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A Tumultuous Democracy

Viewpoints, November 2016
Ben-Dror Yemini

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There is an incomprehensible rift between Israel’s tumultuous democracy and the conduct of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the media. The local media has enjoyed absolute freedom, as is the norm in Western democracies. Even diatribes against the state, not only against the government, are seen as part of freedom of expression.

Netanyahu, however, seems to be treading the path of Turkish President Recep Erdogan and seeks to force the media to be much more obedient. He will not succeed. Israel is not Turkey. But the conduct of the prime minister is questionable.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership Israel has managed to immunize itself against the total collapse of many countries in the Middle East. Israel has woven a fabric of relations with countries in the region, including Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia that is quite impressive.

There is a lot of talk about a regional alliance – Netanyahu is managing to create one. Israel’s ties with African countries, India and China are progressing in both the political and economic spheres.

Apart from the continuing failure to solve the housing crisis, Israel enjoys economic prosperity; with low unemployment rates; an increasing percentage of ultra-Orthodox entering the workforce, and an unprecedented investment program in the Arab sector. These achievements are not despite Netanyahu, they are also thanks to Netanyahu

There are also failures. Netanyahu has mostly bungled relations with the US and needlessly hurt the national interest. His anti-Iran deal speech in Congress was counter-productive. He bungled the negotiations for US military aid package and ultimately Israel received far less than it could have been got.

Channel 2 TV host Ilana Dayan was the subject of a personal attack by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; here she reads his response to her investigative report on him; Credit: Channel 2 TV.

Channel 2 TV host Ilana Dayan was the subject of a personal attack by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; here she reads his response to her investigative report on him; Credit: Channel 2 TV.

Netanyahu also routinely surrenders to ultra-Orthodox pressure, thus deepening the divide between Israel and the majority of American Jews belonging to the Reform and Conservative streams. How do we expect these movements to back Israel if the prime minister defers to the ultra-Orthodox?

However, overall Netanyahu deserve a fairer deal from the Israeli media. It sometimes forgoes serious criticism, but rather indulges in obsessive hostility. Netanyahu’s achievements are hardly mentioned. His flaws are emphasized excessively. The result is a gap between the real Netanyahu and the treatment he gets in the media.

“There is a gap between the real Netanyahu and the treatment he gets in the media”

But the perceived bias against Netanyahu does not justify how Netanyahu is handling his latest tussle with the media. After the government had implemented a decision to establish a new independent public broadcasting corporation, Netanyahu decided, suddenly, to backtrack and restore the old Israel Broadcasting Authority. Once again he has engineered a crisis that could lead to new elections.

An example of Netanyahu’s kneejerk reaction against the media came in the wake of an investigative report against him aired on the “Uvda” program on Channel 2, the most watched local channel. There is something disturbing about the fact that Netanyahu refrained from responding to the allegations that appeared in the report and chose to personally attack “Uvda” host Ilana Dayan. This is not the way the prime minister should respond.

The worst consequence is that the prime minister’s war on the “leftist” media reinforces the contention that Israel is becoming less and less democratic and that freedom of speech being impaired. However, this is not the case. The very fact that such a program so critical of the prime minister was broadcast p the opposite. It is also worth remembering that the media “bias” against Netanyahu did not prevent him being elected time and again. This is not an anomaly. On the contrary, this is the heart and soul of democracy.

The same goes for a proposed bill that would bar Israelis from criticizing the country before international bodies. This became an issue following the appearance of a representative of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, at the UN Security Council. He called on member states to take action against Israeli settlement policies. The heated public debate on this topic as well as the furor over Netanyahu’s attacks on the media, illustrate the strength of Israeli democracy.

Those who attempt to create the opposite impression, including Netanyahu himself, do not actually harm democracy and freedom of expression, but do manage to sully the image of the State of Israel.

Ben-Dror Yemini is a senior journalist with the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth.