Arafat poisoned: Israeli journalist

Danny Rubinstein, longtime journalist and Palestinian affairs analyst for the respected Israeli daily Ha’aretz, believes that Arafat was poisoned, but felt proscribed from writing about his conclusions in Ha’aretz. Rubinstein explained why in an interview to Keshev, The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel:

Keshev: So from your point of view, is the security/political establishment’s narrative compatible with the media’s narrative? Has the media been able to present its own independent premise?

DR: No. In most cases, after all is said and done, the media follows the establishment. You mentioned the Arafat example. In my personal estimation, based on several findings and testimonies, we poisoned Arafat. Writing that today seems like an exercise in futility: ‘those Arabs, with their imagination, and their conspiracy theories, etc.’. It is so opposed to our narrative and so identified with theirs, that I can’t put that in. I think that’s true for today’s media in general: it’s careful not to target sacred cows. In the end, all the systems adopt an approach held by part or most of the establishment.

Rubinstein discusses a wide range of issues on Israel/Palestine coverage:

Rubinstein: in my estimation, Israel poisoned Arafat

Danny Rubinstein
By: Keshev (interview with Danny Rubinstein)
January 2006

Danny Rubinstein, born in Jerusalem and a graduate of The Hebrew University, has been working as a journalist since 1967, first for Davar, then for Ha’aretz. He teaches communications at The Hebrew University and at Sapir Academic College.

Keshev: Hello, Danny Rubinstein. We wanted to begin this interview with a personal question: What made you decide to be journalist, and to cover Palestinian society?

Danny Rubinstein: It all began by chance. At university, I studied sociology, Middle East and Arabic as well, then went on for my Master`s in sociology. And then, in 1967, the war broke out. When I came back from the war, I began writing for Davar [newspaper]. At that time the Palestinian issue was not considered a field of coverage in its own right. The issue was covered primarily as a geographical subject, and was thought to be temporary. Then, unexpectedly, they needed someone who knew Arabic, and I liked the writing, because it gives you the illusion of being free.

Keshev: Why `illusion`?

DR: Because after all, a journalist is subject to many bosses, just like any clerk. But you have the material, and I thought people would judge me for what I write. I couldn`t adapt to work in an office, to fighting for respect and prestige, and I thought – I was very naןve – that this was the most important thing. That`s how I got into journalism. The media of those days was completely different from today`s media. It was much more loyal. There was only one paper whose coverage was unbiased: Ha`olam Ha`zeh. There was no investigative reporting. I worked at Davar, which had to be super-loyal, because it was the Histradrut [Labor Federation] mouthpiece.

Keshev: Reporting from the Territories, how did you handle the paper`s allegiances?

DR: Very quickly Mapai [Israel Worker`s Party], as well as the paper`s editorial staff, began to split up into `hawks` and `doves`. We conformed with Yigal Alon`s hard line, which was the Labor Party`s dominant line. We didn`t really care what the Arabs said or did. This was also related to the trauma of `67, to the feeling that we could face annihilation. The Arabs were being compared to Hitler. So why should we take them into consideration?

Keshev: Were any of your reports changed, or left unpublished?

DR: Yes. They did allow reporting of humanitarian cases. But they didn`t like the word `Palestine`, for example. Whenever I wrote `the Palestinian mayor`, they would change that to `the Arab mayor`. Also, this was when the first attacks began. They were very `anemic` compared with today`s attacks. A dummy charge, a grenade somewhere, almost no casualties. But they made a huge impression, because suddenly people began to understand that there could be the possibility of resistance. Of course, it was called `terror`. They did not perceive it, like today, as `they don`t want us here`.

Keshev: At what stage did you realize that, for you, journalism was a career, and when did you begin to shape your journalistic perceptions about coverage of `the other side`?

DR: Slowly, I began to understand that there is no big difference between `news` and `views`. Writing a report equals expressing your opinion. If you`re writing, as I did in the beginning, `The shabab rioted at Rachel`s Tomb`, rather than `Young people demonstrated at Rachel`s Tomb`, you`re stating your position. When I understood the difference, I began to be very careful, choosing between passive and active voices, between `was shot` and `found his death`, `was killed` and `was murdered`. But that took me a very long time, two, three years.

