An old story: In September 2001, the Labor Party held primary elections. Among the candidates were Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer and Avraham Burg. A month before the elections, a leading Israeli newspaper ran a series of exposes about Burg. Although the candidate had committed no crime, the stories created the impression of improprieties. The result was Orwellian: Burg, flighty but uncorrupt, came to the polls besmirched and lost, while notorious wheeler-dealer Ben-Eliezer showed up for the elections clean as the driven snow and won.
Burg was not a worthy candidate for the Labor leadership. The injustice done to him seven years ago is grave, but it no longer matters. What does matter in the story of how the Labor's 2001 primaries were swayed is the media. The media in Israel is once again swaying the democratic process.
Our last media week was Benjamin Netanyahu Week. A week of dirty laundry. A week of digging through the bar checks and laundry bills of the opposition leader. So that at the end of the week, it is fitting that we take a broad, calm view of the latest scandal.
Why is a country that has Ahmadinejad lying in wait for it so preoccupied with the NIS 131,000 spent by someone else. What did we froth at the mouth about this week; what stimulated our glands of nastiness quite so vigorously.
Channel 10 was doing worthwhile work when it investigated Netanyahu's stay at the Connaught Hotel. Israelis should know how their leaders live, and they should especially know how their leaders act in a time of war.
True, the Israeli media has yet to publish a description of the New York suites in which Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert stayed while his city was plagued with bombings. Nor have there been media reports on the schedule of meetings and dinners that Prime Minister Olmert held with his billionaires during the Second Lebanon War. And no journalist, surely, has thought to track down Shimon Peres' bar checks during his peace travels.
And still, the report on Benjamin and Sarah Netanyahu's conduct during the war was appropriate. The revelations on Channel 10 should have caused the Netanyahus to lower their heads and adopt a more modest demeanor.
In the wake of this embarrassing exposure, they must understand that there can be no national leadership without ethical conduct. In Israel you can't preach blood, sweat and tears from cushy first-class armchairs.
However, while the opposition leader and his wife are searching their conscience, the media should search its own. It needs to ask itself what was this free-for-all that raged here for long days in the wake of Raviv Drucker's journalistic coup.
It must ask itself why it dealt with Netanyahu so severely in areas where it affords other leaders some leniency. It must explain why it keeps creating misleading appearances that bear a remarkable similarity to the misleading appearance created during Burg and Ben-Eliezer's primary race seven years ago.
We should keep in mind: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now under investigation in the Cremieux affair, in the Investments Center affair and in the Small Business Authority affair. The Israeli media does not frequently report on these investigations.
The media bon ton is that we've had enough. We no longer want to pry too deeply into our coddled prime minister. We don't want to hear, we don't want to know. Therefore, a blind eye is turned to the pens that Olmert received as gifts from the wealthy and powerful.
The same willingness to overlook applies to the fact that the prime minister was about to sell a large bank to a good friend with the help of another good friend.
But Sarah Netanyahu's laundry and the family's overall lapse of good taste and proper public conduct are loudly denounced. The role of the media in a democracy is to criticize the entire political system, government and opposition. In well-ordered states, however, the media protects freedom by directing most of its firepower at those who rule.
In less orderly states, the media serves those who rule by directing most of its firepower at the opposition. When it does, the media is no longer upholding the due democratic process, but rather placing it in jeopardy.
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