Israel made headlines last week when it intercepted a ship that it claimed was carrying a shipment of Iranian weapons to Gaza. The supposed contents of the ship were put on display yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an event that was dubbed "a public relations spectacle" by the New York Times' Isabel Kershner (3/11/14). (Kershner ought to recognize a public relations spectacle when she sees one, since her spouse's job is creating PR strategies for Israel–FAIR Action Alert, 5/16/12.)
Diplomatically speaking, it was a twofer: Israel could use this to show the world that Hamas was more dangerous than ever, and that recent diplomatic breakthroughs with Iran over its nuclear program were merely obscuring "the truth behind Iran's fake smiles," as Netanyahu put it. He added: "We have seen smiles and handshakes between representatives of the West and Iranian regime representatives in Tehran, precisely while these rockets were making their way to Eilat."
Kershner went on to note, with a raised eyebrow, that for Israel "the timing of the shipment–with which Iran has denied any involvement–was opportune, coming as world powers are engaged in talks with Iranian officials over the country's nuclear program."
Indeed, the fortuitous timing here should raise eyebrows.
Unfortunately, for a piece that seems to want to convey some skepticism about Israel's PR maneuver, Kersher's piece relies on an anonymous Israeli official for some of the details about the weapons: "a senior Israeli intelligence official told reporters in a phone briefing on the condition of anonymity, in line with protocol."
The official also said Israel was "100 percent positive that the address of this shipment was the Gaza Strip." He said that he could not reveal delicate intelligence to the news media, but that Israel would be sharing the evidence with colleagues in intelligence organizations abroad.
Of course, anyone with "100 percent proof" might be willing to make such claims publicly.
But how this–and other–disputes are framed is of real importance. Take this passage from the Times:
Mr. Netanyahu has criticized the negotiation effort as being too friendly toward a country he maintains is resolutely seeking to develop nuclear weapons for possible use against Israel and the West, despite Iranian officials' claims to the contrary.
That is the kind of pro-forma "one side say this, the other side denies" language you see all the time. But instead of asking readers if they believe a US ally's claim or an Official Enemy's denial, consider what an alternative might look like.
There is no publicly available evidence to back up Netanyahu's claim. Official US intelligence assessments are that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon. As Yousaf Butt (Reuters, 2/22/13) noted, "The best intelligence about Iran's nuclear program indicates that no nuclear weapons work is going on in Iran right now." He added that the US intelligence consensus is not just that there's no evidence of such work; it "says there is actual concrete high-quality evidence that Iran is not making nuclear weapons."
So a more accurate summation would stress that Netanyahu is making unsubstantiated claims that fly in the face of what many other intelligence and nuclear analysts say about Iran. That is a formulation, though, that you'll rarely see in the US media.
If the New York Times did point out that Netanyahu was making debunkable claims about Iranian weapons programs, it might make readers less inclined to accept his unverifiable claims about Iranian weapons shipments. That's either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether the Times is in the business of informing readers or facilitating PR spectacles.