Deborah Sontag, who was in Jerusalem for the Times for almost three years starting in August 1998, remains the only woman to have served in the post. Her time there was, by all accounts, an unhappy one for her. She was the only one of several editors and former correspondents at the paper who declined outright to be interviewed about her experience. “I just can’t imagine that anything I have to say about the period would be illuminating,” she wrote, “and it may be troubling to me.”
Sontag had been well regarded at the Times for what Bill Keller, a former executive editor, described as “her vivid writing” which was often deployed to emphasize the human aspect of a story. But numerous people at the Times say that she did not feel fondly about Israel during her tour there and was stressed by the immediacy of the story and the intensity of the scrutiny of her coverage.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who has covered Israel and the Middle East for The New Yorker and The Atlantic, said her work, more than any other Times reporter’s, seemed to reflect that very liberal segment of America that has grown impatient with Israel, and skeptical of Israelis. “It represented an approach to Israel that is best seen these days on American universities,” he said.
Goldberg, who identifies as an American Jew, served in the Israeli army as a young man. He is regarded by many as openly pro-Israel, but his view of Sontag’s coverage resembles that of many others and is noteworthy because of a different reason: Lelyveld, then executive editor, said the Times thought seriously about hiring him to succeed her as Jerusalem bureau chief.
Lelyveld, who praised Sontag’s coverage, said he met with Goldberg over breakfast during Sontag’s time in Jerusalem as part of this process. Goldberg remembers a breakfast, but says he was not approached about the job at that time. In 2004, Bill Keller, then executive editor, says he and Jill Abramson, then managing editor, met with Goldberg in Washington to pursue him for the position.
In seriously considering Goldberg for the job, the editors of the Times must have known they would be getting something decidedly different from Sontag’s tenure, when criticism of the Times by Israel’s supporters had swelled.
Sontag’s most controversial piece was an unusually long (nearly five thousand words) analysis of why the July 2000 Camp David peace talks between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, midwifed by President Bill Clinton, did not yield a settlement. Published on the one-year anniversary of the talks’ failure, the article testily disputed the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian side was mostly at fault, that Arafat could not bring himself to cut a deal—perhaps because he was not made for negotiating peace after all his years of running a war operation or because he thought he would be discredited by hardliners.
Sontag’s article shifted a significant portion of the blame onto the Israelis and the Americans, and was a surprising departure from what most people believed at the time. It paralleled a minority view espoused in The New York Review of Books by Robert Malley, an adviser to President Clinton.
She wrote that, “A potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down.” While that was a caricature of the general view, and thus a bit of a straw man, she went on to argue that the Israelis and the Americans bore far more of the blame than had generally been believed.
In an editorial on July 28, the Times noted Sontag’s report but failed to express any support for her approach, pointedly saying that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, had brought “a daring offer” to Camp David. Arafat, the editorial noted, did not offer any proposals of his own.