"I have been in Israel for two years and have never spoken to someone with views like yours." So exclaimed a senior Western diplomat at the end of a pleasant lunch meeting with me on Wednesday afternoon.
Surprised, I responded, "That's strange. If the results of the last election and recent polling data are any indication of national sentiment, it would seem that many of my views are shared by the majority of Israelis."
Thinking about the conversation later in the day, it occurred to me that the diplomat's surprise upon hearing me explain my views about the road map, about Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), about the need to fight Palestinian terrorism, not reward it was indicative of a larger phenomenon.
Quite simply, it would appear that with respect to this region, there is an institutional unwillingness on the part of Western governments and international media organizations to process information that contradicts their ideological preferences. Because of this, missions have been compromised and bad policies have been adopted.
Let's take an example from afar. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his sons have disappeared. Also missing is Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
Here lies a troubling operational failure. It represents a significant threat to US national security and indeed to global security. Undoubtedly, the failure is due to the difficulty of obtaining good intelligence in a society as closed as Iraq was under Saddam.
Still, it has been reported that the US failed for years to accept vital intelligence reports from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), because CIA and State Department officials did not share the political aspirations of INC president Ahmed Chalabi.
For instance, the INC told the CIA in 1993 that a planned coup of Iraqi generals against Saddam Hussein had been exposed to the Iraqi leader. George Tenet, who was then the CIA's point man for the coup, rejected the information and even questioned Chalabi's intentions in reporting it.
When in fact the coup attempt was foiled, Iraqi intelligence officers jeered the CIA by announcing the coup's failure on a CIA radio held by one of the plotters.
There is no way of knowing whether the INC, if properly used by US intelligence gathering organizations, could have aided in preventing Saddam's escape and the disappearance of his WMD arsenal. What is clear is that it was a mistake for the US not to consider factual information simply because of political differences with its source particularly in light of the difficulty of operating in a closed society like Iraq.
In Israel, of course, it would seem that gathering information about what is going on is a simple task. Israelis can speak to anyone without fear. In fact, it would seem that the biggest problem for foreigners is not getting Israelis to speak to them, but getting Israelis to leave them alone.
The same is not true in the Palestinian Authority.
Over the years, credible Palestinian journalists have been arrested and held in jail for months for writing articles critical of the PA. Palestinian civilians suspected of maintaining ties with Israelis are murdered for collaborating.
In a disturbing op-ed in The New York Times last month, Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, described in vivid detail how for more than a decade CNN did not report the truth about Saddam Hussein's brutality, because the network feared that doing so would endanger the lives of CNN's Iraqi employees.
In Jordan's words, "Over the last dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard awful things that could not be reported, because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."
In the PA, there have been countless incidents of harassment of foreign reporters. In the summer of 2001, Newsweek's Joshua Hammer was abducted by Fatah gunmen in Rafah and only released after Newsweek agreed to report their statement.
Italy's state television network RAI had to recall its correspondent Riccardo Cristiano after he apologized to the PA for his competitor's photographing of the lynching of two IDF reservists in Ramallah on October 13, 2000. Several photographers were beaten that day by Palestinians for filming the scene and their cameras and films were destroyed.
In 1998, Yasser Arafat's adviser, Bassam Abu Sharif, told CBS news that the PA would no longer allow it unimpeded access to PA officials and territory, because 60 Minutes had run a segment exposing rampant PA corruption and human rights abuses.
As we have seen from whitewashed reports of PA involvement in terrorist attacks against Israel in the foreign press, these intimidation tactics have been largely successful.
But it is not of course simply a matter of intimidation. Reporting on the brutality of the PA or Saddam's Iraq for that matter is inconvenient for news organizations as well as for diplomats that want the PA to succeed or, until recently, wanted to avert the violent overthrow of Saddam's regime.
Simply stated, why would a reporter whose news organization effectively colludes with the PLO wish to report the PA's brutality and involvement in terrorism?
Why would a diplomat, whose government refuses to acknowledge that Israel is being victimized by a PA-backed terrorist war against its civilians, wish to speak to anyone who demands that this reality be acknowledged and policies updated to reflect this state of affairs?
As David Shipler wrote earlier this month in The New York Times, "An illuminating fact about the Middle East was confirmed last week: It's easy to think up a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without Israelis or Palestinians around to write the text."
The truth that Shipler points to in this article is precisely the point that came to my mind after speaking with the senior Western diplomat. He told me during the meal that his colleagues had applauded his "bravery" in requesting a meeting with me. I spoke only for myself when I met with him and yet, if he has never heard another Israeli who said things like what I told him, not a bit of which struck me as particularly novel, it means that his government, like the members of the Quartet, believes it is possible to force policies on the Israeli government without bearing in mind the concerns of Israeli citizens.
Proponents of the INC argue that if the US had embraced the organization rather than castigating it, INC forces could have destroyed Saddam's regime without the US Army having to fire a shot.
Even if this is not true, there is no doubt that better use of the INC in the period leading up to the US-led invasion could have provided the US with a better intelligence picture than it had when its forces were irrevocably committed to battle.
If CNN and other news organizations had not been willing to trade the truth for access to Iraqi officials, perhaps many of those who rallied outside the White House in opposition to the war would have been outside the White House protesting that the US government was standing by as Saddam tortured his own people.
Then, too, if the foreign diplomatic corps and the international media were willing to trade their access to the PA for accurate reporting on the PA's rampant corruption, human-rights abuses, and institutionalized incitement to murder Jews, the Quartet might never have put together a diplomatic plan that has no chance of success.
The diplomat I met with on Wednesday is an excellent agent of his government. Not only did he seek out an outspoken critic of Oslo like mys
elf, he confided in me that he had even met with Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria.
"Even though I disagreed with everything they said, I didn't think that they were bad people," he told me. "I even reported back home that they were not demons."
And a good thing he told them that. Otherwise, perhaps Israel would now face a demand to not only cease building in towns in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. We might also have to contend with a demand to hire an exorcist.
Reality trickles slowly into Middle East policies. But one thing is certain. It never goes away just because it is ignored.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.