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2010-06-08

Veteran White House Reporter Helen Thomas Retires After Israel Remarks

Guests

James Abourezk, former Democratic senator and congressman from South Dakota. The first Arab American in the Senate, he’s also the founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas has retired amid a firestorm of criticism over comments she made on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Widely known as “the dean of the White House press corps,” Thomas is the most senior White House correspondent and has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. In a brief video interview with the website RabbiLive.com, Thomas said her message to Israelis is to "get the hell out of Palestine." Thomas also suggested Israeli Jews should return to Poland, Germany or the United States. Thomas later issued a statement saying, "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon." We speak to former Senator James Abourezk, the first Arab American in the Senate. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas has retired amidst a firestorm of criticism over comments she made on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Widely known as "the dean of the White House press corps," Helen Thomas is the most senior White House correspondent and has covered every president since John F. Kennedy.

She made the controversial comments on May 27th, when she was questioned in an impromptu interview by Rabbi David Nesenoff, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration. Nesenoff eventually posted the video on his site, RabbiLive.com.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Any advice for these young people over here for starting out in the press corps?

    HELEN THOMAS: Go for it. You’ll never be unhappy. You’ll always keep people informed. And you’ll always keep learning. The greatest thing of the profession is never stop learning.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Today they’re covering the Jewish Heritage Month. Any —-

    HELEN THOMAS: Are they going to meet the President?

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Yeah, and any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today. Any comments on Israel?

    HELEN THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Ooh, any better comments than that?

    UNIDENTIFIED: Helen is blunt.

    HELEN THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, and it’s not Poland.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

    HELEN THOMAS: They could go home.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Where is their home?

    HELEN THOMAS: Poland, Germany -—

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: So the Jews —- you’re saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

    HELEN THOMAS: —- and America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Now, are you familiar with the history of that region and what took place?

    HELEN THOMAS: Very much. I’m of Arab background.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: I see.

AMY GOODMAN: The video was widely circulated. Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, whom Helen Thomas had grilled many times, led the campaign for her ouster over the weekend, emailing journalists who might have missed her remarks, this according to the Washington Post.

Helen Thomas issued a statement saying, quote, "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon," she wrote.

By Monday morning, Helen Thomas had been dropped by her public speaking agency. At his daily news briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemned the comments, calling them "offensive and reprehensible." Helen Thomas, who has had a front-row seat in the briefing room for many years, was not present. Shortly afterwards, Hearst Newspapers announced Helen Thomas was retiring, effective immediately. They wrote, quote, "Her decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet."

Helen Thomas’s retirement comes after nearly sixty years as White House correspondent for United Press International. She was known for asking tough, critical questions in the White House briefing room. She resigned from UPI in 2000 to become a columnist for Hearst. Helen Thomas was a trailblazer in the world of journalism. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She turns ninety this August.

For more, I’m joined on the telephone by former Senator James Abourezk. He’s the former Democratic senator and Congress member from South Dakota, the first Arab American in the Senate. He’s also the founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Senator Abourezk, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts on the resignation of Helen Thomas?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, Helen has gotten more coverage over this than the killing of the nine Turkish aid workers who were killed by the Israeli commandos. I don’t really understand that disparity in coverage, but I kind of know how that goes, because I’ve been the target of Israeli propaganda myself over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that her comments, for which she apologized, were problematic?

JAMES ABOUREZK: No, I don’t, to be very honest with you. If you understand what Helen was trying to say, is that there are Palestinians sitting in refugee camps all over the Middle East who cannot get back into Israel yet. Ashkenazi Jews from all over Europe are able to come freely, and from America, too, and I think that’s what she was referring to. They’re calling Helen a racist. There’s no way that she’s a racist. She never has been, never will be.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back and play when Helen Thomas actually said, because I just want to be clear. People have heard it different ways. It has been represented different ways on the internet. But we’re going to go back right now to what Helen Thomas said on May 27th.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Any advice for these young people over here for starting out in the press corps?

