A Mideast Maelstrom of Complaints

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reporting on Israel is the third rail of American journalism. Touch it critically and you excite strong emotions. It was no surprise that the war in Israel and Lebanon brought a volley of visceral, negative e-mail. Writers -- most of them strong supporters of Israel -- reacted especially vehemently to two commentaries, but they also picked at news stories, headlines, a Post Magazine piece on the Israel lobby and KidsPost.

The Post had two skilled war correspondents in the region from the start of the fighting -- Scott Wilson in Israel and Anthony Shadid in Lebanon -- and dispatched more reporters last week. The coverage has been comprehensive and deep and particularly moving when dealing with the uncertainty and fear of the Israeli and Lebanese people.

The editorial pages have run substantial editorials and op-ed pieces. Most of the reader criticism was directed at two commentaries. The first, on July 11, before the war in Lebanon flared, was by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament. His view of the recent strife in Gaza was predictably critical of Israel, a country that Hamas refuses to recognize.

Emily Rose of Fairfax was among the furious letter writers: "No matter how I try to comprehend your decision to give Ismail Haniyeh, and Hamas (the terrorist group he represents), priceless publicity, I just can't fathom why you gave him such a public platform to denigrate Israel . . . Hamas continues to reject Israel's right to exist. Its only agenda is in alignment with the Hitleresque leader of Iran -- to wipe Israel off the map."

A much stronger reaction met Post columnist Richard Cohen's op-ed on Tuesday. He wrote, "The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now."

Stephen J. Morton of New York was among thousands of outraged readers. "The greatest offense" of Cohen's op-ed was "his use of the word 'mistake,' " Morton wrote. "No one doubts that Israel's history is complex, but borders are borders, and either we subscribe to international law, or we don't. . . . I thought the editorial was reprehensible, as was the judgment that allowed it to be printed."

Good editorial pages and commentators enlighten and provoke readers to broaden their thinking. Cohen's and Haniyeh's pieces indeed were provocative. But there were plenty of pro-Israel op-ed pieces, including one by Charles Krauthammer, who urged Israel to invade Lebanon and expel Hezbollah. And Post columnist David Ignatius is a must-read on the Middle East. The Post's editorials have expressed concern that Hamas and Hezbollah not be given legitimacy; that Israel not overplay its military hand; that Syria and Iran's influence be curtailed; and that the United States, its allies and the United Nations should be involved to find a way toward peace.

Some of the news coverage generated broad attacks from readers, among them Stefan Inzelstein, who lives near Miami but does business in this area: "Your coverage of the current situation in Northern Israel and Lebanon is incredibly biased and distorted beyond belief. In fact one could equate your articles for those issued by Hezbollah. You do not even bother to mention that the international community . . . understands very well the nature of this struggle against mindless terrorism."

David Keller of Silver Spring was critical of a front-page headline last Sunday, "Israel Intensifies Assault on Beirut; Hezbollah Sends Rockets Further Beyond Border," and a Monday headline, "Israel Answers Hezbollah Strike; Planes Hammer Lebanon After 8 Die in Haifa." He said, in a voice-mail message, "This leaves people to think that it is Israel that's starting the assault. It is very misleading."

Others complained that The Post was slow on reporting the criticism of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran by several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. But The Post was quicker than others on some angles -- particularly Shadid's piece on July 14 on the future of Hezbollah. Another complained that the Israeli government wasn't asked why it didn't provide bomb shelters in Israeli Arab villages.

Some readers didn't like The Post Magazine piece by Glenn Frankel examining the Israel lobby and felt it was poorly timed. I liked it. Production on the magazine closed June 30, before the war began. One could also say that piece couldn't have been more aptly timed.

Another reader was disturbed that KidsPost didn't label Hezbollah a terrorist group and charged that "a pro-Arab, anti-Semitic terrorist cell" must be to blame. Expect a piece this week explaining the complex issues to children.

There were a few letters from readers critical of Israel. Shervan Sardar of the District wrote: "Where is the integrity in pretending that your editorial section is something other than a public relations service for the Israeli military machine which endorses its crimes, ignores the suffering of Arab people and will not hold it accountable for anything?"

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company