Frontline on Bibi and Barack; a Tale of Two Leaders

Posted by Michael Getler on

Writing for the Baltimore Sun online on Jan. 5, television critic David Zurawik told his readers that “the first you-don’t-want-to-miss program of the new year airs at 9 tonight on PBS.” He was referring to a special two-hour edition of PBS’s flagship investigative series Frontline called “Netanyahu at War,” and Zurawik offered good advice. If you haven’t watched it, you should.

Virtually any program that seeks to probe the U.S.-Israel-Arab relationship is sure to bring comments and criticisms from viewers. And this program was no exception, although the amount of mail I received—about a dozen emails and phone calls—was quite a bit less than I expected. Those who did write were mostly critical, which is not uncommon among those who write to an ombudsman. They made some worthy points, which I will get to, along with responses from Frontline.

But I have to say that from where I sit, I thought this was an excellent and fascinating program, a real public service, a program that explores, in depth, an extraordinary and undeniable difference of opinion, background, culture, personalities and world view between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel on some, although not all, of the central complexities of our time. These are two countries with very strong ties, both frequently on the leading edge of real or would-be conflict in the world, yet with, especially in recent years, very different leaders.

Despite the closeness of the two countries, the recent clashes between Obama and Netanyahu are not the first time, by a long shot, that there have been sharp differences between leaders of these two countries over the last 60 years or so. In 1991, just as one example, bitter differences between then President George H.W. Bush and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir broke out publicly over Bush’s demand that Israel freeze its building of new settlements in the occupied territories before his administration would approve new loan guarantees.

But whatever the past differences, and however close the ties that bind these two countries, the recent clashes between today’s two leaders—especially the joint address to Congress in March by the Israeli leader arguing against the president’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran—make for a powerful and dramatic story and battle with very high stakes. So I, for one, am grateful for this program, which I found illuminating about both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, and equally tough on both of them.

Some Reviews

Here’s the beginning of a review in the Forward, the weekly English edition of the original Yiddish-language Daily Forward that dates back to 1897, and that bills itself as carrying “the news that matters to American Jews”:

“‘Netanyahu at War,’ the Frontline documentary airing on PBS stations Tuesday night, manages to walk a very narrow line with surprising success. Despite the fairly transparent liberal leanings of the filmmakers and most of their on-screen interviewees, the two-hour film presents a reasonably balanced, objective portrayal of the Israeli prime minister and his beliefs. It’s a rarity for American television. If only for that reason, even if you think you know the whole story, it’s worth watching.

“Most significant, the film avoids the tendency of many of Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics to depict him as a cynic devoted solely to maintaining power. Frontline shows Netanyahu as shaped by his historian father’s belief system, a profoundly pessimistic view of Jewish history, along with his late brother Yoni’s heroism and his own sense of duty to the state of Israel. It’s a refreshingly respectful approach to political journalism that’s all too rare these days.”

There were also largely positive reviews in The Denver Post, Variety and Canada’s Globe and Mail. But a detailed and critical blog posting in the Times of Israel says: “Look, there’s no denying these two men are less than bosom buddies, but ‘Frontline’ extracted conflict from a relationship that is more nuanced. The documentary rendered each man as a caricature of vindictive, irrational behavior” and lays out “four examples of how Obama and Netanyahu went out of their way to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship — which ‘Frontline’ ignored or skated over.”

Letters from Viewers

One or two of the emails I received are simply too long to reproduce here and go into historical arguments dating back to 1948 and 1967. What I’ll try to do here is to collect the major specific challenges that viewers mentioned and then provide the Frontline response.

A viewer in Arizona, and one or two others, pointed out that Frontline got a couple of words wrong in spelling out the name of the powerful U.S.-based lobbying group, AIPAC, which stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, not for the American Israel Political Action Committee.

A number of viewers sharply challenged remarks by former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk. This is how one viewer from Amherst, N.Y., put it: “Martin Indyk was permitted to lie by claiming he sat next to Netanyahu at Rabin's funeral, and that Netanyahu's primary focus at that event supposedly was his own political fortunes. Yet photographs of that funeral circulating today make it clear that Indyk was not sitting anywhere near Netanyahu, and therefore could not possibly have overheard anything Netanyahu said.”

That same viewer also wrote: “The documentary opened its discussion of Israel's legitimate war of self-defense in Gaza in 2008-9 by completely failing to reference the cause of the war, to wit, unceasing attacks by Hamas.”

Others also took issue with the role Gaza has played. Another New Yorker wrote: “Two key missing elements in your film are the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza that brought only terror, and the killing of Netanyahu’s brother in a raid against terrorists. These two facts that might have given some perspective to Netanyahu’s mindset.” And another, also from New York, had this to say: “The essence was that the program utterly ignored the 800 pound and 400 pound gorillas in the room — the warrior Ariel Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza with the consequence of the creation of a Hamas terror state on Israel's border, and Iran's unremitting efforts to confront Israel via its Hezbollah terror proxy in Lebanon.”

Finally, other viewers in Ohio and Massachusetts brought up challenges with respect to fulfillment of the Oslo peace process and offers by other Israeli leaders to then PLO leader Yasser Arafat that were rebuffed.

Since the program aired and viewers began to write to me, I’ve passed these on to Frontline for their response. This has involved a couple of exchanges with me and so, like the letters, I’ll try and combine these responses on both specific and general points. Here are the Frontline responses, with an occasional interjection from me.

