On January 5, 2015, PBS aired a new Frontline documentary NETANYAHU AT WAR, a profile of the troubled relationship between the Israeli Prime Minister and President Obama. It is now available on the PBS website in some markets and will perhaps be on other platforms such as Netflix, who have previously carried Frontline specials.
The film is typical of what we should now call Hasbara 2.0. No longer are we subjected to the Irving Howe-styled apologias wherein Israel is some great social democratic wonderland besieged by the terrorist Arabs. Now we are given a much more nuanced vision where there are problematic Israelis (here, the antihero of our narrative, Bibi) but where a criminal like the late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin is a fallen hero and American presidents like Bill Clinton and Obama are the poor Sampsons who are betrayed by Likudnik Delilah. In other words, it is a complete and utter farce that unfortunately deceives many people.
The point to begin with is the interviewees. The talking heads here are not experts on the topic, like Dr. Norman Finkelstein or Dr. Ilan Pappe. Instead, we get Peter Beinart, Avi Shavit, and David Remnick regurgitating Beltway gossip and Tel Aviv talking points like they are great chroniclers of the modern realpolitik. For the Palestinians, we have the voice of Saeb Erekat, the negotiator whose diplomatic skills were summed up best by Dr. Finkelstein:
Abbas and his imbecile sidekick Saeb Erekat are playing good cop/bad cop. Abbas says “yes, this agreement might work,” whereas Erekat whispers to the media—you know, the “senior Palestinian negotiator who doesn’t want to be identified”—that “oh, this agreement is horrible, it’s terrible, it’s awful, they can shove it.” Erekat thinks that’s being clever, it’s putting pressure on the Americans, as if anyone on god’s earth gives a flying fig what Erekat has to say about anything.
Ergo, if PBS thinks getting Erekat on the record is a big score, we are in for a travesty.
On the American side, we have the likes of Dennis Ross, Sandy Berger, and Martin Indyk giving high praises to the Oslo years and Clinton’s annexation process. Consider this passage of narration:
Known as the Oslo Accord, it was designed to end years of violence by laying out a peace process, a deal that could give Palestinians their own state and land captured in the ‘67 war.
This is perhaps able to be true in some technical sense, maybe if one stands on their head and squints, but it is totally removed from reality. From the outset, be it Republican or Democrat, the Palestinians have never found a fair negotiator in the United States. Consider what Dr. Chomsky wrote in September 1993:
The US was therefore in a good position to advance its rejectionist program without interference, moving towards the solution outlined by Secretary of State James Baker well before the Gulf [War] crisis: any settlement must be based on the 1989 plan of the government of Israel, which flatly bars Palestinian national rights (Baker Plan, December 1989).
Even when President H.W. Bush was allowing Secretary Baker to infamously goad the Israelis by telling them the White House phone number during his House testimony, the Americans have always been all show and allowed the dispossession to continue.
Consider another line of narration:
Palestinians launched a new round of violence, a sustained uprising, the [Second] Intifada.
This is so preposterous when one remembers the words of Alex Kane:
Neve Gordon… tells us that the 2nd Intifada began as a nonviolent popular uprising, but only turned violent after Israel brutally suppressed the uprising, firing 1.3 million bullets into the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Israeli security forces were directed to “fan the flames”, as Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar reported in 2004.
This is just par for the course here and demonstrates the level of duplicity that PBS is involved in here with your tax dollars.
The film serves two purposes. Besides the aforementioned hasbara effect, it also tries to salvage what it can of the Obama legacy and create a post facto explanation for why this Presidency has been an almost complete disaster. In that regard, it shapes recent history into a bizarre narrative, failing to mention the words “Cast Lead” or “Protective Edge” while trying to float the preposterous idea that Obama tried to be ahead of history and support the Arab Spring. My own view, while perhaps incorrect, is that he instead succeeded in subverting the genuine democratic uprisings across the region to serve his own ends. When things in Egypt became far too complicated by having a Muslim Brotherhood government across the Sinai from besieged Gaza, a coup was initiated and al-Sisi installed.
Of course, this obviates the question of whose voice should be heard here. My own wish would be that of the late Edward Said. Although Dr. Said was not alive for these events, there is a double meaning that makes his presence necessary. First, in his writings he was absolutely open and honest about both Israeli brutality and Palestinian bravery, yet also the failings of leaders like Arafat. But also of a second degree of value is the infamous image of him speaking with a younger Obama at a dinner. Perhaps his voice would continue to speak a truth to Obama’s career that needs to be heard.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter for Rhode Island’s Future, who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.