Roni Daniel, Israel’s high-profile rough-and-ready onscreen military correspondent has always been easy to ridicule.
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A grizzled veteran commander in the Israel Defense Forces, Daniel has been lampooned as an overly-patriotic war junkie who patently relishes the national spotlight that shines on him when the missiles fly. During the 2008 conflict with Gaza, Israel’s “Saturday Night Live” equivalent Eretz Nehederet portrayed him as an aging Rambo — reporting from the front lines shirtless, streaked with mud and dirt, wearing a bandana, machine gun bullets strapped across his bare chest, and punctuating his observations with a burst of gunfire.
Daniel frequently delivers his reporting and commentary with such authority that he often seems less like a journalist than an extension of the IDF. On one hand, his chummy attitude towards top commanders convinces viewers that he surely has the inside scoop. On the other, his unabashed personal identification with the military he covers leaves him wide open to legitimate criticism as being an IDF mouthpiece, unable to report with proper objective distance.
It’s undeniable that the army uses their cozy relationship with him as a tool to keep the population calm in wartime — his tone is often “stay calm, the military has everything under control — trust me.” Even when Israelis don’t completely believe it, hearing him say it makes them feel better. All of this has made Daniel, as my colleague Chemi Shalev put it, “a journalist so firmly embedded in the heart of the consensus that his status can be compared to that of Walter Cronkite.”
And it was with full awareness of this status that Daniel launched into a live on-camera monologue Friday night that became the talk of the country. His rant was a bellwether moment, demonstrating that the political roller coaster ride on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the country over the past week had upset and unsettled parts of the population beyond the usual leftist naysayers and opportunistic politician.
“I’m not a young man,” said Daniel. “I grew up on Kibbutz Maoz Haim. I plowed the fields next to the Jordan River. They told us to go to the army — we went to the army. They told us to become officers, we became officers and commanders and served in the reserves. I went and fought all of the wars I was asked to fight. For the first time I feel — because of these kind of politics ... like I’m not sure that I want my children to live here.”
Daniel shouted in protest and even banged his fist on the table when fellow panelists — half his age — suggested that he was upset because his friend (and probably one of his best sources) Defense Minister, and former chief of staff Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon had been treated shabbily, unceremoniously replaced with the unqualified and unpredictable Avigdor Lieberman.
“No!” Daniel cried angrily — for him, this went deeper than defending one man. “It’s because our regime’s culture doesn’t give us room to live and breathe!” He then rattled off a list of rightist Likud — Miri Regev, Yariv Levin, and Ze’ev Elkin, whom he compared to “Rasputin” along with radical right-wing activist Benzi Gopstein, leader of the far-right Lehava group, which threw a celebration party in honor of Ya’alon’s ouster.
The real-life monologue has been compared to fictional anchorman Howard Beal’s famed diatribe in the movie Network — the prophetic film that foresaw reality television and the rise of media-fed demagogues like Donald Trump: Like the legendary Beal speech: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it any more,” Daniel’s cri de coeur was both authentic and good theater. For those of Daniel’s generation, the idea of abandoning Israel or wanting one’s children to leave their homeland was once the source of deepest shame.
Saying it out loud on national television was a signal that battle-scarred men like Daniel had reached the end their rope. It was one thing to watch Netanyahu jettison other Likud up-and-comers like Moshe Kahlon or Gideon Sa’ar as he had in the past. But when Netanyahu sent Ya’alon packing in favor of Lieberman, a line was crossed. The nation’s defense was being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. It was as if everything they fought for was falling apart under irresponsible leadership.
And so although there was plenty of reaction across the political spectrum, from Ehud Barak lamenting the “seeds of fascism” to Benny Begin calling the Lieberman appointment “insane” it was Daniel’s speech that Israelis couldn’t stop talking about over the weekend and over the water coolers as the work week began. They’d seen him angry in the past, even frustrated and disgusted with the government’s behavior.
But never before had they seen their cocky onscreen military authority so genuinely scared of the future, so much so that he feels his children might be better off somewhere else.
When Rambo is frightened, it’s probably time for everyone else to start worrying, too.