Frontline Responds

Our two-hour special report “Netanyahu at War” drew wide praise for its fairness and comprehensiveness from many viewers and TV reviewers across the political and ideological spectrum.

Variety said the film “navigated that minefield in a manner that sheds light on both sides of the argument.” [They also included the quote from The Jewish Daily Forward that I mentioned above]. And an Israeli government spokesman wrote us saying that “while we might take issue with a couple of the views,” the film “brought much needed context to this topic,” and “is conducive to a more humane and temperate tenor in a conversation that too often tends to sterile recrimination and vitriol.”

Not surprisingly, however, some viewers also had criticisms that we examined closely, and on the whole seem to reflect the varied and passionate points of view people have on this subject. Some viewers felt the film was “anti-Netanyahu,” and “anti-Israel,” while others said it was too sympathetic to Netanyahu and Israel. A number of viewers wanted more context and claimed certain issues didn’t get enough attention:  Palestinian violence against Israelis; Israeli violence against Palestinians; the years during the Bush presidency when Netanyahu was not prime minister; peace overtures after Oslo; or instances of cooperation and intelligence sharing between Israel and the U.S. Indeed, the list of other interesting and important issues is lengthy, but here again other viewers praised the documentary for fitting so much into two hours of television.

This was a deeply researched film, drawing on 36 on-camera interviews with some of the most prominent insiders and experts, and seven months of reporting. It had a clear focus on Benjamin Netanyahu and two key periods of conflict when he was prime minister: Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s and Barak Obama’s presidency, which coincided with Netanyahu’s return to power.

The Response Continues…

Those with strongly held views often hear and see things through that prism and this is certainly a subject where that happens. We respect the many points of view we heard.  But some of the criticisms are simply wrong, such as the accusations of bias, and others fail to appreciate the specific scope of this one film.

There were, however, comments on two points that prompted us to immediately clarify two details. A number of viewers noted that we had two words wrong in the acronym of the lobbying group, AIPAC. That has been fixed in all versions of the film since the initial broadcast.

We have also revised one scene in the film in which former Ambassador Martin Indyk describes a conversation he had with Netanyahu after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. For some viewers, the original film left the impression that Indyk said the conversation took place at the funeral. To avoid any further confusion, we clarified that moment to reflect what Indyk said in his interview: that this exchange occurred at the Israeli Knesset, where Rabin's body would lie in state the day before the funeral.  For the record, Indyk stands by his comments, and we have published the extended interview on our website, as well as a story about it.

We thank those viewers who brought these issues to our attention.

We’re quite sure that everyone could come up with a wish list of things they would have liked to see in the film. But we do not think that any of the specific omissions cited by these viewers impact the accuracy, fairness or cohesiveness of the film. Rather, it seems these viewers came at their critiques with a particular interest in wanting to prove their case in the bitter argument of right and wrong between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a couple of instances, the letter writers point to things we actually did cover. We’d refer them back to the film, where we did in fact mention the killing of Netanyahu's brother in action and its impact on the main character in our film – Bibi Netanyahu.

(Ombudsman’s Note: The film did say that Yoni Netanyahu died in action but the viewer pointed out that it was in a raid against terrorists; Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine gunmen who had hijacked an Air France jet and were at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1974. Netanyahu was the leader of the Israeli commando force and was the only one of that force to be killed.)

Likewise, while the viewer from Natick, Mass., might have wanted us to argue a case about who failed to implement the Oslo measures, we did show in the film that Netanyahu continued that process.

Frontline about Gaza

Now to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cited in two letters. They apparently hoped we would advance their case that the withdrawal “only brought terror” and “the creation of a Hamas terror state.” But Netanyahu was not prime minister at the time, and while the withdrawal and the aftermath are important, and had an impact on Netanyahu, we did not want to engage in well-known back-and-forth arguments on contentious, complex issues like Gaza.

We did, however, address Gaza as it pertained to the film: we reported that the extremist group, Hamas, had taken control; and we reported on the war there when Obama sent George Mitchell to try to restart the peace process. The war was an important backdrop to the ultimate failure of Mitchell’s mission. And the pictures we used support what Mitchell was saying, and accurately show the situation on the ground – not who was responsible or the larger circumstances around the conflict.

Another comment from one of the same writers complains we didn’t mention the threat to Israel from the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah in Lebanon. We focused on the nuclear threat from Iran and the fact that certain Iranian leaders have denied the Holocaust and seem bent on Israel’s destruction. This reporting, at the key moment when Netanyahu wants to draw up plans to strike Iran, is a reasonable focus for our film. The fighting between Israel and Hezbollah – particularly in 2006 when Netanyahu was not in power - is one of those matters for another film.

One viewer from Ohio took us to task for not mentioning a “generous” offer to Arafat that was rebuffed. We reported on Arafat’s rejection of an offer on the table just after Netanyahu lost re-election in 1999.  Whether the rejected offer we included or the one we didn’t, we were not going to be able to get into the arguments from Israelis and Palestinians about the many offers and counter offers and who rejected what.

Had we taken the advice offered in these complaints and others, we would have had a predictably argumentative film with Israelis and Palestinians and their respective critics and defenders - not the one we are proud to have produced, and aired to much acclaim.

Posted on Jan. 14, 2016 at 3:49 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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