Keshev: In this context, how do you view the media`s role in covering the `other side`?

DR: The coverage, the media, are part of society, just like the courts. If the Court had refrained from intervening in house demolitions, or settlement building, we could at least say that these were decisions by the state that never received legal/moral approval. The same is true for the media: the media gave its approval for seizing the territories, for settling there, for confiscating. It provided the justifications for these actions, which in retrospect I see wrong, certainly immoral. Israeli society in its entirety, including us, stood humbled before Gush Emunim`s people. We nearly bowed down before their devotion, their idealism and self-sacrifice. The only one who spoke of them differently was Yeshiyahu Leibovich. In one of his lectures, that I will never forget, Leibovich said that the biggest idealists of this century were the SS agents, who, by force of their devotion to Hitler and to the Nazi philosophy, dominated almost the whole world. That hit me like lightning. But Leibovich was ostracized. The media collaborated with the ugliest aspects of the establishment.

Keshev: Has that changed?

DR: The big change in mood did not happen until the first intifada, in 1987. Until then, it was believed that there would be some kind of arrangement east of the Jordan, or, as Dayan believed, that we would give them autonomy and they would be satisfied. Only in 1987, 1988, after the big settlement campaign of 1980-1981, did the public begin to understand that we could not stay there forever. This shift was expressed in the media as well. Suddenly, the media began to highlight the suffering, the Palestinians` nationalist sentiments, and mine and others` writing was taken seriously. Suddenly people said, there`s a problem here, we can`t stay in the Territories.

Keshev: And ever since, the media has changed.

DR: No doubt. For me, the most dramatic development had to do with the attempt to erase the existence of the Palestinian people, or that of the PLO, expressed in the outlawing of interviewing or making contact with members of the PLO, which seems alarming today. It was a reaction to the recognition of the Palestinian problem. Afterwards, when the Palestinian Authority was created, I explicitly wrote less and less about their plight. Since the Oslo Accords, I saw the Palestinian administration as responsible for taking care of these things. In one of my conversations with Arafat [for the writing of his biography, `Arafat`, among other things – Keshev], I said to him, `They closed the checkpoint? You tell them you are stopping negotiations with Israel. It`s your duty, the duty of your journalists, your institutions, to stand up for your rights and to fight for every last detail.` But Arafat preferred to give his people VIP cards, because that was his governing style.

The problem today is different. The media has many fewer political allegiances, but is not taken so seriously. The attitude is: so what if they stole a little from an Arab, beat an Arab up a little? They come in and blow us up, and then they expect that we respect their property? In this regard, the reports have become less and less relevant. You`re troubled, it`s difficult writing about what they deserve, when a murderer, a suicide bomber, does what he does.

Keshev: You mentioned Arafat. Keshev published a report on the Israeli media`s coverage of Arafat. How do you view the Israeli media`s treatment of him?

DR: Both during his lifetime and after his death, Arafat has been regarded as the devil. I once wrote that the problem is that when he was alive, he was called a terrorist. Today Abu Mazen is called weak. In either case, there is no one to talk with. But what is interesting is that they do not want to talk. Clearly, talking means making concessions. Otherwise, what is there to talk about? About annexing territory? Building settlements? You have to talk about making concessions.

Keshev: Clearly, there are political interests. But what is the media`s role?

DR: Overall, in these aspects the media serves the establishment almost entirely. Today, I am concerned that the massive campaign portraying Abu Mazen as weak has a purpose. When you write something that coincides with the administration`s position, it immediately gains new momentum, like the portrayal of Arafat as a terrorist. It`s hard to say how this trend began. Part of it is the quality of the Israeli intelligence agencies. At one time I was a kind of source, providing information about what happens there. Today, there has been a huge change in the balance of powers between journalists and the Israeli intelligence agencies. The Israeli intelligence system that deals with the territories employs thousands of people. Electronic means enable them to hear, see and bomb. How can I, by talking with someone and reading the papers, compete with these people?

