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So when am I going to be able to watch Al Jazeera’s hard-hitting investigation into Israel’s powerful lobby in the United States? Remember Al Jazeera? The tough, no-holds-barred Middle East satellite channel that transformed Qatar into a media empire whose reports frightened dictators and infuriated potentates and presidents alike? Why, George W Bush once wanted to bomb its headquarters in Doha – so it must have been doing something right. It even has an office in Jerusalem.
But something seems to be amiss. Not Al Jazeera’s disastrous American venture, which was supposed to break free of the dross on CNN and Fox News and ended up looking just like CNN or Fox. Nor the tragicomedy of its journalists’ imprisonment in Sissi’s Egypt, banged up by Cairo’s farcical laws and the stupidity of Al Jazeera’s own management in Qatar.
No, I’m talking about a documentary called The Lobby, directed by one of Al Jazeera’s top journalists, Clayton Swisher, the man whose exclusive (and book) on the “Palestine Papers” blew open the secret and scandalous American-led negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinian authority between 2000 and 2010. But after months of postponement, The Lobby, which secretly filmed pro-Israeli US activists and Israeli government officials and was completed last autumn, is still no nearer to being shown – and Swisher himself has taken a paid leave of absence. He even chose to explain his frustration in an article for the progressive American Jewish magazine Forward, which has always maintained a liberal and often very critical view of Israel.
“Don’t mistake me – I love Al Jazeera,” Swisher told me this week. “I love working for Al Jazeera. They’ve done fantastic things. And they look after their staff very well. But our new documentary doesn’t seem to be getting on air.”
In his published explanation, Swisher described how his award-winning investigative unit – which he says operates “without [Qatari] government interference” – sent an undercover reporter to look into “how Israel wields influence in America through the pro-Israeli American community. But when some right-wing American supporters of Israel found out about the documentary, there was a massive backlash. It was even labelled as antisemitic in a spate of articles.”
Nothing surprising there, you might think. Any reporters who have dared to criticise Israel grow used to the vile smear of antisemitism thrown over them – but there was an even more disturbing background to Swisher’s attempts to get his documentary on the air.
The programme’s completion, he writes, “came at a time when, due to an arbitrary blockade on Qatar imposed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Qatar had been pursuing an end to its siege by appealing to the US. According to reports, Qatar sought to offer its own side of the narrative in this conflict by hosting thought leaders, including from the American Jewish community. From reports in the Israeli press, I learned that [Harvard Professor Alan] Dershowitz had been brought to meet with the Qatari emir [Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani], and that the American Jews had brought up what they saw as Al Jazeera’s antisemitism in those meetings. Of course, our documentary is not antisemitic. It is an exploration of how Israel, a foreign government, influences US foreign policy.”
Ironically, one of the Saudi-UAE demands for a return to normal relations with Qatar was to shut down Al Jazeera.
Most of Swisher’s staff within Al Jazeera are American or British, and he recruited a young Oxford postgraduate, James Anthony Kleinfeld, to meet and mix with members of pro-Israeli groups in Washington. When this was discovered – partly because Swisher, for legal reasons, contacted those appearing in the programme to say that his team had used secret filming during their investigations – there was uproar.
Kleinfeld, who apparently used the name “Tony Kleinfeld”, was accused of being “pro-Palestinian” but of “embedding himself with the Washington pro-Israel crowd” while spending “months of his life under a new and meticulously fabricated persona to infiltrate pro-Israeli groups”.
The concern of Israeli lobbyists was not without reason. Recipients of legal letters from the documentary group – referring to the secretly recorded Israeli activists – included AIPAC, the Israeli-American Council, the Sheldon Adelson-created Maccabee Task Force, the Israel Project, the Zionist Organisation of America and other groups. Although Swisher’s reporters had exposed genocide in Myanmar, presidential corruption in the Maldives and paedophilia in British youth football, another documentary under Swisher’s direction concentrated on Israel’s influence over Britain and included a secretly filmed sequence in which Israeli official Shai Masot discussed how to “take down” British MPs regarded as pro-Palestinian, including Sir Alan Duncan. Masot was forced to resign and the Israeli ambassador to London, Mark Regev, issued a formal apology.
According to Swisher, if his documentary on the American lobby doesn’t air soon, “it might prove to be ammunition sought by a group of zealous US politicians who wish to declare Al Jazeera a foreign entity, and label us journalists as ‘spies’”. In response to antisemitism claims after the London documentary, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom ruled that the programme was “a serious investigative documentary”. It was the same question, Swisher says, that he and his team sought to answer in the American edition of The Lobby: “whether the Israeli government was funding or involved in lobbying efforts in the US under the guise of a domestic lobbying group”.
Swisher says that several “leaders of Jewish American organisations” met with Qatar’s registered agent and lobbyist, Nick Muzin – a former aide to US Senator Ted Cruz, who supported American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – “to see if he could use his ties with the Qataris to stop the airing”. Since October, Swisher says, “we’ve faced a series of unexplained delays on broadcasting our project, the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I was repeatedly told by everyone to ‘wait’, and was assured our documentary would eventually see the light of day. Then, as now, I took my senior management at its word. To my own specially trained ears, ‘wait’ did not constitute ‘stop’. In fact, it must not constitute ‘stop’.”
Almost every journalist I’ve met in the Middle East has encountered similar problems. When I worked for the The Times, I alerted the then editor, Charles Douglas-Home, to evidence that Israeli officers had secretly buried at least seven Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners – done to death in an interrogation centre – at night in a Sidon graveyard in 1983. He wanted me to spend as many weeks as necessary to find out if the story was true. Then, months later, when witnesses emerged with evidence of the burial, including the gravedigger – the bodies still had their hands tied behind their back with nylon rope when they were brought to him – I called my editor. My witnesses were being “visited” by armed members of the Israeli Shin Beth intelligence agency, I told him, and I was being trailed around Sidon by Israeli-registered vehicles. It was time to run the story.
To my shock, Douglas-Home – an editor who otherwise loyally stood by me in every Middle East dispute over my work – replied that he wasn’t sure “how we’re justified in running a story like this so long after the event”. In other words, we had to be sure of our facts on such an important story – but by taking the time to do just that, the story was now out of date.
After much argument – during which I suggested to the Israelis that they might like to institute a military inquiry into the deaths if they wanted to avoid a scandal (they said, mysteriously, that it was already under way, although I doubted this) – the story ran. A deputy editor, I was told, had tried to cut the report by two-thirds. He was overruled. Then the story ran. In full.
So, old story, new story. I’ve appeared many times on Al Jazeera. And never been told to mince my words. Nor would I. But a lot of us are waiting to see Swisher’s new documentary. If we don’t, we’ll know what to think of Al Jazeera.