate site. The fact that it’s run by Jews in no way mitigates the viciousness of the material written there.
- Even when re-tweeted the MEMRI article he gave no indication what it was about. Here’s the title: Arab Women Professionals Voice Fears Of Post-Arab Spring Islamization. The focus Kirkpatrick’s writing about the Arab spring has been to soft pedal the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given his sources among the Islamists, the MEMRI title would have been quite provocative. Too bad that he chose to obscure it. (Of course, it’s unlikely that he would have cited that or similar articles without prompting.)