Fifty-one percent of the respondents polled in the survey indicated that Binyamin Netanyahu was the candidate most suited to be prime minister. 28% stated that Isaac “Buji” Herzog is most suited… – Channel 2 poll, February 16
Israel’s democracy is under assault… The greatest danger to Israeli democracy emanates from those masquerading as its champions. – From “Distorting democracy,” The Jerusalem Post, July 28, 2011
Over the last few weeks, Israeli democracy has been under brutal and sustained attack in a desperate effort to subvert the will of the people.
Coup attempt by media not military
What we are witnessing is, in effect, little less than an attempt at a bloodless coup d’état – conducted, not by the military, but by the messianic, indeed manic, mainstream media, buttressed by affiliated like-minded civil society elites, in a frenzied effort to impose their minority worldview on the nation.
Enraged by their inability to rally sufficient public support, on substantive policy issues, to unseat the object of their visceral enmity, Benjamin Netanyahu, and nonplussed by the tenacity of his “delinquent” hold on the premiership, despite their undisguised loathing, his political rivals have despaired of removing him from office by normal electoral means.
Instead, they have descended into an unprecedented nadir of mean-spirited malevolence in Israeli public life.
Rather than engaging in a substantive debate on how to conduct the affairs of the nation, they have embarked on a dishonorable – the less charitable might say “disgraceful” – attempt to oust a prime minister by means of a maelstrom of petty and pernicious ad hominem attacks. These have been directed not only against Netanyahu but, principally, against his spouse, who – whatever her character defects may (or may not) be, is hardly a relevant factor in determining his ability to govern.
Ignoring ISIS, Iran and Islamists…
Devoid of any persuasive policy alternative of real substance, and of alternative candidate of authentic stature, Netanyahu’s left-leaning detractors have mobilized to exploit their unelected positions of power and privilege to launch a massive media blitz against him and his wife – with the naked intention of degrading his political stature by denigrating his/her alleged personal excesses.
Thus, in a country gearing for elections, facing the specter of a nuclear Iran, an ascendant Islamic State threatening stability in Jordan, an Islamist takeover of much of Syria, the deployment of Iranian-bolstered Hezbollah forces on the Golan, growing jihadist dominance of Sinai, and burgeoning anti-Semitism across Europe, the national media somehow found it appropriate to focus almost exclusively on “strategically crucial” issues such as who received (gasp) $1,000 paid for recycled bottles from the PM’s official residence, whether Sara Netanyahu’s hairdos were excessively costly, or whether the prime minister’s garden furniture had been purchased in strict accordance with prescribed guidelines.
Really? While I would not wish to belittle, in anyway, the need for personal integrity of public officials and for keeping a stringent lookout to ensure the judicious use of taxpayers’ hardearned money – what we witnessed in the recent days was not a display of unbiased investigative journalism.
Political putsch by the press
It was a carefully choreographed and coordinated attempt at a political putsch by the press.
It is difficult to find any other explanation to account for the scope and intensity of the extraordinary media circus – or perhaps more accurately feeding frenzy – the public has been subjected to.
The insanity reached an astounding crescendo with Tuesday’s publication of the State Comptroller’s Report on the expenses for the upkeep of prime minister residences.
True, the report was newsworthy, and should have been reported – but the wildly excessive attention devoted to it revealed a disturbing imbalance in the nation’s mainstream media.
True, the press in Israel has never been suspected of political neutrality, or accused of nonpartisan objectivity.
This was vividly illustrated in the protective blackout of negative reporting on Arik Sharon, openly – and scandalously – admitted by prominent figures in both the printed and electronic media, when Sharon decided on the 2005 unilateral pullout from Gaza.
Much the same could be said for the pervasive permissiveness of the press towards the left-leaning Ehud Olmert, who despite his initial criminal conviction, was embraced – indeed, touted – as a worthy candidate for reelection for prime minister, who could successfully challenge Netanyahu.
But in the run-up to the election, the blatant bias of the media has exceeded all previous bounds, not only as to what and how intensively it chooses to cover in the news, but as to what it chooses to downplay and even omit, all in an endeavor to impose its worldview – and that of allied left-leaning elites – on a recalcitrant electorate.
Watchdog, lapdog – or attack dog?
Recent events raise deeply disturbing questions as to the conduct and professional integrity of Israel’s mainstream opinion-makers.
Indeed, they will do little to boost public trust in the media’s professed ability to fulfill its role as the nation’s watchdog. Depending on one’s political proclivities, the media are increasingly perceived as the lapdog (of the Left) or attack dog (against the Right).
The public trust in the media is among the lowest for any of the country’s institutions – far lower than that for the political establishment, whether government, Knesset and – yes even the prime minster.
The press should have much room for soul-searching when it comes to its credibility.
According to the distinctly leftist Israel Democracy Institute, public trust in the media plummeted from just under 50% in 2013 to barely 25% in 2014, the lowest of all institutions surveyed.
Its antics in the past few days illustrate why this is so.
Consider: This was the first audit of its kind by the state comptroller of expenses incurred for the running/ maintenance of the prime minister’s residence( s) ever compiled, “mysteriously” made public just weeks before the general election.
