They Promised us a Dove: PCP at work

Anshel Pfeffer of the Jerusalem post writes this review of a book on the promises made by media pundits about the results of a retreat from Lebanon and Gaza (from 2000-2005). It illustrates well the power of PCP (“if we’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to us”), and the resistance to HSJP (concessions and retreats are signs of weakness and call for further aggression), especially in Israel’s MSM. The review regrettably leaves out choice quotes from the Oslo period and focuses on the promises concerning the Gaza withdrawal. The author concludes by being even-handed and admitting his own failed prophecies, although I would not have put those mistakes in the same league with the colossally damaging and unrepentant prophecies of the MSM on Arab-Israeli relations. (HT: Ellsee)

Behind the Lines: The press’s false prophecies

Anshel Pfeffer, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 22, 2006

On my desk for the last few weeks has been sitting an amusing little Hebrew booklet, the translation of whose title is, They Promised a Dove. (This title is a take-off on a popular song from the early Nineties, from the perspective of the generation of children conceived after the Yom Kippur War, who are blaming their parents for not having brought peace.)

Like a box of Belgian chocolates in which one roots around and keeps finding new and better fillings, I’ve taken delight in delving into this simple, yet subversive, booklet again and again, coming up with new pearls with each reading. Its authors, seasoned journalists Haggai Segal and Uri Orbach, are far from being like the naive children in the song. But, like those children, what they are doing is pointing their fingers at the naked emperor. (Disclosure: I’m on friendly terms with both Segal and Orbach, and have worked with the former on a number of occasions.)

The booklet is a collection of confident “prophecies,” spouted by many top Israeli pundits, during the period between the May 2000 IDF withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon and this summer’s war. All had predicted that lasting peace and quiet on the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts were imminent – and that retreating from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were wise and inevitable steps.

Great quotes abound in this book. But I have two favorites.

The first is from Haaretz oracle Ari Shavit on June 24, 2005 – 13 months before the war: “Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon taught whomever did not understand this before the importance of a recognized border for the security of Israel. Since 2000, the strength of the invisible wall of international legitimacy has been proven on the Lebanese border. This invisible wall is what is defending northern Israel today. This invisible war is what is preventing even a terrorist organization like Hizbullah from firing its thousands of long-range Katyushas into the sovereign territory of Israel.”

Note that Shavit was the author of a much-cited article in 2000 after the failure of Oslo entitled: “Barak’s Copernican Revolution,” (Ha’aretz, October 27, 2000), in which he showed how by pushing the “land for peace” (ie negotiate a positive-sum outcome by making concessions) formula to the hilt, Barak had shown the world the failure of such a paradigm. And yet, here he is, back at it again with the Gaza withdrawal.

The second is from Ma’ariv mega-star Ben Kaspit, who summarized disengagement as follows: “The IDF is the IDF – meticulous planning, perfect execution. Danny Halutz is on the job. Nobody need worry.”

SEGAL AND Orbach, both representatives of the religious Right, are making two points here, one political and the other professional. First, they make no bones about blaming the mainstream Israeli media for a monolithic endorsement of any proposal of Israeli retreat, without subjecting it to even minimal inspection – and for marginalizing conflicting views, labeling those who hold them “dangerous extremists.”

This is the core of the West’s woes. People who live in a delusional universe where they can promise anything and count on our liberal hopes for peace now to excuse their repeated folly, do not hesitate to whip out the ugly terms for anyone who disagrees: racists, war-mongers, fascists…

Whether or not the second intifada and the events of this summer in Gaza and Lebanon prove the critics of withdrawal and disengagement right is an important debate. But I’d prefer to use this column to examine the authors’ second point – that the leading pundits of the Israeli press have a propensity to fire-and-forget, to issue summary judgments on what the future holds without any responsibility for the eventual outcome.

In an age when everyone is gloomily foreseeing the end of journalism as we know it – not a week goes by without news of another colleague forsaking the profession for more promising fields – there is at least one sector of the media which has nothing to worry about where job security is concerned. As news becomes less about straight reporting, and more about opinion, those among the ranks of pundits, commentators and op-ed writers really have it made. The market for pithy, opinionated and unequivocal columns seems almost unlimited – with the Internet providing an even more expansive outlet.

