Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The ABC's anti-Netanyahu script on Iran speech

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The ABC used to promote itself with the tagline "it's your ABC".

But as an ABC consumer who wanted to know exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to the US Congress contained and to hear analysis from experts who weren't automatically going to debunk the speech, it isn't my ABC.

There were approximately ten reports on TV and radio in the lead up to and after the speech which, on balance, amounted to a relentlessly negative, one-sided, flawed portrayal of the speech, and, in more than one instance, made claims that were just plain wrong.

At the core of the reports were several messages repeated over and over: Netanyahu was opposed to "any deal" with Iran, Netanyahu did not present an alternative vision to the current deal being negotiated (which is the primary White House talking point on the speech) and the whole exercise was merely cynical electioneering that pointlessly threatened the Israeli-US relationship.

Hours after the speech was delivered ABC Radio National "Breakfast" host Fran Kelly introduced a report on the topic saying "Netanyahu has further inflamed tensions in addressing the US Congress in Washington and warning any deal with Iran would threaten Israel's survival".

He didn't warn against "any deal"! He actually said, "Now we're being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That's just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn't leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time." He made similar statements about seeking a "better deal" at least half a dozen times in the speech.

Kelly's only guest was Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington DC, a pro-Iranian lobby group. His attitude could be summed up by his statement that "I don't think there is a large audience in Washington DC receptive to the Israeli prime minister's message." Really? That's why demand for tickets was red hot and even though 60 Democrats boycotted the speech (a figure repeated consistently in ABC stories) more than 75 per cent actually attended, as did almost all Republicans, meaning nearly 90% of the two houses of the US Congress.

Kelly herself sniggered when Marashi said it wasn't important how many standing ovations Netanyahu received in the US Congress because "he does not get that sort of reception in Israel." Actually Mr. Netanyahu's popularity in Israel - where he remains the frontrunner to win the next election - is not terribly relevant because there is little disagreement there with his overall stance on Iran (though there is considerable disagreement with the tactical decision to accept the invitation to address the US Congress).

Likewise, on ABC Radio "World Today", host Eleanor Hall introduced a report from North America correspondent Lisa Millar claiming that Netanyahu warned "against any nuclear deal with Iran."

Millar's report included four critical views of Netanyahu all echoing the claim that his speech was empty rhetoric. So we had President Obama saying, "the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives". House speaker Nancy Pelosi's response that "we don't need any lectures."

According to Millar, "Democrat Peter Welch from Vermont was another disappointed attendee."

While former US ambassador Martin Indyk - a well-known and trenchant Netanyahu critic - was quoted as saying that Netanyahu "didn't answer any of those questions" when commenting on the idea of not accepting the current proposed deal.

Only one brief pro-Netanyahu voice was heard, that of the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Ed Royce, but even he was not quoted about Netanyahu's speech as such, saying merely "Our sanctions bill which passed 400 to 20, which was bipartisan, was held over in the Senate because the President of the United States said, no, do not allow that to come up."

That hardly amounted to any reasoned or informative analysis of the speech itself.

Earlier that day, on "AM", Michael Brissenden's introduction at least offered some accuracy, rare in ABC coverage, about Netanyahu's actual stance, stating that "Netanyahu has warned that a proposed deal with Iran would be a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare."

Lisa Millar's accompanying report was also more relevant on the speech's content, noting that Netanyahu had said the "current proposal is the worst option" that would put at risk "not just...Israel but the entire world if Iran is allowed to keep parts of its nuclear infrastructure."

That night, on ABC TV's "7.30", host Leigh Sales intoned that Netanyahu "argue[d] strenuously against President Barack Obama's plans to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran."

Again, there was the suggestion from Obama that "as far as I can tell, there was nothing new", two other anti-Netanyahu views and no voices from a Republican lawmaker or anyone else to argue that maybe Netanyahu had something of value to add to the debate.

Even more egregious was Ben Knight's highly selective editorialising on the underlying issues between Obama and Netanyahu dating back to 2009, claiming:

The hope and change President had big plans for a final peace deal in the Middle East, but came up against an Israeli government that was lurching to the right. And there was distrust on both sides. The White House was frustrated at Israeli settlement building, but Israelis were worried about the new president and their country's security, especially when Barack Obama backed down on his threat to bomb Syria over chemical weapons. As Israelis in Jerusalem said to me at the time, "That's it, we're on our own."

Ignoring Netanyahu's speech accepting a two-state solution at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, implementation of a ten-month freeze on building dwellings within settlements on the West Bank in an attempt to meet Obama half way and releasing Palestinian terrorists in 2013 for peace talks, and the fact that the 2009 government contained the centre-left Labor party painted a simplistic picture of an Israeli government "lurching to the right" which was solely responsible for the failure of a peace deal to be signed.