The inauspicious (or auspicious – depending on one’s political predilections) timing of the release of the report lends strong credence to claims by Netanyahu’s associates that this was the result of strong, sustained pressure from media sources on the comptroller to do so.
Curiouser and curiouser…
Nowhere in the report, or in the savage coverage that accompanied it, was there any reference to the behavior of previous prime ministers, who held office over the last quarter century – none of whom was renowned for his frugality.
The hedonistic habits of Arik Sharon, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were hardly a state secret. Likewise, the late Yitzhak Rabin’s wife, Leah, was never known for endearing personal traits or modesty in matters materialistic.
Yet none of these cases – all of which stood in stark contrast to the rigorous asceticism of their predecessors such as Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir – were mentioned as criterion for comparison to give context to the comptroller’s criticism.
The fact that the expenses incurred for upkeep of the prime minister’s residences were dwarfed by those the state comptroller found for the upkeep of the residence of president Shimon Peres was glibly glossed over, and accentuated even further the sense of adversarial double standards being applied to Netanyahu.
But perhaps the most remarkable – and revealing – event in this sorry saga is the case of Meni Naftali, a disgruntled former employee, who was head caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, and who is suing the Netanyahus over a number of labor grievances.
Carefully choreographed collusion?
On the evening of the publication of the State Comptroller’s Report, Naftali, accompanied by his lawyer, reportedly closely associated with far-left organizations in Israel, was able to organize a televised press conference that was covered, in real-time, on all three national TV channels, in which he gave an unflattering account of life in the Netanyahu household.
Anyone remotely familiar with Israeli media will know how extraordinarily difficult it would be to pull off such a PR feat – even when far weightier issues than a personal labor dispute of a mid-level civil servant are involved.
It is hard to conceive of any reason why anyone in the position held by Naftali would be given such massive media exposure unless his appearance could be used to blacken the image of the prime minister.
On Wednesday, reports began to surface that cast grave doubts as to the veracity of Naftali’s allegations, and raise equally grave suspicions as to the media’s improper involvement in propagating them.
Maverick investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak, of the Hebrew-language News1 website, revealed that Naftali had submitted contradictory versions in two different court cases as to his reasons for leaving the employment of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Thus, in a 2014 affidavit relating to the labor dispute with the Netanyahu family, Naftali cites humiliating treatment and broken promises as the reason for his resignation. By contrast, in an earlier 2013 declaration, in a criminal case against his father, who was convicted of stabbing a neighbor, he stated that he resigned to help his family.
Choreographed collusion (cont.)
These stark inconsistencies spurred Yitzhak to write the following withering indictment of Naftali and mainstream media: “These documents prove that, in contrast to the false version that he [Naftali] gave in recent days to several media channels, and to the court, the truth he is trying to conceal is very simple: Meni Naftali – as we will soon show – states himself, that he resigned from his position at the Prime Minister’s Residence in order to help his father, Naftali Naftali, who was involved in violent crimes, for which he was convicted and imprisoned.
“From Meni Naftali’s conduct, it is clear he has been lying to the public for months in an attempt to incriminate Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Netanyahu.
Naftali teamed up with various elements, including Yediot Aharonot, Channel 10 and Channel 2 to remove Netanyahu from office.
This collaboration involved the close coverage he received from these media channels, without his grave allegations being corroborated by appropriate journalistic tools.”
The very first column I wrote in this “Into the Fray” series was titled “Distorting democracy” (July 28, 2011). On reading through it recently, I was – perhaps immodestly – struck by how relevant much of it seems today. I cannot resist repeating some of it here.
I wrote then:
“Israel’s democracy is under assault… The real threat to Israeli democracy arises from those who aspire to put themselves above it – a tyrannical clique… which considers itself unbound by the results of the democratic process. It is a threat that flows from an arrogant class of an unelected – but empowered – few, whose self-perceived moral and intellectual superiority instills in them the belief that they have the right – indeed the duty – to subvert the choice of the ‘unwashed’ electorate. It is a threat that emerges from a privileged minority imbued with unbridled conviction that they are permitted – even obliged – to impose their worldview on the nation, undeterred by its rejection at the polls and with no qualms about enlisting foreign elements to apply punitive measures against their country until it submits to their will.”
The final sentence of this citation is laden with ominous significance – especially when domestic anti-Netanyahu elements are collaborating with foreign-funded groups like V15.
It opens up a myriad of topics each of which merits an entire column on its own. Sadly, I will have defer dealing with them to another time – and subject to breaking news – I hope prior to March 17.
The choice: Foretold disappointment or untold disaster
Let us conclude by conveying what I see as the bleak, but inevitable, choice confronting the concerned, involved voter next month.
Netanyahu is a deeply flawed candidate for prime minister – and I have expressed my disappointment with his performance repeatedly in this column. I suspect that if he is reelected, he will again disappoint.
However, real life is composed of available alternatives. Today, the only feasible alternative is vastly worse, by orders of magnitude.
Handing the reins of power to the Herzog- Livni duo and the motley assortment of unprincipled failures and unabashed anti-Zionists who comprise their Knesset candidates list would be a disaster of untold proportions.
That then is the choice: foretold disappointment or untold disaster – and that is not a difficult choice at all.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategicisrael.org)