ISRAEL'S FOREIGN MINISTER, Shimon Peres, says US President George W. Bush's speech will cause "a blood bath" in the Middle East.
A furious Peres declared: "The abyss into which the region will now plunge will be as deep as expectations of this speech were high."
Have you read this story? Anywhere? It should be in every newspaper worldwide, but so far it has apparently only been reported by Tim Palmer, Middle East correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
And Palmer himself didn't see fit to run the explosive Peres quotes as his lede:
Criticism from the Palestinian side might have been expected. What's surprising is that it was echoed by most of Israel's most senior newspaper columnists. Most felt that while Sharon government ministers could cheer that they'd won a victory against Yasser Arafat, there was nothing in the Bush plan that suggested Israelis could look forward to a life without conflict.
The senior writer at the daily Yedioth Aharonot, Nahan Baneya, [phonetic] said of the Bush plan "without a timeframe, it's like a soufflé – maybe it will rise and maybe it won't," saying the speech buried the Oslo accords and commenting that President Bush just wasn't built to handle Middle Eastern despair.
"The speech was unbalanced and would complicate the situation" said Hemi Shalev in the Ma'ariv newspaper, "one would have to be naïve to think it would make the Palestinians change course" and possibly most telling of all of the reactions, Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
During President Bush's speech, he became angry. "He's making a fatal mistake" Mr Peres said. "Making the creation of a Palestinian state dependent on a change in leadership. You can't just brush Yasser Arafat aside with one speech."
Mr Peres became so angry that he turned the television off even before President Bush had finished the long awaited speech and before Mr Peres left the room he said "the abyss into which the region will now plunge will be as deep as expectations of this speech were high. There will be a blood bath".
The BBC reported a different reaction from Peres:
"I'm not disappointed by the speech. I know that one speech cannot bring redemption to the world. But this was an important speech. There are still problems left that need to be dealt with and dealt with seriously."
Where did the wild Peres lines come from? Palmer doesn't cite a source. I sent a note to Israeli blogger Tal G.
asking if he'd seen any quotes in Israel's press similar to those reported by the ABC. His reply: "I've heard nothing like the statement quoted by the ABC, and I think it would have received a lot of attention here if the quote appeared in a regular news source."
Tal forwarded the following from Ha'aretz:
Perhaps Peres expected Clinton Plan II, or maybe a reiteration of James Baker's famous five questions to the Shamir government, the last time Peres was foreign minister in a Likud government. In other words, something for a good fight with the Likud to get some color back into Labor's cheeks.
But then came the speech, which sounded like a medley of Effi Eitam statements. Peres, and the rest of the leaders of the peace camp, were dumbstruck - though not for long. Yesterday, along the seam line, with the fence he dislikes so much behind him, Peres squirmed in front of the microphones, finally emitting, "it was an important speech ... a clear statement ... very sharply worded on the matter of terror."
So, nothing there. The Sydney Morning Herald reported something that amounted to perhaps a tenth of the ABC's story:
Prominent Israeli commentators said Mr Bush's address could be harmful to the long-term interests of the region. Israel's leading newspaper columnist, Nahum Barnea, said the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, viewed Mr Bush's address as "another blow, perhaps a lethal blow to the chances of renewing negotiations".
Writing in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Barnea added: "Bush's call to replace the leadership, to wit Arafat, will achieve the exact opposite: it will force the Palestinian leadership to rally round the besieged Arafat once again."
We still don’t have the turned-off television, or the bloodbath, or an abyss. Tal G.'s translation of Yedioth's account yields only this:
In private conversations [apparently immediately following a Labor Party meeting in Raanana] Peres permitted himself to be more expressive. "Bush's speech does not give any hope for the future, and is bound to complicate the situation even more. The Palestinians didn't receive a diplomatic horizon and thus they will react with more despair and confusion - that means more terror attacks. We cannot involve ourselves in the question of who the Palestinians will choose as their leader", he said.
Tal G. sums up what we know thus far, and adds some Hebrew translation notes:
"It absolutely would be front-page news if it were an 'official' reaction. Actually it would be scandalous here in Israel. But the ABC reporter recounts Peres' initial reaction that supposedly took place in private, and it's an interesting coincidence that the two points made in the ABC quote are the same ones that are in Yedioth.
"So either the ABC has a very well-placed source, or else took Peres' privately expressed opinions and 'amplified' them.
"The language part is tough because translation is involved. Peres is a wimpy guy and in particular uses soft and wimpy language, but Hebrew can be a harsh language. But here goes:
"'Fatal mistake' [Ta'ut Katlanit] sounds too literal in Hebrew. 'Basic mistake' [Ta'ut Yesodit] would be more likely. 'You can't just brush Yasser Arafat aside with one speech' sounds suspicious because the Israeli gov't [of which Peres is part] has been trying to brush Arafat aside for months.
"'Abyss' doesn't really translate - since the sentence is a metaphor that requires the notion of 'depth'. The more obvious word would be 'chaos' [bardak, balagan]. The closest word would be 'Bor' which just means 'pit' but the sentence would sound funny. 'Blood bath' could only be the harsh 'tevach' [butchery].
"So it's unlikely that the quote is a faithful translation of anything Peres said."
Reader David A. alerted me to the ABC's story. He and I, and Tal G., await clarification from the ABC.
UPDATE: Seems the source was Yedioth. From today's Independent:
On the other side of the Israeli spectrum, left-wing politicians and commentators warned against such complacency. Yediot Aharonot quoted Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, predicting privately: "A bloodbath can be expected."
And via Israeli blogger Imshin:
On Monday he was bitterly saying that Bush was "making a fatal mistake" and that "the area will fall into an abyss as large as the expectations of the speech". Yesterday, he was already explaining that this was a "great" speech."
So Palmer seems in the right, although his report didn't provide a source, and didn't indicate the person to whom Peres spoke (neither, apparently, does Yedioth; it's possible that Palmer was with Peres during the speech, although this, too, is not indicated). Nor did he provide any public statements from Peres in which he recanted his private view. Some questions remain; we may be dealing with translation issues here, or a Chinese-whispers problem of exaggeration. Is Yedioth considered a reliable source? And it's curious that nobody has challenged Peres on the earlier, "private" quotes while he's been providing his more positive public quotes.
UPDATE. Via AFP, we have a source:
Veteran Yediot Aharonot journalist Shimon Shiffer watched the Foreign Minister viewing the Bush speech on television and wrote:
"Shimon Peres's face became more and more weary and angry the longer Bush went on with his speech. 'He is making a fatal mistake', remarked Peres. 'Making the creation of a Palestinian state dependent on a change in the Palestinian leadership is a fatal mistake', he repeated again and again. 'Arafat has led the Palestinians for 35 years, kept their head above the water in the international arena. No, no, you can't just brush him aside with one speech.
"Peres did not watch the speech to the very end. He got up, turned off the TV and left the room, saying before he left: 'The abyss into which the region will plunge will be as deep as the expectations from this speech were high. There will be a bloodbath'."
I wish to apologise to Tim Palmer for any inference that the quotes attributed to Shimon Peres in the above article were concocted or invented, and to acknowledge that his report as originally submitted to the ABC was accurate and reliable.