All one needs today to sell his wares of wisdom is a loose set of ideas, a way with words, and the ability to churn them out in time for deadline. As long as his doing so makes for a good read, nobody cares if at some later date he will have been proven wrong.

Anyone reading newspapers and Web sites can easily think of highly-regarded columnists who regularly get it wrong, blithely predicting events and outcomes that turn out to have no basis. But have we ever heard of one of one of these false prophets ever being fired?

Given the possibilities on the web, I think it would be extremely valuable to compile a list of pundits and their record — quantitative data and rankings, but also make available the substance behind the statistics. I still remember all the folks insisting that when Israel killed Sheikh Yassin and Rantisi, that the suicide bombing would come in waves, even thought there was extended silence.

THE BOOKLET shows the amusing side of the pundits’ mistakes. But it also illustrates the sinister way in which columnists form and inform public opinion, transforming individual views into the prevailing wisdom and consensus.

To show that no one is immune to this disease, Segal and Orbach include similar mistakes of their own. Which shows that this kind of reckless soothsaying is by no means reserved to a particular side of the political spectrum.

Indeed, in the first half of 2005, the right-wing press published dozens of columns explaining how there was no way the Israeli public was going to allow the government to carry out disengagement; how hundreds of thousands of citizens would block the roads leading to Gush Katif; and how a mass rebellion would break out in the ranks of the army. Very few, if any, major right-wing writers admitted afterwards that they had taken part in creating a mindset that made it much harder for the evicted settlers to come to terms with their fate.

On the other hand, the fact remains that this position remained, for the most part, within the confines of the right-wing press. The mainstream media had little time or space for the sizable minority bitterly opposed to disengagement.

A much smaller left-wing minority continues to get a disproportionate hearing. Though there are still sufficient grounds to justify disengagement and the withdrawal from the security zone, recent events indicate that opposing ideas deserved to have been taken much more seriously.

I CANNOT conclude this column honestly without coming clean about my own past practices as an instant pundit. Though my Jerusalem Post track record hasn’t been that bad, a few glaring mistakes stand out. Three of these are particularly embarrassing. Despite the fact that no one actually took me to task for them, I’m now inviting your ridicule by pointing them out.

• In January, immediately after Ariel Sharon’s second debilitating stroke, I predicted that the Kadima leadership would not gather around his replacement, Ehud Olmert, and that a succession battle would sink the nascent party.

• On the eve of the election, I advised readers not to vote for the Pensioners Party, confidently asserting that since it had no chance of passing the electoral threshold, a vote for it would be wasted.

• Before the cease fire at the end of this summer’s war, I wrote that the government’s days were numbered, due to its having been discredited and by its being left with no agenda following the demise of the realignment plan.

The first two of these predictions were quickly confounded. As for the third: It is four and a half months later, and the government is not only still here, but no one is prepared to make any more bets on its imminent fall.

Try as I might, I can’t find one excuse for these mistakes, other than hasty judgment. For this reason, the most important passage from They Promised a Dove from my perspective was in its foreword: “What all the failed analyses had in common was that they dealt with the future. This is a territory which would be better left to astrologers in the horoscope columns. As journalists, we should concentrate on reporting the past and present, or on providing clever comment on what is happening now. If we have any predictions on what is expected, we should express them with the necessary care and humility, with a bit more ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe.'”

This is commendable honesty on the part of Pfeffer. To be fair to him, however, these prophecies are the result of misunderstanding some of the elements at work in a highly complex Israeli political scene. Trying to predict chaos is high risk stuff. But the subjects of the book are dealing with a political culture that still adheres heavily to the demands of honor-shame, whose Arabic pronouncements clearly contradict its foreign language PR, and whose responses continue to show enduring consistency. For them to repeat the same mistake over and over again, even as the consequences become more disastrous both in weakening civil society and strengthening the forces of religious violence, is inexcusable. I think the pundits who promised not just Israel, but the whole world, a dove, deserve a hefty measure of opprobrium.