    HELEN THOMAS: Go for it. You’ll never be unhappy. You’ll always keep people informed. And you’ll always keep learning. The greatest thing of the profession is never stop learning.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Today they’re covering the Jewish Heritage Month. Any —-

    HELEN THOMAS: Are they going to meet the President?

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Yeah, and any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today. Any comments on Israel?

    HELEN THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Ooh, any better comments than that?

    UNIDENTIFIED: Helen is blunt.

    HELEN THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, and it’s not Poland.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

    HELEN THOMAS: They could go home.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Where is their home?

    HELEN THOMAS: Poland, Germany -—

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: So the Jews —- you’re saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

    HELEN THOMAS: —- and America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: Now, are you familiar with the history of that region and what took place?

    HELEN THOMAS: Very much. I’m of Arab background.

    RABBI DAVID NESENOFF: I see.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what Helen Thomas was saying is the Jews should go back — I presume it would be Israeli Jews; she said "they" — the Israeli Jews should go back to Poland, to Germany, to the United States. Senator Abourezk?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Yes. You have a question?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the question of whether Jews should be able to live in Israel.

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, Jews ought to be able to live in Israel, but not in the Occupied Territories, because that’s what the Palestinians have offered, is a peace — and all the Arab countries — is a peace agreement, if the settlers be taken out of the West Bank and if Gaza and the West Bank were allowed to be part of a Palestinian state. Now that’s the long and the short of it. I don’t believe Helen really said get them out of the other parts they’ve already taken, but I think — I’ve talked to her before. I think she’s in favor of a — and myself — of a two-state solution, or if that won’t work, back to a one-state solution.

But the point is, I’m talking about parity of coverage here now, Amy. There were nine people killed on that flotilla by the Israeli commandos, and that has gotten much less criticism than — you know, at least by a US press corps — than what Helen said. And she didn’t kill anybody, and she’s not about to kill anybody. So there’s really a disparity here. I just — I hate to see the whole thing turned toward Helen Thomas only, because there’s a lot more going on in the Middle East.

Look, the Israelis destroyed the USS Liberty back in 1967. They killed thirty-four American sailors, wounded 170 more. And there was no coverage, simply because the US government at that time put a clamp on the verbiage of the sailors sailing. Since they’ve left the Navy, they’ve tried to get their point across, but they were not allowed to talk at that time, so that was to protect what — the crimes that Israel committed against the US Navy. There’s just a disparity. That’s my complaint.

AMY GOODMAN: But on this issue of Jews going back, she didn’t say they should go back to Israel and other places; she said they should — she didn’t use Israel as an option. And, of course, she was saying "they," not "Israeli Jews" or "Jews," but it was clear she was referring to them. And that gave people the impression she was saying that —

JAMES ABOUREZK: Now, that’s an offhanded remark. I mean, the guy caught her unawares. She probably hadn’t thought that much more about it. But I understand what she really meant: they’re taking the place of Palestinians who cannot return to Palestine, their home. That’s basically what she was trying to say. And I don’t think she ought to be hammered because of that. Look, she lost her job. She lost her position in the Press Club. She lost her position in the White House press corps. That’s punishment over-the-top for what she was really intending to say there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, throughout the two terms of the George W. Bush administration, Helen Thomas asked some of the most critical questions in the White House press newsroom. She challenged the Bush administration on issues including the Iraq war, the threat of an attack on Iran, the killings of civilians in Afghanistan, the administration’s support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Lebanon. I want to just play a few of the highlights.

    HELEN THOMAS: The United States is not that helpless. It could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis.

    TONY SNOW:

    I don’t think so, Helen.

    HELEN THOMAS: We have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.

    TONY SNOW: No, what’s interesting, Helen —-

    HELEN THOMAS: And this is what’s happening, and that’s the perception of the United States.

    TONY SNOW: Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view, but I would encourage you -—

    HELEN THOMAS: Nobody is accepting your explanation. What is restraint? You call for restraint.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, I will be glad to answer a few questions, starting with Ms. Thomas.

    HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today, at this point, bring in peacekeepers, UN peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand? You have brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraqi issue diplomatically. That’s why I went to the United Nations and worked with the United Nations Security Council, which unanimously passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. That was the message, a clear message to Saddam Hussein. He chose the course.

