Tom Segev on The Makings of History: Spin Versus Spin Since Adam and Eve

The shock, the disappointment, the insult and anger Israel expressed so alarmed the Americans that they went out of their way to conciliate the Jewish state.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

In May 1989, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government approved a plan to improve Israel's relations with Egypt and other Arab countries. One of the suggestions was that the Palestinians should choose their own representatives to negotiate the creation of autonomy in the territories. This apparently was one of those diplomatic fictions Israel tends to adopt from time to time in the hope of silencing its critics.

Foreign Minister Moshe Arens presented the scheme in Washington, but the Americans saw immediately that it was not a peace plan. At most it could be seen as a "first step," they said with reserved courtesy - despite the fact that Arens claimed that Secretary of State James Baker had wholeheartedly endorsed the plan.

Baker was angry about Arens' comment and when he appeared two days later at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention, he said things the likes of which Israel had never heard from a U.S. secretary of state since the days of John Foster Dulles. Among other things, Baker declared that Israel had to abandon its dream of the so-called "Greater Land of Israel."

Baker's reaction was no more than spin, says former Ambassador Itzhak Oren in the doctoral thesis he completed this year, under the supervision of Prof. Eytan Gilboa and Prof. Shmuel Sandler of Bar-Ilan University's political science department. Oren had belonged to Shamir's advisory team.

Israel responded to Baker's remarks with some spin of its own - and in this case it won, at least from Shamir's point of view: The shock, the disappointment, the insult and anger it expressed so alarmed the Americans that they went out of their way to conciliate the Jewish state. Baker's words were forgotten - and the dream of controlling the Greater Land of Israel continues guiding the country to this very day.

Spin has been accompanying humanity ever since Adam bit the apple and blamed Eve. However, not every bluff constitutes spin and not every instance of spin is a bluff. Oren defines such instances, categorizes them, and distinguishes between and compares them: One incident involves propaganda, and another is psychological warfare; one utterance is a public relations effort aimed at foreign elements, and another is government spokesmanship; one reaction is so-called media spin, while the other is diplomatic spin; one is a spin of reprimand, and another is supportive, caressing. But all of them at base are attempts at media manipulation.

Relations between Israel and the United States are usually conducted within a certain customary diplomatic framework, but the five years Oren examined (1988-1993 ) were full of examples of spin battles that reached their peak in grandiose "media events," such as the Madrid Conference and the signing of the Oslo agreements.

Secretary of State Baker forced Israel to come to the Madrid confab by using spin: "The train has left the station," he said again and again. "Anyone who doesn't want to come doesn't have to come." Everyone knew this was spin and everyone knew that everyone knew, but here as in many other cases spin becomes part of actual reality.

Oren recalls a meeting in Shamir's office, minutes after Baker tried yet again to force Shamir to come to Madrid: The premier raised both his fists, brought them down hard on the arms of his chair and growled: "There's no alternative. We're going!" He took along then-Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who even then stood out as a spin doctor against whom only few could compete; indeed, under his baton the Madrid summit became a festival of spin versus spin.

The "red line" performance Netanyahu gave last month at the United Nations falls under what Oren describes as "boisterous spin," a subcategory of the "warning spin," which is "a manipulative diplomatic message, given bluntly and with a lot of noise." This kind of spin is the opposite of measured, implied and quiet spin, Oren explains. It was the same sort of spin the Americans directed at Israel in 1990 when they said Jerusalem knows the White House phone number and suggested: "Call us when you're ready to talk."

The boisterous brand of spin, the researcher observes, can be characterized thus: "When there is a disagreement as to the perception of political reality, the spin creator twists his remarks in such a way that he declares that what he is saying isn't meant to be a reprimand or to be hostile, but rather is used to open the eyes of the other side, which needs to recognize reality as it is." In other words, Netanyahu was making his speech mostly for the benefit of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Oren completed his thesis before Netanyahu's recent UN address, and this week said he was not sure whether the prime minister's speech had been effective. He said he assumes that like many of the premier's attempts at spin, this one was actually not directed only at Obama, but primarily at the citizens of Israel, who had begun to wonder how Netanyahu intended to deal with the disagreements he has with the president. In the wake of his appearance in New York and a phone conversation with Obama, Netanyahu could claim that the United States now "understands" his position.

Oren writes that a so-called boisterous spin can be harmful, much like in the story of the boy who cried wolf. There is of course reason to assume that the bomb cartoon Netanyahu used in the UN did not make Obama change his position, just as President Dwight Eisenhower did not adopt a more favorable attitude toward communist ideology when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on the speaker's podium at the UN. Khrushchev comes to mind only because he too was a big spin doctor, but also because nearly everything Netanyahu has said about terror had already been said by the Israeli leader in the 1980s - only then he attributed international terror not to Islam but rather to the Soviet Union.

Illuminated parchment from Spain, circa 950-955 CE.Credit: Wikipedia
Forty years of mistaken thinking: former premier Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and former secretary James Baker in Jerusalem, 1991.Credit: AP



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