6 Responses to They Promised us a Dove: PCP at work

  1. Stan says:

    In the United States the press continuously told us of the victory already accomplished in Iraq. The triumph of the Iraqi election. The final days of the resistance, etc. etc. The manipulation of public opinion is one thing. However, the media at the very least needs to take stock and say “we blew it”, rather than just going on with the next pile of garbage.
    The media has a very very short memory when it comes to introspection.


  2. gal shalev says:

    This is simply the most important blog I have encountered on Middle Eastern Affairs. This both saddens and angers me because it is obvious that the paradigm being used to analyze the conflict has been disastrously flawed. People of good will must begin to see the conflict through the prism of an honor/shame culture.

  3. igout says:

    Merry Christmas, Happy Hanuakkah (sp?) to all friends of liberty and the West.

  4. chevalier de st george says:

    I consider this blog to be indeed the blog of blogs!
    It is a gem and long may it exist!

    I have recently become interested in the differences between historical islamic Antisemitism and Western ( Christian) Antisemitism. It is i believe important in understanding the forces at play, specifically in the Anti Israel prejudices.
    At first inspection, it seems that they are totally opposed forms of prejudice.
    On the one Hand, the roots of christian hatred of Jews are that as Christ killers, the jews were extremely dangerous , needing constant control and subjugation lest they arose and “conquered” the world.
    Ie A dangerous and present threat never to be ignored.
    On the other to The Muslims, the Jews were a conquered and enslaved minority ( who had NOT murdered their prophet) thanks to their beloved Mohamed.
    Ie a weak race to be expoited in quasi slavery.
    With such mindsets the demonisation of Jews in Christian lands surely would have been far more virulent than in Islamic lands.
    So the Christian prejudices created a propos the jews would have been ones focusing on the supremacist aims of jews and that the jews could never be trusted with their own self determination since chaos would ensue for the rest of the world.
    Whereas the Islamic prejudices would focus on the jews as a failed and enslaved people to be humilaiated and preyed upon.
    So the viewpoint towards Israel by the West would result in the mindset that Jews were not to be trusted with the running of their own country outside their control as such activities would eventually lead to an apocalypse.
    And the viewpoint of the surrounding Islamic states would be that the jews should have been, in their status of conquered slaves, a push over for the invading Arab armies. The sheer realisation that this had not happened would be for them an injury too painful to bear. The Indignation that the land had not been returned to the Ummah, an open festering wound.

  5. chevalier de st george says:

    I suppose i should add to the hastily written post above, that sometimes events occur that initate a chain of consequences such as opinions rituals, mannerisms etc and that even when the sources are long forgotten these opinions, rituals,etc still exist and acquire a lfe of their own, so that when the sourcs are revealed their owners they refuse to accept their validity. Most do not evenr question the origin of these mindsets
    For example:
    I am told that every friday night, many Catholic Spaniards burn candles behind closed curtans as part of a family ritual. they have done this for centuries.
    would they ever accept the revelation that they were once converted Jews? I doubt it very much.
    The ritual of fireworks on Guy fawlkes night. How many are actually interested in the source of their rituals.
    The Ritual of the Christmas tree, etc.

    So when i point to the original accusation of deicide as a source of all western antisemetic prejudice, i realise that most Christians do not still hold these views in earnest, simply that the resultant prejudices have taken on an independant life of their own and are held even by those secular “liberals” who have long discarded their christian roots.
    So the liberal anti israeli views have become veiled from their origins by eradicating the root causes.

    • Karlo says:

      Agree with you, many don’t realize that satan knows the Bible bakdrawcs forwards. I think GOD made it difficult to completely? understand unless a person has the Holy Spirit in order to keep satan from figuring it out completely. But, he does know the general timing as he watches the prophecies coming true b/f our eyes. He knows the parts to play as the scenes unfolds for him he wants to take as many with him as possible perhaps destroy the Jews to stop Jesus from returning.GOD BLESS

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