When Michael Oren irked Bob Simon
Was it justified for Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. to contact top CBS officials in a quest to influence a '60 Minutes' report on Israel's Christian community?
Israeli Knesset members and diplomats have a long-term grudge against the CBS flagship program, "60 Minutes", over several critical reports that deal with the issues of Jewish settlements, the City of David and the Stuxnet computer worm. But Suday's segment of the program, dedicated to the exodus of the Palestinian Christians from cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, seemed to bring about record tensions.
In that episode, veteran reporter Bob Simon scolded Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren for his attempt to influence the segment by calling top CBS officials, saying that had never happened to him before a segment was actually broadcasted. "There is always a first time," Oren replied calmly, but throughout the interview he looked visibly annoyed. "I do it as representative of the state of Israel. I do it infrequently," he explained.
Reactions to the segment over the blogosphere varied widely - from praises to Simon that "exposed the way the Israeli government tries to silence everybody" - to complaints about the "biased story." That was basically the Ambassador's claim - that Israel is not to blame for this exodus and that the persecution of Christians in other Middle Eastern countries should be more concerning.
At the Israeli Embassy, the final report was seen as sort of diplomatic victory, and the ambassador's attempt to intervene was presented as a fine example of a pro-active approach to Israeli diplomacy. "The relationship between Israel and the Christian world is our strategic interest and when we received information about this report several months ago and plans for broadcasting without any reaction by Israeli officials, Ambassador Oren did what a diplomat is supposed to do to prevent serious damage to the country he represents," a senior Israeli diplomat told Haaretz.
"What we asked to do is to comment on it, and also recommended they talk to other Christian officials. As far as we know, they didn't talk to them, but the result is still not as bad as it could have been without any Israeli reaction," said the official. "The final result was just a biased report touching on several familiar issues that should be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians. But this had the potential to become akin to a strategic explosion. We worked in close cooperation with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and other government offices. It's an ambassador's responsibility to act vigorously to prevent damage to Israel and its relations with one of the most important communities."
Shrinking Christian population in the Palestinian territories is a long-time and painful fact. Before coming to Washington as a Haaretz correspondent, I used to visit Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, Ramallah, the village of Taybeh and East Jerusalem. Some of the Palestinian specialists were happy to speak in Russian - they received their education in the Soviet Union. Nobody was happy about the security situation, especially during the Intifada years, or the Israeli occupation.
But many of them also had complaints about some of their Muslim neighbors. Some businessmen said they were forced out of business by local thugs. But they requested I keep that part off the record, out of concerned for the security of their families.
There was no big risk complaining about the Israeli occupation. Living in the shade of the security fence certainly feels bad, but as their fellow Christians living in neighboring countries could probably witness - on the record - it might not be the only reason behind the exodus. It might also be interesting to see how many Christians left since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and since Israelis left certain areas.
The Israeli government (like pretty much any government) does make stupid decisions from time to time (such as proclaiming Gunter Grass persona non grata). But in this case, given the sensitivity of the issue, it cannot be blamed for trying to minimize the damage. Michael Oren probably should have tried to work with the reporter instead of driving him mad by going over his head to complain to his bosses. I am not convinced Oren was the first one to attempt to influence the 60 Minutes report before it was broadcasted - my experience tells me otherwise – for people do tend to try to influence unflattering reports before they are published or broadcasted quite often.