WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- Who won and who lost in the embarrassing story of how the Western media reported the Jenin massacre that wasn't?
Initial reports, especially in Western European outlets, gave credence to the idea that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Palestinian civilians had been killed by Israeli forces launching a retaliatory strike in early April for a series of suicide bombing massacres.
Top-level officials of the Palestinian Authority went on the record as claiming that as many as 3,000 people had been killed. But at the end of the day, the PA revised its own figures for those killed down to 56. Some 23 Israeli troops also lost their lives in fierce fighting.
But the media storm over the "massacre that wasn't" still looks likely to have had lasting political impact.
The Palestinians won, then they lost, but at the end of the day they won again.
They won because it was their narrative, their initial description of events, which initially convinced reporters covering the military clash in that West Bank city in early April that a huge massacre of civilians had taken place there. PA officials now admit that there was no massacre of hundreds, or even thousands, of civilians. But their initial claims about the massacre -- and the widespread belief that it had really happened -- was the story that swept around the world.
The Palestinians succeeded in getting this story across for a number of reasons, discussed in United Press International's series on the media reactions earlier this week. They still enjoyed a deep subliminal sympathy among the media both because of their obvious continued suffering and hardship and because they had indeed suffered the massacre of hundreds of people in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Lebanon 20 years ago.
But the Palestinians also enjoyed a 20-year tradition of credibility among the Western media, American as well as Western European. In 1982, they claimed that a massacre had taken place in Sabra and Shatila at the hands of Lebanese Christian Falangist militia forces and indeed it had. And in the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israeli occupation from 1987 to 1992, their accounts of events to the Western media had been largely restrained and accurate.
Over the 1993-2000 period of the Oslo Peace Process, and especially since the second intifada began in September 2000, the reliability and accuracy of Palestinian Authority claims have steadily deteriorated. But the PA still enjoyed the benefits of the credibility it had built up in previous years and general Western media sympathy, so false claims and denials were still largely accepted. Media outlets that accepted them paid no significant price in embarrassment or loss of credibility themselves.
The exposure of the "massacre myth" in Jenin puts a serious dent in that tradition of credibility. As the UPI series this week documented, major prestigious international media organizations were seriously embarrassed because their reporters uncritically accepted Palestinian claims based on literally negligible evidence. In the interests of self-interest, they may be more cautious the next time.
However, in the long run, the Palestinians may have won anyway. They certainly won in the short term, with waves of ferocious anti-Israeli sentiments that swept Western Europe. They won thorough the wave of anti-Semitic violence, apparently largely from Muslim immigrant youth gangs, that swept Western European nations after Jenin. Nothing like it had been seen in Western Europe since the end of World War II and the end of the Nazi Holocaust in 1945. And the Western European governments and leaders proved extremely reluctant to crack down hard on that violence.
All those developments indicated that although the Jenin massacre never in fact happened, European Union leaders will be more anxious than ever to pressure Israel into more concessions that will likely threaten its security and even continued survival, and that they will remain publicly sympathetic and uncritical toward Palestinian claims.
From Paris and London to Berlin and Brussels, European leaders are likely to fear outbursts of violence from their huge, recent, Muslim immigrant populations far more than angering tiny Israel.
At first, the Israelis lost big over Jenin. Then they surprisingly did a lot better. And at the end of the day they registered more unexpected gains and losses.
They lost big because they suffered an unprecedented wave of public and diplomatic opprobrium around the world. Apart from the United States, they were literally globally isolated. Had it not been for the U.S. veto as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, it is very likely Israel would have been forced to accept already-sweeping concessions that compromised its basic security. It may very well have to accept them anyway.
The Israeli failure first to debunk the massacre myth, even though it had the facts on its side, and then the global condemnation it suffered, were devastating proofs of the utter incompetence and failure of both Israel's national public relations and its global diplomatic operations.
Not allowing media reporters into Jenin during the military struggles there proved to be a major miscalculation. Barred from direct access, international reporters feared the worst. They initially received only apparently credible claims from the Palestinians. By the time they got to Jenin themselves, many of them were strongly predisposed, therefore, to believe what they had already heard.
However, Israel's diplomatic and media relation's incompetence in the international sphere both may continue unabated. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the figure most responsible for shaping and controlling both those activities during his long stints over the past 18 years as prime minister and foreign minister in most Israeli governments, still holds a tight veto grip over them as Israel's current foreign minister. As long as he stays there, Israelis can expect no improvement in either crucial area.
However, unlike many other "big lies" or major myths misreported in modern history, the facts of the "Jenin Massacre Myth" were exposed remarkably quickly, within a single month. As a result, Palestinian media credibility took its biggest hit in decades. And the Western, especially Western European, media outlets most consistently critical of Israel took a hit in credibility too. Those were unexpected gains for the Israelis.
But at the end of the day, the Israelis still look like they'll come out losers. For their diplomatic and public relations operations, as noted above, have repeatedly shown themselves so incompetent that they look unlikely to be able to capitalize on their potential gains in credibility and sympathy following the exposure of the "massacre myth."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision not to launch a new retaliatory strike into Gaza in May marked another gain for the Palestinians as well. Sharon was subjected to intense pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush not to launch such a strike. And Israeli diplomats and other officials said it was not necessary anyway. Israel, they said, could target those responsible for the most recent suicide bombing massacre in the town of Rishon le Ziyyon without having to launch another full-scale incursion on the lines of Jenin and Ramallah.
The fact remains, they did not do it. And the enormous global sympathy and outrage the Palestinians were able to generate and enjoy a month before was clearly a major reason why.
Sharon showed in April that he was prepared to defy the United States when he struck hard at the very centers of PA power on the West Bank. In doing so, he revived a crucial deterrent capability that Israel had lost since foreign Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin threw it away in signing the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords. Sharon's Likud Party rival and challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, now berates him for weakness. But he never dared to do anything like that during the three years he was prime minister.
The global outcry over Ramallah and Jenin does not guarantee that Sharon will not strike at them or other parts of the PA-controlled territories again. But it does raise the bar of provocation about if or when he will do so. That is a major gain for the Palestinians.
In politics and diplomacy, what happened is never as important as perceptions of what happened. The storm over the Jenin "massacre myth" shows that is true, even in situations where the perception itself does not last.