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100-day Graceless Period

The following prediction will almost certainly come true: Within a few days, Benjamin Netanyahu's people will say the media is harassing him and not granting him his 100-day grace period.

The following prediction will almost certainly come true: Within a few days, Benjamin Netanyahu's people will say the media is harassing him and not granting him his 100-day grace period. Some eloquent spokesman or MK will lament that journalists can't reconcile themselves to the voters' choice to put the right wing behind the steering wheel. That's how the Israeli media operates - it rushes to crown a prime minister and tries to undermine him the minute he hangs up his coat.

In 1996, three days after the first Netanyahu government was sworn in, the following appeared in this newspaper: "Netanyahu is pulling the wool over our eyes .... The man has a worrisome quality - his ability to deceive is greater than what we've seen in any other public figure." Another pundit wrote that "the problem is that Netanyahu has decided he alone wields authority, that he is smarter than everyone and needs no one but his lackeys." According to another article in the same edition, "the next four years will be years of upheaval for the rule of law, for the Supreme Court, and perhaps also for the public security minister."

But Netanyahu is no exception. I have done research showing the media's treatment of eight prime ministers from 1974 to 2001. All faced fierce criticism at the start of their terms, regardless of their party. After Yitzhak Rabin's inauguration in 1974, one media outlet cried: "The state's interest will be served if this government is a passing phenomenon and is replaced as soon as possible." In 2001, long before he became the media's darling, Ariel Sharon was accused of knowing only how to "punch and swing a billy club." Ehud Barak was described two years previously as having surrounded himself with a staff of ticking bombs of suspicion and jealousy.

Still, the press would be neglecting its duty if it did not criticize the government so heavily in its first 100 days. In that period, politicians do not merely acquaint themselves with their new environs, but seek to take action as quickly as possible. The breakthrough in Israel-Egypt relations came at the start of Menachem Begin's term, Shimon Peres began intensive talks on an economic plan upon taking office in 1984, and Netanyahu opened the Western Wall tunnel shortly after being sworn in in 1996. The pace at which new prime ministers begin new initiatives obligates journalists to express their opinions without considering whether to treat the regime gently for just having entered office.

Media criticism of the government during its first 100 days is merely an appetizer to the sharper, shriller censure that comes later. The media also tends to be far more critical of unity governments than narrow coalitions, fulfilling its democratic obligation to strengthen the opposition, whose position is weaker the broader the ruling coalition.

Netanyahu took heavy blows during his first term in office, mainly because of his personal conduct. This time around, his appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister hardly improves his chances of enjoying favorable press coverage. Nor will his addition of the Labor Party to the mix improve his standing in the domestic or world media. He can only hope the criticism, particularly in his first 100 days, is substantive and policy-focused - not about some exorbitant cigar budget or burned-soup scandal. We can only hope Netanyahu has learned from his mistakes and does not give the press the pleasure of concerning itself with such trivialities.

The writer is editor of the Haaretz Web site.