It should have surprised no one when Tariq Aziz, at a press conference last Friday in Rome, refused to answer a question from an Israeli reporter. The big news would have been if he had answered the question. Recognizing, even indirectly, the existence of the Jewish state would have meant kicking a major ideological prop out from under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Where surprise and disappointment are in order is at what happened next. Or rather, what didn't happen. But before that, a bit of background.
Aziz was in Rome for a meeting, and more to the point a photo opportunity, with the Pope, who as everyone knows opposes waging war on Iraq -- a position that swings a vast segment of Western public opinion Saddam's way. (I know a number of well-intentioned, thoughtful Italians, by no means anti-American, who have taken up the rainbow standard of peace on the Pontiff's say-so.)
So when somebody suggested that Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, a Chaldean Catholic and thus a member of John Paul's flock, visit the Pope and make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi ("Where there is hatred, let me sow love,"), Aziz and his boss grabbed the chance for a propaganda coup.
The "somebody" who came up with the idea was Father Jean-Marie Benjamin, a French Roman Catholic priest and long-time campaigner against the United Nations sanctions on Iraq. Father Benjamin is an author (Objective Iraq: In Washington's Sights) and a singer-songwriter (click here to watch the video of "Mr. President," addressed to George W. Bush). He also runs the Beato Angelico Foundation, which, in his words, "promotes international communication based on the cultural patrimony of the monotheistic religions."
Father Benjamin accompanied Aziz on his visits to the Vatican and Assisi, and introduced him Friday evening at the press conference, where he noted that Iraq is a country where Christians and Muslims enjoy "optimal relations" -- relations now endangered by threats of war. Eyes blazing with anger, practically spitting out his words, he dismissed accusations of Saddam's terrorist links by noting that "Osama bin Laden would not come to pray at the tomb of Saint Francis of Assisi." (Which is pretty hard to dispute. Think how that would play with the al Qaeda ranks.)
Sitting in the audience a few feet away from him, I found Father Benjamin almost as scary as Aziz's bodyguards (even the one about seven feet tall, who looked like a swarthier version of Saddam himself). The Deputy Prime Minister, speaking almost-flawless English in a Kissingerian accent, was much smoother and self-possessed than the clergyman. His disarming smallness and mild, grandfatherly appearance also worked to his advantage. I could see how someone determined to believe him would find it possible to do so, at least while in the same room.
If Aziz was surprised when the Rome correspondent of the Tel Aviv daily Maariv stood up to ask him a question (about whether Iraq would answer a U.S. attack with attacks on Israel and America's Arab allies), he didn't seem flustered. He let the reporter finish, then declared: "When I came to this press conference it was not in my agenda to answer questions from the Israeli media. Sorry."
That might have been a moment of truth, an unmistakable betrayal of the "peace mission" pretense of Aziz's visit to Italy. What sort of peacemaker refuses even to speak to his enemies?
Aziz's refusal drew hisses and boos. As the moderator asked the Iraqi to reconsider, some of us headed for the doors. But once outside, we found that only a dozen reporters had left. Among us were a couple of Dutchmen, two Italians, a French woman, a Bulgarian, a Canadian, a Colombian and several Germans. The Germans were especially upset, and immediately announced that they would be quitting the Foreign Press Association, the organization hosting the event.
"We look to the foreign press to set an example," the correspondent for a distinguished Italian daily told me, "but this time you failed."
Walking out was easy for me; no editor was going to fire me for missing the conference, whereas it might have cost others their jobs. But most of them probably didn't even consider it: leaving the scene of a news story is exactly the opposite of what journalists train themselves to do. Think of the photographers who keep shooting, and the reporters who keep scribbling or taping, in the thick of battle or natural disaster.
Reporters are also supposed to be neutral, and not take sides in political or international disputes, such as that between Israel and Iraq. Yet surely one issue on which journalists must not be neutral is the autonomy of the press. Journalists should report the words and actions of politicians while subjecting them to critical scrutiny. We should not be those politicians' props or mouthpieces. In this case, Aziz was permitted to make a political point by excluding a member of the press from an event held on the press's own turf.
So this is about journalistic standards, not Israel. And yet it is about Israel too. "What would have happened if Sharon had refused to respond to an Arab journalist?" asked the snubbed reporter, Menachem Gantz. Answer: the same thing that would happen if President Bush refused to answer a reporter from the New York Times or Le Monde. If not a boycott, then a series of outraged editorials in every paper in the world.
The reason that didn't happen this time is that most journalists take Arab hatred of Israel for granted, which is in practice awfully like condoning it. And journalists aren't the only ones.
"Certainly to you and to me and to everyone in the West it seems quite shocking," says Father Benjamin of Aziz's refusal to answer Gantz, "but seen from the point of view of people in these countries -- it's against the law there even to pronounce the name of Israel. … Maybe if there were a different policy toward the Palestinians and toward Iraq, then there would be less aggressivity on their part."
Still, the priest (a lot more affable on the phone than he was on the dais) admits that it would have been better if the Iraqi official, visiting Italy on a mission of peace, had taken the chance to make a gesture toward "openness and dialogue" at the press conference.
"At one moment I wanted to intervene," Father Benjamin says, "but I thought that as a priest I couldn't insert myself in a political matter between two countries." God forbid.
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