Israel continues to scramble in the fallout from Bob Simon’s bombshell story on the plight of Palestinian Christians. The back story on the Israeli attempts to kill the story are starting to come out, and they go right to the top.
The attempts by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to halt the broadcast of a “60 Minutes” investigative report on the Christian community in Israel and the West Bank were carried out after a series of consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political adviser Ron Dermer.
It is unclear whether Netanyahu or Dermer were the ones who instructed or suggested that Oren directly address the president of CBS in an attempt to prevent the broadcast, but the two were fully informed on the affair almost since its start.
Part of the preemptive response to the story was the Wall Street Journal op-ed that Oren wrote touting Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Christians. Again Haaretz:
The result of the consultations that Oren carried out with Netanyahu, Dermer, and other officials in the Foreign Ministry, was an op-ed that he published shortly afterward in the Wall Street Journal, in which he stressed that while Christians are victims of persecution throughout the Arab world, the Christian community in Israel is actually growing.
In parallel to the op-ed, Oren gave several interviews to Christian media in the U.S. and Netanyahu spoke before the Evangelical organization “Christians for Israel” that took place in Jerusalem in March.
And as can expected, the campaign to pressure CBS only seemed to backfire:
Nonetheless, the attempt to thwart the broadcast of the report has brought up the issue of Israel’s treatment of its Christian community all the more forcefully. A source in the Foreign Ministry even said that on some level, the preemptive campaign against the report just intensified the resolve of the “60 Minutes” reporters to air it.
“We awakened the dead – instead of stifling the subject we just increased interest in it,” the source said.
The Forward also adds detail to the Israeli campaign to kill the story, including that it was originally supposed to run at Christmas last year:
An account provided to the Forward by an Israeli official involved in the events confirmed that controversy ran throughout the entire year of preparation. Israelis first heard of Simon’s intent to produce a story on Palestinian Christians more than six months ago. For Israel, a damning story about its treatment of Christians in the Holy Land could dampen relations with Christians across the world and complicate Israeli public diplomacy efforts aimed at portraying the Jewish State as the only heaven of religious freedom in the Middle East.
An official discussing the issue likened the danger of such a report to a “strategic terror attack” against Israeli diplomacy.
The story was scheduled to air on the weekend of Christmas, but the Israeli embassy in Washington stepped in toward the end of November and contacted “60 Minutes,” demanding to insert an Israeli reaction. After a back-and-forth involving the program’s executive producer, an interview was set with Oren. The 80-minute long exchange, taped in New York, was described by Israeli officials as tense. In one part that made it to the report’s final version, Simon asked Oren point blank for the reason he tried to go over his head and ask CBS top executives to intervene before the story aired. “It seemed to me outrageous,” Oren replied, explaining that at a time when Christians are persecuted in Arab countries, it would be odd to focus on Israel. “And it was a reason to call the president — chairman of CBS News?” Simon asked. “I’m the ambassador of the State of Israel, I do that very, very infrequently,” Oren said in response. When Simon stated he had never seen such conduct in all his years of working as a journalist, the Israeli diplomat paused for a second and then replied: “Well, there’s a first time for everything, Bob.”
In parts of the interview that were not broadcast, Simon, according to a recording of the interview held by the Israeli embassy, asked Oren if Palestinian Christians were involved in terror, a question to which Oren did not have an immediate answer. Simon explained that only one Christian Palestinian was among the terrorists released recently in the Shalit deal.
Israelis, however, are pleased with the bottom line. “It could have been much worse,” said an Israeli official who noted that Oren’s intervention succeeded in getting Israel’s point of view into the story and in postponing it from sensitive broadcast dates during Christmas and Easter.