Smears, Hysteria: NYT Covers Conservatives in Israel Same as in U.S.

The New York Times covers Israeli politics much the way it does American politics. Conservative Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was falsely portrayed as “crushing Israel’s free press,” and the next day was smeared with trumped-up scandals as being just a “Teflon-coated” step ahead of the law, a la Ronald Reagan.

The online headline over reporter and former Baghdad Bureau Chief James Glanz’s Monday story portrayed Netanyahu as a criminal who just hadn’t been caught (yet): “Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Still a Step Ahead of Scandals, Faces a New Inquiry.”

He and his family have been accused of improprieties as strange as trying to palm off their used lawn furniture to the prime minister’s residence, and as serious as pocketing illegal contributions from foreign donors.

And in recent weeks, leaks of allegations and investigations large and small have gradually dripped out in Israel’s competitive media caldron, with the attorney general announcing a new and potentially damaging inquiry last month.

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None of this has escaped the attention of enemies or allies, but amid all the noise, Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly proved to be a politician able to cut through potential scandal with Teflon-coated ease.

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Mr. Netanyahu, who first served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and returned to office in 2009, is now in his fourth term, after prevailing in a bitter and divisive election campaign last year.

The reasons Mr. Netanyahu has been able to maintain his magic act, analysts say, are many. He has had no formidable opponent for years. He draws support by stoking Israeli Jews’ security fears. And, as the number of disputed allegations mounts, the public may be tuning them out, buying the prime minister’s argument that opponents in a partisan media landscape are out to get him.

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In philosophical terms, that means grasping the existential threat that is the dark birthright of the Israeli Jewish population, said Mitchell Barak, a pollster in Jerusalem who worked for Mr. Netanyahu before he became prime minister.

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Even when Israel is comparatively placid on the security front, as it has been this year, Mr. Netanyahu is able to “geniously exploit” the situation, said Henriette Dahan Kalev, an emeritus professor of political science at Ben Gurion University.

Some of the “scandals” seem positively picayune.

A case in point is the lawn furniture affair. Last year, the attorney general ordered a criminal inquiry into spending at the prime minister’s residences. Among the reported allegations was that Mr. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, had used government funds to buy a new set of lawn furniture -- identical to a used set at one of the family’s private residences -- then had kept the new stuff and moved the secondhand furniture to the official residence.

Glanz forwarded some anti-Netanyahu wishful thinking.

Whatever the outcome of the current allegations, the high-wire act cannot go on forever, said Amiel Ungar, a political scientist and columnist who lives in the settlement of Tekoa in the occupied West Bank.

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Mr. Ben Simon said only irrefutable evidence of financial wrongdoing could produce a scandal large enough to bring Mr. Netanyahu down. In that case, support for the prime minister would finally vanish, and the fall would be one for the ages, Mr. Ben Simon said.

“It will end up on a Shakespearean stage,” he said.

The other part of the one-two punch against Netanyahu came from Ruth Margalit, who penned a hysterical piece for the Times Sunday Review, with an equally over-the-top headline: “How Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press.”

In its annual report released this spring, Freedom House, an American democracy advocacy organization, downgraded Israel’s freedom of the press ranking from “free” to “partly free.” To anyone following Israeli news media over the past year and a half, this was hardly surprising. Freedom House focused primarily on the “unchecked expansion” of paid content in editorial pages, as well as on the outsize influence of Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), a free daily newspaper owned by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and widely believed to promote the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In many ways, the Freedom House report missed the real worrying shifts. Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to control the country’s pages and airwaves go much further than Israel Hayom. For the past 18 months, in addition to his prime ministerial duties, he has served as Israel’s communications minister (as well as its foreign minister, economy minister and minister of regional cooperation). In this role, he and his aides have brazenly leveraged his power to seek favorable coverage from outlets that he once routinely described as “radically biased.”

Efforts to stifle freedom of the press can be seen as part of a broader attack by Mr. Netanyahu and his ministers on Israel’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court and nongovernmental organizations. Dissent from the official government line is consistently called into suspicion. In this climate, the news media has become a personal battleground for Mr. Netanyahu. Nahum Barnea, a pre-eminent Israeli columnist, said last year that Mr. Netanyahu’s “obsession” with the news media showed him to be “gripped by fear and paranoia.”

So sinister is Netanyahu that he wants to (gasp!) get more diversity of voices in Israeli journalism! In the upside-down world of the left, “Sometimes competition is the refuge of the antidemocrat.” Seriously?

In broadcast journalism, Mr. Netanyahu has installed associates in positions of authority where he can, and has cast doubt on the financial future of places he can’t. All three of Israel’s main television news channels - Channel 2, Channel 10 and the Israel Broadcasting Authority -- are now in danger of being fragmented, shut down or overhauled, respectively. The government’s official reason behind these moves is to open up the communications industry to more competition. But there seems to be a double standard: On other issues, like natural gas, the prime minister has been loath to take a stand against monopolies. As Ilana Dayan, a leading investigative journalist for Channel 2, told me: “Sometimes competition is the refuge of the antidemocrat.”

While journalists tend to rue these latest developments, many Israelis view Mr. Netanyahu’s battle for control over the news media as a long-overdue corrective after years of a liberal or left-wing bias...

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Although for years the most widely read daily, Yediot Ahronot, and its owner took a decidedly anti-Netanyahu line, claims of left-wing bias fall flat these days, when most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News, and when the only remaining liberal bastion -- Haaretz -- struggles to stay afloat. And yet Mr. Netanyahu continues to present himself as a victim of a vindictive press.

Liel Leibovitz eviscerated Margalit’s line of attack in “Sorry, ‘New York Times,’ But Israel’s Press Is Doing Just Fine -- Another day, another ridiculous opinion piece in the paper of record” for Tablet.

Did you hear the one about the Middle Eastern country that really cracked down on its freedom of the press? Not Turkey, where 42 journalists were arrested last week in the latest assault on the tenets of democracy; I’m talking, of course, about Israel, the subject of yet another grim opinion piece this weekend in The New York Times.

....You would hardly believe the depraved things Jerusalem’s demonic despot would do to solidify his grasp on power. Bibi, Margalit solemnly informs us, appoints people who agree with him politically to key positions in government. Shocked yet? Get this: He also has his office call newspapers and websites and try to spin the news in his favor.

If such benighted moves fail to shake you to the core, if you still don’t feel the chill of fascism’s shadow, Margalit has one last bit of damning evidence for you. Take a deep breath: To crush the precious freedom flower that is Israel’s press, Bibi, that monster, is opening up the media market to more competition.

Netanyahu’s own spokesman David Keyes responded in a letter to the editor on Tuesday.

Ms. Margalit’s attack obscures the real story: A longstanding media monopoly in Israel with one-sided views seeks to shut out alternative voices by stifling market competition that would give choices to viewers and readers.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.