Grasping at Straws

It's axiomatic in daily journalism that reporters try to get there ahead of the pack. But there are times when this eagerness to score a scoop can backfire.

Witness the Oct. 6 dispatch by Karin Brulliard, the Washington Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently tempering suggestions of a possible strike on Iranian nuclear sites. By itself, the thesis of her article is problematic. While pushing for ever-tougher sanctions against Tehran, Israel has never renounced a military option if sanctions prove inadequate.

But where Brulliard's piece really runs off the rails is where she speculates about Netanyahu's supposed reasons for delaying a possible military strike until mid-2013, well after the U.S. presidential elections. Previously, Brulliard opines, when Netanyahu held open the possibility of hitting Iranian nuclear sites before the elections, he sparked criticism of "interfering in the U.S. election," presumably in favor of Mitt Romney.

But now that a possible Israeli strike has been put on a more distant timetable -- in the spring or summer of next year -- Brulliard trots out a different speculative scenario: Netanyahu "could not afford a public rift with Israel's most important ally and with an American president who [sic] polls suggest is likely to be re-elected."

So Bibi, after first showing a perfect willingness to tangle with Obama over Iran's nukes, now has made a 180-degree turn to defer to the White House because all the signs point to Obama winning a second term. Except that the polls actually showed an Obama lead when Bibi threatened a rift with him, whereas now they show Romney gaining strength following his victory in the first presidential debate. After that debate, is it really a given that Obama has nailed down a second term?

But never mind. When a reporter wants to gin up a dubious thesis, anything goes. In this instance, there actually hasn't been the kind of turnaround of Netanyahu's threat of a military strike that is suggested by Brulliard's article. From the start, the Israeli leader adopted a twofold strategy -- maximum use of sanctions against Iran coupled with a military threat. That was the case then, and that is the case now.

Brulliard eventually admits as much -- but not until the 10th paragraph, which demolishes the headline and the lead about Netanyahu "shifting" his rhetoric and "easing" talk of a military strike.

Go figure. Why would a reporter produce such a muddled piece? Well, to engage in speculation by this reader, the Washington Post's Jerusalem correspondents have a long history of grasping at any straws to portray Netanyahu -- and Israel, for that matter -- in a negative light. And sometimes reaching beyond actual realities.

Brulliard seems to have succumbed to this tendency. In the same article, writing about a falling out between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ahead of expected Israeli elections early next year, she writes that Bibi heads the "hawkish" Likud party, while Barak heads the small "centrist" Independence Party.

"Hawkish" is a pejorative grade; "centrist" is a positive mark. So it's clear that in the eyes of the Post, Bibi and the Likud aren't quite kosher. Except that tagging the Likud "hawkish" runs up against contradictions in the historical record. After all, it was Menachem Begin, then the head of the Likud, who signed the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. And it was Begin the Likudnik who, in order to nail down the peace treaty, turned over the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. A Likud accomplishment that doesn't quite fit Brulliard's "hawkish" adjective, it would seem.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington Bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers