- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

Middle East mess
Our first objective as a daily newspaper is to offer our readers the most detailed and accurate account possible of the previous day's most dramatic events. At our daily news meetings, the senior editors routinely ask, "What is actually happening?"
But we also understand that after 10 months of almost daily violence in the Middle East — suicide bombs, retaliatory strikes, gunfights and assassinations — the effect of it all begins to resemble a dull, nagging ache rather than a sharp pain, and readers are inclined to skip ahead to the next story.
At that point we try to provide something more in our reporting. We look for stories that deal with broad strategies, explain the political calculations behind the events, and help to shed some light on what might happen next.
It's a solid, sensible way of dealing with a story of such importance, but even that approach gets frustrated when major events develop late in the day. And that is what happened to us twice last week.
Tuesday's front-page story was supposed to have been a largely analytical report by Abraham Rabinovich — one of two correspondents filing free-lance stories to us from Jerusalem — on the growing tension between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Mr. Peres had won authorization from the prime minister that weekend to initiate new talks on a cease-fire with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. But Mr. Rabinovich was reporting that Mr. Sharon had yielded only out of fear that Mr. Peres would pull his Labor government out of the governing coalition, thereby weakening the prime minister in a time of crisis both at home and abroad.
As we were preparing the story for the paper at about 6 p.m., the wire agencies began to report on Israeli tank movements near the West Bank town of Jenin, home to a number of Palestinian suicide bombers. We inserted a couple of paragraphs high in the story and hoped that nothing would change before morning. It did.

Retopping on deadline
Later that evening the Israelis moved into Jenin, destroying several Palestinian installations, including a police station, in what was being billed as Israel's biggest incursion into the West Bank since the start of the Intifada.
Our night editor made the obvious call. Working from wire reports, he wrote his own new top detailing the dramatic events to the story. He kept two sentences of the original analysis in the third paragraph, just to tip off readers that it was there, and pushed the rest of it to the bottom half of the story.
For Wednesday's story we turned to our other Middle East contributor, Dan Ephron, who was offering an interesting story about the Israeli strategy behind moves like the attack on Jenin. It had been decided at a Cabinet meeting the previous week, he reported, to try to draw the Palestinians into a more conventional kind of military struggle, one the Israelis are better at fighting.
It was again about 6 p.m. when Mr. Ephron called to say Israeli tanks were again moving into the West Bank, this time concentrating around the village of Beit Jalla near Bethlehem.
Fine, this time we would be ready. We told Mr. Ephron to lead with the tank movements, so that the story could more easily be re-led, and then introduce in the third or fourth paragraph the idea that this and the previous night's raid on Jenin were examples of a new Israeli strategy.
That, it turned out, was exactly what the readers found on their front page the next morning because this time the attack never materialized. For the reason why, we turned back to Mr. Rabinovich for Thursday's edition.
He wrote, citing reports from Israeli radio and other sources, that Mr. Rabin had called off the raid following a call for restraint from President Bush and similar urging by his coalition partner Mr. Peres. The same thing was being reported by the French news agency Agence France-Presse, quoting a "senior political leader," so we inserted a line.
This story came with a bonus. It gave us the perfect opportunity to revisit some of Mr. Rabinovich's original reporting about the split between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres that had gotten squeezed out of his Tuesday story.


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