Today's Papers

Pigsty of the Nativity

The New York Timesand Washington Postlead with reports of reports coming out of the Israeli Cabinet suggesting that “Israel’s widely anticipated attack on Gaza” will be delayed or even canceled—in part because it was so widely anticipated. The Los Angeles Timesleads with the “widely anticipated” life sentence without parole for FBI super-spy Robert Hanssen, handed down by a federal judge in a celebrity-packed courtroom (well, The West Wing’s Ron Silver was there), following a semi-sort-of-contrite speech by Hanssen himself. All the papers go above the fold with photo-rich reports on the conclusion to the Bethlehem standoff and the resultant state of the Church of the Nativity. An awful stinking mess, they concur, but little or no permanent damage.

Israeli forces have been gathering around the Gaza Strip, presumably preparing a retaliation for Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion. But “there was a report tonight that the defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, had decided to delay the Gaza operation,” says the NYT. (The Post is a little more upfront about the source of the report: “Israel’s Channel 2 television.”) The defense minister is concerned about all the media attention on Gaza—even “leaks about operational details.” Indeed, NYT’s Steve Erlanger blithely reports that “in Gaza itself, Palestinians [are] buying food and preparing booby traps for Israeli soldiers.” The NYT also mentions an additional concern—that a Gaza operation would “undercut chances for renewed peace talks”—although neither paper emphasizes this as a central concern.

The opposition to the delay, reports the WP citing Israeli Radio, is being led by hardliner Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, who wants to “hit Gaza in order to put an end to what [he] considers the ‘sense of security and immunity’ among Palestinian militant groups there.”

It is unclear from either article whether the debate about the Gaza operation is ongoing or has been settled. But one source tell the Post that “some Israeli reserve soldiers who had been summoned Wednesday for emergency duty during a possible attack on Gaza were subsequently notified that they could stay at home.” And Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells the Post to expect “rocket or airstrikes against specific targets identified by intelligence, or even quick attacks from the sea” instead.

Of the three Bethlehem front-page packages, WP has the most dramatic slugs: “Church Survives Siege, With Scars” (online: “Bethlehem Church Is a Mess”). The article’s lede paragraph starts “The Church of the Nativity is filled with trash”; and ends, “a cast-iron Virgin Mary prays over her flock with bullet wounds in her neck and chest.” Yet the articles notes, along with the others, that “serious damage is minimal.” “Less than I feared,” says one official. “It could have been worse,” some priests tell the NYT.

A Mexican priest tells the NYT that “in the early days some gunmen stole articles from the Armenian section of the church—a bishop’s gold chain and pectoral cross, a candelabra, an icon. But they put them back later.” The Post emphasizes the conflicting stories and evidence: “For example, a charming curved window at the Greek Orthodox monastery is riddled with bullet holes … challenging Israel’s claim that its troops never fired at the church. [And] On a shelf in the basilica are dozens of bags of uncooked rice and lentils … calling into question Palestinian claims of starvation.”

The LAT carries an exclusive first-person account of the last nine days inside the church by staff writer and photographer Carolyn Cole, who snuck past the Israeli blockade with a contingent from the Internatioal Solidarity Movement. The group brought along plenty of supplies, perhaps accounting for the food discrepency noted above. Cole also discovered inside that “someone had managed to bring electricity into the church” and “someone had managed to tap into water from outside the compound,” among other amenities.

The WP reports that “the final clearing of the church was delayed as the foreign peace activists who had entered it a week ago in solidarity with the Palestinians refused to leave for five hours after the last of the Palestinians had left.” The article quotes one confused Israeli army officer who says, “[W]e thought the problem would be the 13 terrorists, not 10 peace activists.” The “peace activists” even managed to tee off the otherwise heroically hospitable priests. “Among the various groups there, 10 pro-Palestinian foreign activists had shown disrespect for the church, smoking and drinking, Orthodox priests complained” to the NYT.

Robert Hanssen spoke “publicly for the first time about his crimes” yesterday, as the LAT puts it; not on the lecture circuit or on Oprah, but in federal court. He apologized profusely to his wife and children, but, aside from a vague admission that he had “hurt so many deeply,” he pointedly did not apologize to those endangered and killed by his two decades of spying, or to his colleagues at the FBI, or to the nation in general.

The LAT calls the sentence a “foregone conclusion” after last year’s plea agreement dropping the death penalty in return for full cooperation. But it notes, prosecutors “decided not to try to scrap [the] plea agreement” despite “concerns that Hanssen had lied to them during hundreds of hours of debriefing sessions.” The WP provides a little more detail, reporting that “the Justice Department inspector general and a CIA task force have expressed concern about the level of cooperation Hanssen provided, but the FBI and the Webster Commission said they were satisfied.”

Gray Davis’ “I Told You So” on the dark machinations behind the California energy crisis appears in the NYT op-ed page. “We in California stood virtually alone when we charged that Enron and possibly others were ripping off California consumers,” writes Davis. The California governor suffered for the truth: “the energy industry scoffed,” and worse. But Davis’ op-ed appearance, in fairness, is occasioned by more than an opportunity to gloat. “To prevent further damage, FERC also needs to continue price caps on energy throughout the West,” Davis writes. “The caps are due to expire on Sept. 30.”

The WP fronts a look at the latest convoluted linguistic pirouette being practiced up on Capitol Hill. Republicans, frightened by public opinion polling data that suggest that the word “privatization” is more or less synonymous with “Enron” these days, are furiously backpedaling and trying to distance themselves from Social Security privatization schemes they previously endorsed. Besides pushing language infused with euphemisms like “personal retirement accounts” or, simply, “control,” Republicans have also hatched a plan whereby they will introduce on the House floor “a deliberate exaggeration” of the Bush privatization plan in order to voraciously vote it down. These votes can subsequently be used to confound any Democratic challenger who dares charge them with supporting … well, you know … the p-word. Completing the Byzantine circle, minority leader Gephardt, a lifelong privatization foe, “has introduced the Bush commission’s recommendations as a House bill and wants to gather enough signatures to force a vote on it this summer.”

Finally, for a fine bit of rhetorical sleight of hand, enjoy thisPost editorial. The Post has spent the last two years documenting and eulogizing the tragic demise of an historic tree at Abraham Lincoln’s summer residence, under which, so the story went, the president rested and recuperated from the stresses of the the Civil War, and perhaps even composed the Emancipation Proclamation. Inconveniently, it has now been determined that the tree, previously identified in the Post as a “275-year-old” copper beech, was at most a ripe 140 when it was cut down before a teary-eyed crowd of over 100 last February. So, do the math. If by chance it did exist circa bellum, the 6-foot-4 president would have squashed it, not shaded under it. Woops. Chagrin and bear it? No, no … “When something is history for a long time and ceases to be history, that, too, is history. What matters, now, is not the tree but the importance the tree had. Our reverence for Lincoln; the place he holds; all of this, again proven.” The editorial then endorses plans to “plant the beech’s seedlings—testament to the power of myth[—]in hallowed spots all over this union.”