Safire’s Mistake

Writing this morning about the attack by Kurdish separatists on the Israeli consulate in Berlin, in which three Kurds were killed by guards, New York Times columnist William Safire helpfully explains:

Kurdish separatists living in Germany lashed out at Israel because they mistakenly suspected its Mossad had helped a Turkish commando team capture their fugitive leader, Abdullah Ocalan (OH-ja-lan) in Kenya.

The word to note is “mistakenly.” Wherever would the Kurds have gotten the idea that Israel was involved in the arrest of their leader? Readers of Slate’s International Papers column–dated today but posted last night–might have a clue:

Reporting the Israeli government’s denial that it had been in any way involved, [the Israeli newspaper] Ha’aretz said Wednesday that the denial was in response to Kurd suspicions based, in part, on a column written earlier this month in the New York Times by William Safire, who had said that “U.S. and Israeli intelligence and diplomats” were helping to track down Ocalan.

In fact, Safire’s Feb. 4 column (“The Phantom Alliance“), datelined Istanbul and written in his patented I-know-a-lot-more-than-I-can-say-but-that-won’t-stop-me-from-implying-it style, was ambiguous about whether Israeli help in capturing Ocalan–part of an ostensible grand alliance between Israel, Turkey, and the U.S.–was a fact, a prediction, a wish, or just something he’d heard at a dinner party. In any of these cases, though, “mistakenly” hardly seems adequate. If the Kurds are in fact mistaken, their mistake was reading too much into a Safire column–which is exactly what William Safire wants his readers to do. And three people are now dead as a result of this mistake.

Safire’s “mistakenly” mirrors Prime Minister Ben Netanyahu’s statement, also in this morning’s newspapers, that Israeli involvement was a “false accusation”: “We did not cooperate with any element in Ocalan’s capture. We have to make this clear and emphasize this because this is the reality and this is the truth.” In other words: no, no, this time I really mean it. The redundant insistence that he’s telling the truth is necessary and yet insufficient since Netanyahu obviously would think nothing about lying to protect the secrecy of a covert operation like this–of which Israel has engaged in many, often justified and successful. The “bodyguard of lies” defense–that freedom can depend on secret operations, which depend on lying–is a good one. But it comes at a price, and this is an example.

Netanyahu’s indignant denial is unseemly even if he’s telling the truth. Although the Kurdish cause deserves sympathy, Ocalan is apparently a murderous thug whose capture is a good thing. Kurdish reprisals therefore are a bad thing. But the implication of Netanyahu’s indignation is that Israel’s non-involvement is what makes the attack on its consulate unjustified. The message is: For heaven’s sake, why don’t you attack the Turkish consulate and leave us alone? In the past, when the Israelis hunted down and captured or killed an enemy of their state, they were understandably bitter about how other nations distanced themselves for fear of terrorist reprisals.

Two decades ago a young Israeli diplomat named Ben Netanyahu founded an institute on international terrorism named for his brother Jonathan (who led and died in the famous Israeli raid on a hijacked jet at Entebbe airport in Uganda). The Jonathan Institute’s basic premise, perhaps a bit overheated, was that people like Ocalan are part of an international network of terror, and that the nations of the world must make a united response. (William Safire, Chatterbox seems to recall, got a column or three out of pounding this theme over the years.) At the New Republic, where this guest Chatterbox toiled, we used to make mordant mockery of newspaper reports about plane hijackings or attacks on embassies that killed, e.g., “14 Israelis and 3 innocent bystanders.”

Now, it seems, Netanyahu is claiming one of these bystander exemptions for himself. And so is Safire, who isn’t even entitled.

Michael Kinsley