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About That Imaginary Bibi-Bam Debate

Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, is sometimes quite candid about political prevarication and sometimes he pretty much punts on issues. But today he can barely contain his wrath. The subject of his Four Pinocchio grade (which he says would be higher except for the fact that four is the maximum he can gives) was the Emergency Committee for Israel’s faux “debate” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama.

The imaginary debate between the two men was part of a robo-call ad intended to take the president’s pro-Israel bona fides down a peg, and it cuts and splices actual quotes from the pair about subjects that were not contemporaneously expressed or even necessarily on exactly the same point. So Kessler’s contempt for the ad’s “accuracy” is in a sense justified. But ECI head — and occasional COMMENTARY contributor — Noah Pollack responded to Kessler’s inquiry with what the Post writer reports was a tongue-in-cheek answer, to the effect that he was attempting to track down more “secret” recordings of an imaginary event. That should have made it clear that the ad was, while not satire, clearly not intended to be interpreted as an actual face-to-face event. Though the quotes were taken out of context, it is fair to say that Kessler’s attempt to put them back into context is as misleading as ECI’s juxtapositions.

While the ad is egregious in the liberties it takes, the point it is attempting to illustrate about the contention between the two over the past four years is actually true. The stark disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu on Iran are not inventions of ECI.

Kessler publishes the full text of Obama’s June 23, 2009 statement in which he finally said something about Iran’s violent suppression of dissent after weeks of ominous silence. The complete text does include some language expressing mild outrage about the Islamist regime’s atrocities, but the one line ECI published about “respecting the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and promising not to interfere is actually a better summation of Obama’s policy that the weasel words about how sad it was that they were doing beastly things. The president spent his first year in office futilely attempt to “engage” with Iran’s ayatollahs, and that is the reason the administration failed to speak out against the regime’s murder of dissidents on the streets of Tehran until it was over.

The second Obama quote in the call is one in which Obama acknowledges the differences between Israel and the United States. He was not, as Kessler rightly pointed out, referring at that time to Iran but to the many other issues on which Obama has picked fights with Israel’s government, such as settlements, borders and especially Jerusalem. Using that quote was not, strictly speaking, accurate. But it was also true.

This does open the sponsors of the call to the accusation of the old Dan Rather “fake but accurate” label, which is pretty much the opposite of a badge of honor. Lifting quotes out of context is unconscionable in journalism and hardly fair play even in political advertisements. But to say, as Kessler does, that ECI “twisted the meaning of Obama and Netanyahu’s words” is a point on which the group can easily defend itself. Obama and Netanyahu have clashed on Iran repeatedly — with the latest instance creating more than a few headlines in September — as they have on other issues.

Alas, 30- or 60-second political ads can never be the equal of COMMENTARY essays that require thousands of words. Even if you think ECI should not have been this cavalier with its quote selections, or if you don’t like the concept of an depicting a “debate” even if it was obviously fake, to assert that the substance of the call was a lie is absurd.

In another instance, one suspects that Kessler might have given the ad a lesser number of Pinocchios since the argument the out-of-context quotes were illustrating is a matter of record. We can only surmise that since, as the Post writer tells us, he was subjected to this robo-call in his own home, he allowed his temper to get the best of him.



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