After publishing a controversial letter charging Israel with a “ruthless assault” on Gaza in the summer, the editor of a leading British medical journal told The Times of Israel that he has completely changed his view of the Jewish state after a short visit — but he’s not retracting the letter. The furthest he will go is to apologize for the effect it had.

After spending Sept. 29-Oct. 2 touring Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and meeting with Israeli Arabs in Haifa, Acre, and Tel Aviv, Prof. Richard Horton told Haifa doctors that he “deeply regretted” the impact of the letter.

In an hour-long telephone interview with The Times of Israel from London, Horton said that his visit to Israel expanded his perspective on Israel and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He defended his refusal to apologize or to retract the letter, but he said that his visit had contradicted some of the letter’s claims, and he pledged not to publish a similar letter in the future.

“While the letter was well intentioned, because it was this cry of anguish, it did not convey the level of complexity that is the reality in Israel, and it’s that level of complexity which I saw last week, which having seen it, I want to build something from so that we never publish a letter like that again,” said Horton, who has been editor-in-chief of The Lancet since 1995.

A controversial letter

The events that brought Horton to Israel began when, at the height of Operation Protective Edge in July, The Lancet published “An open letter for the people in Gaza.” The letter condemned in emotional terms Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 50-day war with Hamas, as a “ruthless assault of unlimited duration, extent, and intensity.”

Palestinian responsibility and rocket fire at Israel went unaddressed. Instead, the letter contained a reference to Gazans “resisting this aggression because they want a better and normal life.”

It’s not the journal’s first experience with controversy. In 1998, under Horton’s editorship, The Lancet published a bogus study that purported to link vaccination with autism in children. That set off an anti-vaccination campaign that is still going on, though Horton’s journal retracted the flawed study in 2010.

After the strident letter, The Lancet was flooded with responses, both for and against its message, and the journal’s ombudsman launched an investigation. NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel think tank in Jerusalem, revealed that two of the letter’s primary authors have sympathies with the views of David Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard.

Horton appeared to initially dismiss the disclosures, telling the Daily Mail they were “a smear campaign.”

In the midst of the controversy, Horton accepted an invitation from Rambam Hospital Director Prof. Rafi Beyar and Prof. Kari Skorecki to visit Israel to see first hand how its medical system works. Horton said that despite feeling connected to the Middle East and visiting often, he had never before been to an Israeli hospital.

He said he was surprised by the “undeservedly” warm welcome he received. During the three-day visit, Horton met with staff of the hospital, over a quarter of whom are Israeli Arabs, as well as with Israeli, Palestinian, and Syrian patients being treated there.

On Thursday, Horton gave a speech to doctors at Rambam hospital, saying, “I deeply, deeply regret the completely unnecessary polarization” caused by the letter. He also condemned the white supremacist views the letter’s authors had circulated. Horton promised to write the same things in an editorial in The Lancet, which he did on Friday.

Horton spoke more personally with The Times of Israel. He described his views before visiting Israel as shaped largely by pro-Palestinian friends, by the Western media, and by critical letters from pro-Israel readers. Meeting Israelis and seeing the work Israeli doctors are doing, he said, expanded his perspective.

“I’ve seen another side to this which I haven’t seen before,” he said. “I think before, I just saw conflict actually, and destruction, heartbreaking destruction. I now know good people on the Israeli side, good people on the Palestinians side, and I didn’t know anyone on the Israeli side.”

Horton said he would not apologize for publishing the Gaza open letter, because he if had not published it, he “wouldn’t have had this kind of revelatory experience.” He said he was not retracting the letter, because it did not include incorrect or unethical research. But he did say that what he saw in Israel contradicted some of the letter’s claims.

A changed man?

The letter suggested that Israeli academics “are complicit in the massacre and destruction of Gaza.” But Horton said he saw Arabs, including Gazans wounded in the war, receiving world-class treatment at Rambam Hospital, in exactly the same way as other patients. The hospital’s Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab doctors worked side by side and reported no discrimination, he said.

“What I saw last week was a group of Israeli health professionals who are dedicating themselves to serving their Arab neighbors, both within Israel and outside of Israel. So what I saw last week directly contradicted that letter,” Horton said.

The letter also said that Israeli “attacks aim to terrorize, wound the soul and the body of the people, and make their life impossible in the future, as well as also demolishing their homes and prohibiting the means to rebuild.” But doctors at Rambam hospital who had served in the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza war told Horton that Israel took extreme precautions to prevent civilian casualties and that they and other soldiers had put themselves as personal risk to this end.

“One has to have immense respect for that point of view, and I have to ask myself, ‘In that situation how would I behave?’” said Horton. “It’s very easy from an armchair in London to be critical, and much more difficult when you’re in a combat zone to live out your ideals.”

Inspired by what he saw in Haifa — and by a visit with the chief rabbi of Acre and the chief imam of the city’s Al Jazaar mosque — Horton said he plans to publish a series of five articles about health care in Israel. He said he will return to Israel in January to coordinate the series. Rambam Hospital staff and Israeli Health Minister Yael German, who met with him on his visit, have agreed to contribute articles.

Calling the academic boycott of Israel “a complete disaster,” Horton said he also wants to establish a medical conference to promote dialogue and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian health professionals. In 2009, Horton ran a similar series of articles about health in the Palestinian territories. He followed up by launching annual the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance Conference with the World Health Organization.

Beyar, the Rambam hospital director, expressed cautious optimism that Horton’s views had been genuinely changed by the visit. “During the days he spent here, Prof. Horton made personal contacts with people here, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians. My feeling is that what he told us in his official speech and in private talks was sincere. But only time will tell.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor and political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, was skeptical.

“I can’t tell whether someone has had a change of heart or not, but certainly for the last eight or 10 years at The Lancet, Horton has been one of the leaders of demonization of Israel,” he said. “Horton came [to Israel] only after NGO Monitor had exposed the connection between the authors of the Gaza letter and white supremacist David Duke. The sequence of events speaks for itself.”

While crediting Horton with taking important steps, Steinberg and NGO Monitor have demanded that he formally apologize in The Lancet, retract the letter and any inaccurate articles The Lancet has published about Israel in the past, and establish review processes for articles on complex political issues, like the Arab-Israeli conflict.