Later that night on ABC News Radio host Tracey Holmes' interview with left-wing Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf was entirely focused on the electoral impact in Israel, asking him "it's not new for world leaders to use security and fear as a way of galvanising votes, is it?"

He responded that some compared it to Netanyahu putting on the Oscars, whilst his opponents can only stage a high school production, letting him appear the statesman in contrast to the stories about alleged "personal corruption".

Sheizaf also expressed the view that Netanyahu's proposals to tighten sanctions were impractical because they would ensure that there are no negotiations and might even lead to war, forgetting that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.

The day before the speech, on Tuesday March 3, on "AM" Michael Brissenden introduced Lisa Millar's story saying Netanyahu will "warn the US against making deals with Iran" and Millar saying that "he'll tell Congress that negotiating with Iran over its nuclear plans could jeopardise Israel's security." Again, as noted, this is just incorrect - he did not call for an end to negotiations and did not say he was opposed to all efforts at "
making deals with Iran" - he called for efforts to produce a "better deal" than the one on the table.

Later that day, Eleanor Hall on "World Today" introduced an interview with James Jatras, a former adviser to Republican Senate leaders many years ago, who has since served as a lobbyist for Serbian and Ukrainian interests. He claimed that "tomorrow [Netanyahu will] argue against the negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, being led by the US president Barack Obama." Again, wrong, Netanyahu did not oppose negotiations in his speech - only the terms reportedly currently being discussed.

Jatras, who is a frequent guest on the Iranian regime's media mouthpiece Press TV, said that Netanyahu "doesn't like the prospect of an agreement with Iran, assuming there will be an agreement with Iran. He thinks that would present a danger of Iran developing a nuclear weapon and he wants Congress to take some action to put a stop to the negotiations or be prepared to take some other action if the negotiations fail."

Jatras correctly observed that "most of the Republicans and a lot of the Democrats don't like the negotiations" which would be news to how the ABC was pitching it to its audience.

Having said that, although nominally a Republican, Jatras described himself as an "outlier" in taking exception to Netanyahu addressing Congress.

Certainly he gave the impression that he supported the proposed deal, although he was never actually asked!

In another "Breakfast" interview from Fran Kelly (conducted two days before the speech) University of South Florida academic Mohsen Milani claimed Netanyahu was seeking "zero" enrichment as one of his demands - yet he specifically did not do this in his speech as Peter Baker in the New York Times noted in an analysis :

one word was missing from his expansive speech: Zero. It is a word he likes, one he has used before to describe his bottom line when it comes to an acceptable Iranian nuclear program - zero capability whatsoever.
But its absence from Mr. Netanyahu's carefully prepared text was no accident, according to the Israeli camp, and it signaled a shift in position, however slight. Rather than insist that Iran be left with no centrifuges and that it be barred from any enrichment of uranium, as he has in the past, Mr. Netanyahu signaled that he could live with a modest capability, just not one as robust as Mr. Obama would permit.
His position and Mr. Obama's remain miles apart, probably too distant to reconcile, and the Israeli leader's revised view is even further removed from what Iran has demanded. But it did raise the question of whether the retreat from the maximalist posture meant that Mr. Netanyahu could ultimately, if grudgingly, swallow an imperfect deal, even if only after Israeli elections on March 17, and that his strong statements were intended partly to bargain for the best terms possible.


The ABC of course never pointed this out in any of its reporting, despite earlier having aired the claim that Netanyahu would make such a demand in his speech.
 The ABC, under its charter , is obliged not only to be accurate - which it failed to be in claiming Netanyahu opposed "any deal" - but also obliged, on any controversial issue to "Present a diversity of perspectives so that, over time, no significant strand of thought or belief within the community is knowingly excluded or disproportionately represented" and not "misrepresent any perspective." Not only was Netanyahu's own perspective clearly misrepresented, no attempt was made to find someone who supported the view that Netanyahu had made some valid objections to the proposed deal.

It's not like there are not numerous commentators who would fit the bill.

Someone like Dennis Ross, a former adviser to both the Clinton and Obama Administrations, who clearly heard a different speech to the ABC, writing in USA Today:

Accepting the mantra that "no deal is better than a bad deal," Netanyahu offers the alternative of insisting on better terms and increasing the pressure on the Iranians until a more credible agreement is reached. He does not fear the Iranians walking away from the negotiating table because, in his words, they need the deal more than the U.S. and its partners.
While the Obama administration is unlikely to accept his argument that it should simply negotiate better and harder, it should not dismiss the concerns he raises about the emerging deal. Indeed, the administration argument that there is no better alternative than the deal it is negotiating begs the question of whether the prospective agreement is acceptable.
And, here, the administration needs to explain why the deal it is trying to conclude actually will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons for the life-time of the agreement and afterwards. It needs to explain why the combination of the number and quality of centrifuges, their output, and the ship-out from Iran of enriched uranium will, in fact, ensure that the break-out time for the Iranians will not be less than one year. Either this combination adds up or it does not, but there should be an explicit answer to Netanyahu's charge that Iran will be able to break-out much more quickly.