Keshev: But we have also seen disagreement and contradictory theories within the security establishment.

DR: Correct. I believe they are drowning in a sea of information that is difficult to manage, that`s true. And that`s why my ability to make judgments is still valid.

Keshev: What about the structural issue – the journalist`s role and interests vs. those of the military man, the military perspective vs. a more civilian perspective – in your view, are they on the same level?

DR: In my view, every person, whether intelligence agent, soldier or journalist – must first of all be a decent human being, faithful to the basic values of human dignity. I am less inclined to view it as a function of interests. I have broader considerations on all these issues.

Keshev: Nonetheless, when Chief of Intelligence Ze`ev Farkash estimated for the government that `Arafat will either live or die`, the ministers were astonished by this lack of knowledge. Until then, in all of the years of the second intifada, government ministers and the media never publicly doubted the capabilities of Israeli Intelligence. Amos Gilad`s approach, which maintained that we know that Arafat planned everything, controlled everything and was responsible for all the events, predominated.

DR: Correct. And the media collaborated with that.

Keshev: So from your point of view, is the security/political establishment`s narrative compatible with the media`s narrative? Has the media been able to present its own independent premise?

DR: No. In most cases, after all is said and done, the media follows the establishment. You mentioned the Arafat example. In my personal estimation, based on several findings and testimonies, we poisoned Arafat. Writing that today seems like an exercise in futility: `those Arabs, with their imagination, and their conspiracy theories, etc.`. It is so opposed to our narrative and so identified with theirs, that I can`t put that in. I think that`s true for today`s media in general: it`s careful not to target sacred cows. In the end, all the systems adopt an approach held by part or most of the establishment.

Keshev: What you`ve said raises an internal complexity: on the one hand, you have strong professional connections, and perhaps also personal ones, to Palestinian society, and on the other hand, you seem to come from the heart of Israeli society. How do you reconcile these two sides?

DR: I grew up in what was known as Working Israel, in a very Zionistic environment. And now the post-Zionist era is upon us, and you say, something has to be changed. The state of Israel exists, and needs to be a normal state. We have to start rethinking the Law of Return, the Citizenship Law… these are things that are hard for me to grasp. But they are beginning to trickle into me, from a journalistic standpoint as well. Maybe this is not just the beginning, these things have already become quite established. Even Zionism has its boundaries. The Law of Return needs to be restructured, because the Arabs have rights in this land too.

Keshev: We`ve talked a lot about the Israeli media. What can you tell us about the Palestinian media`s coverage of Israel?

DR: Their allegiance to the establishment is ten times greater than ours in their reports. That`s not all- they know that the primary struggle between us and them is not military but political, with the media as the primary battleground. They cannot allow themselves to pass self-criticism, or to justify us, and they will be very wary of expressing sympathy, in reports on the Park Hotel, for example. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon of translations, that I am discovering now. They translate us, almost pathologically. Tens of articles a day. This surprised and fascinated me, especially since we do no such translating at all. In Israel, if we run one article a year by a Palestinian, people say, `Why are you giving him a forum?` while the Palestinians give twenty a day. I am investigating this phenomenon. Usually, Palestinians know us much better than we know them. They are very curious to know why they lag behind us. Why is their average income per capita $1,000 and ours $17,000? They also translate us a lot in Egypt, as well as in the entire Arab world. That is, out of curiosity. Therefore they are sometimes taken in by irrational things. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example. It gives them some kind of explanation why we are doing well and they`re not. We are not that curious about them. When I ask my students, `Why don`t we translate them?` they say, `Why do we need to hear those idiots?` or `What can we learn from them? Then we`ll be like them.`

We don`t understand them because we don`t understand their values. Their society behaves differently than ours. They`re not so concerned about the rights of the individual, similar to the ultra-Orthodox Jews. In these societies, there is a kind of social pact, that sometimes appeals to me: you hand your individual rights over to the sheikh or the rabbi, your family or hamullah, in exchange for security, refuge from loneliness and helplessness –the ills of the Western world. Among the Palestinians there are no homeless people, no nursing homes. When I see this I envy them a great deal. We can`t understand this; it astounds us. I can`t understand how they run the family, the housekeeping, what the status of women is like. But now I do know what things I don`t understand. There are things you can never understand.

Keshev: In view of all this, how do you see the role of Keshev in locating problematic patterns in coverage of the conflict? What advice can you give us?

DR: As for text analysis, the content vs. the headlines and so on, the fact that everyone sees only the headline, that`s clear. Whatever is written in small print, almost no one sees. A huge proportion of people walk down the street and only see the headline, they don’t even buy the paper. Today, it`s considered `awkward` to write a positive headline about Arabs. The perception of `they`re there, we`re here`, separation and disengagement, is very popular. So the paper`s editor puts in a negative headline on Abu Mazen, knowing it`s incorrect. He wants to sell the paper. Over time, to make the journalist happy, they put the truth in too, so they can say, `we are faithful to the truth too`. There are consistent reporting patterns that have corrupted the language. For example, they always talk about `Arab` and `village`. You never hear about `the villagers of Kfar Vitkin` [a Jewish Israeli village – Keshev], or about `respected` or `educated` people, as the Arab leaders and intellectuals are referred to by the Israeli media. Not long ago I witnessed the uprooting of a large orchard near Beit Hanoun. Afterwards I heard the IDF Spokesperson report that `the IDF cleared away vegetation that served as a hiding place for terrorists`. `Cleared away vegetation`? You might think they had placed a bunch of trees to conceal terrorists. Simply a corruption of the language. A corruption of consciousness.

Keshev: We started out with your start in journalism. To come full circle: what advice would you give journalists who are just starting out?

DR: First, know the language. Without the language you are totally disabled. Second, I would stress broad values. I would say to a journalist, you don`t need a license to be a journalist. You need a license to drive people around. Anyone who writes something beautiful, and good as well, is doing journalism. But, no less important: to be a journalist, you have to be a decent human being.

Keshev: Thank you very much.

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    1. No idea
      I don’t know any more about what Rubinstein is referring to. But I consider it newsworthy that a respected Israeli journalist would come to such a conclusion, and it’s interesting that he felt he couldn’t print it. When the rumors first surfaced of Arafat being poisoned, I considered them unlikely. Why would Israel kill him? They had him completely isolated, and the Palestinians couldn’t possibly make any headway w/him alive. Then again, Sharon et al really hated the guy and threatened him w/exile or death often enough. And the Mossad did poison Khaled Mishal, the Hamas politboro leader, in Jordan in ’97. I remember reading in the Israeli press that it wasn’t the result of a well-thought out plan, but done off-the-cuff as a target of opportunity. The operation was botched, the Mossad agents were caught, and Israel had to provide the antidote and free Sheik Yassin before its agents were set free.

      Read what Steve Erlanger told NPR about the medical findings, including that poisoning was highly unlikely, but could not be ruled out completely:

      1. More on Sharon and Arafat

        In the current round of terror, which brought Hamas to the fore, Sharon succeeded in isolating the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and bringing his political path to an end. This is not to imply that Arafat was physically eliminated by Israel, as many Arabs claim. The prime minister maneuvered Arafat into detention in the Muqata until the PA chairman became ill and died. Sharon tried to eliminate Arafat physically in the Lebanon War, but then, needless to say, he failed.

        On one occasion Sharon wanted to bring down Arafat’s plane, without having received the authorization of Menachem Begin, who was prime minister at the time. The suggestion was not put into action because of the doubts raised by an IDF officer. On another occasion a serious mistake was averted after an Israel intelligence source determined that Arafat was about to fly from Greece with some fighters who had been wounded in the war in Lebanon, had recovered and were scheduled to return to the Middle East. The commander of the air force at the time, David Ivry, demanded that the information be checked again thoroughly. It turned out that the Arafat referred to in the intelligence report was Fathi, Yasser’s brother, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent. Ivry’s insistence prevented a grave international incident.