In Michael Oren’s forthcoming book, “Ally,” Israel’s former ambassador to Washington relates numerous surprising displays of hostility toward Israel by American government officials, media figures and others from whom one might expect something different.
Our faith in these anecdotes is fostered not just by the fact that Oren was there, on the inside; it’s buttressed by his reputation as an historian. Oren’s respect for accuracy and context, not to mention documents and texts, made his meticulous and detailed book on Israel’s 1967 Six Day War one of the best-regarded accounts of that conflict.
But the job of a diplomat — or of a politician, which is Oren’s role today — are both quite different from that of an historian. In relying on Oren’s good faith in rendering these eyewitness accounts, are readers relying on Oren the historian or Oren the diplomat?
I have not yet read “Ally” in its entirety, but for me, Oren’s reliability took a plunge when I took a cursory look into one of the most disturbing anecdotes Oren relates about my own field — journalism.
In a section entitled, ironically enough, “Hatchet Jobs,” Oren bitterly attacks The New York Times opinion page as the “most malicious,” and goes after its editor, Andrew Rosenthal, with an account of a conversation that sounds absolutely outrageous.
Oren’s ire was focused on Rosenthal’s decision to publish a piece by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which, according to Oren, “Abbas suggested that the Arabs had accepted the U.N.’s Partition Plan in 1947 while Israel rejected it.”
This, of course, was the opposite of the historical reality. And as related in his book, Oren confronted the Times’ famous editor bluntly:
“When I write for the Times, fact checkers examine every word I write,” I began. “Did anybody check whether Abbas has his facts exactly backward?”
“That’s your opinion,” Rosenthal replied.
“I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”
“In your view.”
“Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did the Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach.”
Rosenthal, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter and famed executive editor, replied, “Some might say so.”
Oren then relates an upsetting account of his effort to get a rebuttal to this false history into Rosenthal’s hands on deadline in the form of a response from Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres. According to Oren, this meant frantic text messaging with Peres while he was at his own son’s graduation ceremony from Columbia University.
“The result was his moving memoir of Israel’s struggle for independence and its insuppresable yearning for peace,” Oren writes. “Just before deadline, I pressed the SEND button and sighed with relief.”
In an act of “chicanery,” he writes, Rosenthal never published this.
The journalist in me had to find out whether this account was accurate. So I emailed and spoke with Rosenthal. I also read the original piece by Abbas. Here’s what I learned:
There are three big problems with Oren’s account. The first, and most important, is that nowhere in his piece of May 17, 2011 does Abbas assert that “the Arabs had accepted the U.N.’s Partition Plan in 1947 while Israel rejected it.” Check it out yourself at this link.
Indeed, shortly after this piece appeared, Abbas openly acknowledged the Arabs’ rejection of the partition and rued it, in the Times, as “our mistake.”
The second problem has to do with that “moving memoir” by Peres rebutting Abbas. According to Rosenthal, who wrote me in an email after checking on this, “We have no record of receiving an Op-Ed submission from Shimon Peres following the Abbas Op-Ed of May 17, 2011.”
In his email Rosenthal stated, “I offered [Oren], or Prime Minister Netanyahu, or someone else in his government the chance to write an Op-Ed. He declined. Mr. Netanyahu has turned down every offer we have made for him to write for the Op-Ed page.”
In the absence of a piece from someone on that level, he said, The Times ran a rebuttal from Danny Danon, a right-wing Likud Member of the Knesset who is today minister of science, technology and space.
But what about his outrageous conversation with Israel’s ambassador? Did the editorial page editor of The New York Times really tell Oren that the landing of the Allied Forces on June 6, 1944 was a matter of opinion? And given that Oren’s objection to Abbas’s article focused on something that wasn’t in the article, what was that whole conversation about anyway?
Rosenthal was reluctant to get in a public scrape with Oren around his book, especially one centered on a phone conversation from four years ago. Moreover, the phone call, he recollected, “was off-the-record at [Oren’s] request, as were all the conversations I remember having with him.”
But with Oren now giving his account, Rosenthal recalled that one line from Abbas’s piece that seemed to exercise the Israeli diplomat was the Palestinian’s assertion that “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.”
“This historical narrative has been frequently challenged, but it is one that is widely held by Palestinians and is their view of history,” he wrote in his email.
As for Oren’s complaint that the piece falsely stated that the Arabs accepted the 1947 partition while Israel rejected it, Rosenthal seemed genuinely perplexed.
“That was the complaint,” he recalled in a follow-up interview. “We checked the thing he complained about and found it was not in the article. There was no factual issue to correct. Whether he was upset because he doesn’t think we should be publishing Abbas, I don’t know; you have to ask him.”
Rosenthal does own up to one thing, though: He did, in fact, tell Oren — facetiously — something like, “Some might say so,” when their long argument got around to the dates of invasion at Normandy.
“The conversation went on for a lot more than three minutes,” he recalled, and got heated at times — and on his end, a bit sarcastic.
“I mean I know what day we invaded Normandy,” said Rosenthal. “We came to that after 10 minutes of going around and around.”
So to tote up: Oren’s description of Abbas’ Times article is false; Rosenthal directly challenges Oren’s claim to have gotten a piece by Peres to him, citing the Times’ records; and Oren’s account of Rosenthal’s remarks on the partition of Mandatory Palestine and the date of the Allied invasion of Normandy may lack fundamental context.
I will read Oren’s book now with great interest, but not without wondering, in what other cases might basic accuracy or context be missing?
Larry Cohler-Esses is assistant managing editor with responsibility for news coverage. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. He received several Laurels Awards from the Columbia Journalism Review, and two New York Press Association awards. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.