Or perhaps the ABC might have considered including the view that the fault does not lie in Netanyahu but in Obama's worldview, as veteran US analyst Charles Krauthammer wrote:

For six years, Obama has offered the mullahs an extended hand. He has imagined that with Kissingerian brilliance he would turn the Khamenei regime into a de facto U.S. ally in pacifying the Middle East. For his pains, Obama has been rewarded with an Iran that has ramped up its aggressiveness in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, and brazenly defied the world on uranium enrichment.
He did the same with Russia. He offered Vladimir Putin a new detente. "Reset," he called it. Putin responded by decimating his domestic opposition, unleashing a vicious anti-American propaganda campaign, ravaging Ukraine and shaking the post-Cold War European order to its foundations.
Like the Bourbons, however, Obama learns nothing.He persists in believing that Iran's radical Islamist regime can be turned by sweet reason and fine parchment into a force for stability. It's akin to his refusal to face the true nature of the Islamic State, Iran's Sunni counterpart. He simply can't believe that such people actually believe what they say.
That's what made Netanyahu's critique of the U.S.-Iran deal so powerful. Especially his dissection of the sunset clause. In about 10 years, the deal expires. Sanctions are lifted and Iran is permitted unlimited uranium enrichment with an unlimited number of centrifuges of unlimited sophistication. As the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens points out, we don't even allow that for democratic South Korea.
The prime minister offered a concrete alternative. Sunset? Yes, but only after Iran changes its behavior, giving up its regional aggression and worldwide support for terror.
Netanyahu's veiled suggestion was that such a modification - plus a significant reduction in Iran's current nuclear infrastructure, which the Obama deal leaves intact - could produce a deal that "Israel and its [Arab] neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally."
Obama's petulant response was: "The prime minister didn't offer any viable alternatives." But he just did: conditional sunset, smaller infrastructure. And if the Iranians walk away, then you ratchet up sanctions, as Congress is urging, which, with collapsed oil prices, would render the regime extremely vulnerable.

Or how about Israeli journalists such as Times of Israel editor David Horovitz who noted that, contrary to repeated claims aired on the ABC, Netanyahu did offer an alternative vision:

Although a first response to his speech from an unnamed White House official said that Netanyahu had offered "no concrete alternative" to the deal taking shape, and that his speech was "all rhetoric and no action," and despite Obama's subsequent elaborate defense of the US approach, the prime minister did offer an alternative. He urged the P5+1 to recalibrate, to reconsider, and then to push for a better deal. And "if Iran threatens to walk away from the table - and this often happens in a Persian bazaar - call their bluff," he advised, the wise, wary Middle Easterner lecturing Obama and the other Western naifs. "They'll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do."

Also pointing out Netanyahu's alternative was veteran US commentator Alan Dershowitz.

Moreover, the ABC were so delinquent in its coverage, they failed to consider whether the speech had relevance to other countries in the region which are even more fearful of a nuclear armed Iran. It may not have interested the ABC with its obsessive Israel focus but as Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel wrote:

If America allows Iran to come within striking distance of constructing a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, even Turkey, Azerbaijan and others will begin a profound reassessment of their current reliance on the United States. Some will choose to nestle deeper into the American fold in the hope that the American umbrella would deter overt Iranian aggression. Some will pivot toward Iran, move under its shadow and hope to be protected from the ayatollahs' designs through obeisance. Still others may take the more terrifying route,responding to an Iranian nuclear capability with the development of their own indigenous programs. On Tuesday, Netanyahu may have begun the construction of a fourth option, an Israeli option. Israel, Netanyahu effectively proclaimed, would serve as a strategic counterweight to Iran that the states of the region could depend on. Israel would not negotiate their interests away, because Iran was Israel's mortal enemy. It could not leave the region because, unlike America, it lived there. It had the will - "Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand," Netanyahu said - and could provide the military and political might that could convince regional governments to choose resistance over acquiescence. And, Netanyahu surely hopes, such an ally might make them less inclined to pursue their own nuclear option. It was in this context that Netanyahu gave voice before Congress to the Arab cause. "In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran's aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow," he warned. "Iran's goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world's oil supply," he said.

This reality was also canvassed in an article by Yaroslav Trofimov which was originally in the Wall Street Journal, but republished in today's Australian. But, we found, no mention of this Arab reaction appeared in ABC coverage.

It's as if the ABC decided, in its collective wisdom, to present Netanyahu as the spoiler, to misrepresent what he said, and to repeatedly air the White House's incorrect claim that Netanyahu failed to offer any alternative plan to their own without any other views, though many were available. It was clearly poor journalism, but more than that, it is difficult to see how, collectively, it could possibly meet the ABC's obligations under its Code of Conduct.

Allon Lee

 

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