    HELEN THOMAS: Didn’t we go into Iraq—

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It was his decision.


AMY GOODMAN: Helen Thomas has continued to ask tough, critical questions of the Obama administration, as well, on issues including Israel-Palestine, the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and torture. Here are some of those highlights.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: All right. Helen? This is my inaugural moment here. I’m really excited.

    HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and — are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think that Pakistan —- there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke, as he is traveling throughout the region, is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations and that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens.

    With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger. And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this.

    HELEN THOMAS: When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism: if we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, Helen, the reason we originally went to Afghanistan was because that was the base from which attacks were launched that killed 3,000 people. And I’m going to get to your question, I promise, but I just want to remind people we went there because the Taliban was harboring al-Qaeda, which had launched an attack that killed 3,000 Americans.

    ROBERT GIBBS: Obviously, as we have said before, we are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and continue to work with the Israelis and international partners in order to improve those conditions. And as the UN Security Council statement says, obviously it’s an untenable situation. .

    HELEN THOMAS: Our initial reaction to this flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean you regret when something should be so strongly condemned? And if any other nation in the world had done it, we would have been up in arms. What is this sacrosanct, ironclad relationship, where a country that deliberately kills people -—

    ROBERT GIBBS: Well, again, Helen, I —-

    HELEN THOMAS: —- and boycotts, and we aid and abet the boycott?

    ROBERT GIBBS: Well, look, I think the initial reaction, regretted the loss of life, as we tried and still continue to try to gather the relevant —-

    HELEN THOMAS: Regret won’t bring them back.

    ROBERT GIBBS: Nothing can bring them back, Helen. We know that for sure, because I think if you could, that wouldn’t be up for debate. We are -— we believe that a credible and transparent investigation has to look into the facts. And as I said earlier, we’re open to international participation in that investigation.

    HELEN THOMAS: Why did you think of it so late?

    ROBERT GIBBS: Why did we think of...?

    HELEN THOMAS: Why didn’t you initially condemn it?

    ROBERT GIBBS: Again, I think the statements that we released speak directly to that.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Helen Thomas questioning Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesperson; before that, Presidents Obama and President Bush. Finally, Senator Abourezk, what do you think the White House press room will be like without Helen Thomas right there in the front row?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, it’ll be an empty suit, because — simply because she has done what good journalists are supposed to do. And what the — the White House press corps, the most supine press corps I’ve seen in years, have refused to challenge any of these presidents the way she does. So, eventually, they got her, you know, because — and she makes people uncomfortable. That’s her job, to make people be uncomfortable, and to answer truthfully questions that are asked of them. But because the other reporters don’t do that — they’re afraid to do it or whatever — they finally got her, as did the establishment, the political establishment got her, too. They were just waiting, I suppose, for some misstep that they can pounce upon to get rid of her.

I might tell you that I was listening to that part about Bush saying they were working diplomatically. Did you know that in 1998 Clinton took the weapons inspectors out of Iraq? So he wanted to bomb Iraq, so he got them out of there. Then the press later on, a couple years later, started saying, well, Saddam Hussein kicked the weapons inspectors out. Well, after 9/11, I went over a year later to Iraq, and I met with Tariq Aziz. And I said, "Look, Bush is going to start a war, and unless you get — remove his excuse, by letting the weapons inspectors back in, you’re going to get a war. So do something for yourself and the people of the world by not allowing war to happen." So he agreed to it. When I was there to ask him that, he agreed to it. They let the weapons inspectors back in, which was one of the demands that Bush was making, and it didn’t do any good. And that’s what Tariq Aziz said. The words used were "We’re doomed if we do, doomed if we don’t." Do you know, Amy, that while I was meeting with him, he said, "They were making a big stir about getting into the palaces here, so we finally let them into the palaces. What did they do? But they brought their GPS systems in to target — target these palaces. We knew what they were up to, and that scared us"?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Senator Abourezk, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Again, Helen Thomas will no longer be in the front row of the White House. Her comments posted on her website: "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon," she said.

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