Roni Daniel, the Channel 12 news military analyst who died unexpectedly on Monday at age 73, was a journalist of a type we don’t produce here anymore. There probably weren’t many like him even when he began his media career in the early 1970s.
Daniel was both coarse and warmhearted (you sometimes had to get through the first trait to discern the second). He loved Israel with all his heart and saw his journalistic work as a direct continuation of his long years of military service, first as a combat soldier and then as an officer in the reserves.
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Born in Iraq in 1947, he moved to Israel with his mother as a baby. His father, who was involved in bringing Jews to Israel from Iraq, died there.
He grew up on Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit She’an Valley. To his many friends – myself among them – his character seemed to have been formed by those years of endless work in the fields, basketball games and standing guard at night with a rifle along the Jordanian border at an age when such boys today aren’t allowed near a gun.
A military career was, to him, an obvious choice. A soldier and officer in the Nahal Brigade, he was wounded in Sinai during the 1967 Six-Day War but quickly returned from the hospital to the front. Later he was one of the reserve officers who volunteered to beef up border posts along the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition (1967-70). He served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and commanded a reserve infantry battalion during the first intifada (1987-93).
Consequently, he garnered broader experience in the ranks than most military correspondents. This was evident in both his many acquaintances and his quick grasp of tactical situations. With Daniel, brigade commanders didn’t feel the need for lengthy explanations.
After finishing his military service, he started as a reporter for Israel Radio. Despite being a military correspondent, one of his greatest professional achievements during those days was covering the peace talks with Egypt in 1978-79. He would go on to tell extravagant tales about how he had recruited sources there and beat out his competitors for the biggest scoops.
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Though he was skeptical of diplomatic processes, he embraced the peace with Egypt enthusiastically. His colleagues suspected that this stemmed from his wartime experiences. But Daniel, who always downplayed the effect that his personal experiences had on his personality and worldview, never confirmed this.
After several years at Israel Radio, he became Channel 12’s military analyst in 1993, when the station began broadcasting. That’s where he developed the journalistic style familiar to the public – blunt, diligent, hawkish, sometimes almost warmongering.
His impersonators on the satirical television show “Eretz Nehederet” aptly captured this style – half Rambo, half Cato the Elder, urging the army to enter the Gaza Strip and defeat Hamas once and for all. Roni, as was very typical of him, was always amused by the impersonations and never dreamed of being insulted.
During 20-odd years of friendship and shared work, we agreed professionally about very little. Such disagreements never stopped him from helping his friends and colleagues with boundless generosity. But when he disliked colleagues or suspected them of dishonesty, he could be scathing.
Daniel was convivial and had enormous charm. Long before the selfie era, it was impossible to walk down the street or sit in a restaurant with him without encountering loads of fans. Israelis liked and admired him, as periodic polls by the station proved.
Somewhat surprisingly, Arabs admired him too. In the late 1990s, we both covered a special forces siege of a Hamas cell from Gaza that was hiding in the Israeli Arab town of Taibeh. The incident attracted thousands of curious onlookers. Roni walked around like a local star.
The biggest criticism of Daniel, voiced mainly by the left, was that he was too close to the defense establishment, a kind of Israel Defense Forces spokesman with no uniform. I've written in the past, and still think to this day, that this is a misunderstanding.
Daniel was a spokesman for the IDF he wanted to have – a moral army that took the initiative and won, like the one he served in during the 1960s. But when the real IDF failed to meet his high expectations, on topics ranging from battlefield courage to strict but devoted caring of soldiers, he didn’t spare it his wrath.
Nor did he hesitate to intervene in the field when he witnessed improper conduct. During the Israel-Hamas war in late 2008, I saw him tongue-lash a tank officer on the Gaza border for letting a group of Chabad Hasidim storm the tanks shouting “death to the Arabs.” The embarrassed officer quickly stopped the rampage.
Daniel never hesitated to express his political opinions on air, even though these elicited a lot of right-wing denunciations in recent years. The peak was in 2016, when Moshe Ya’alon was maneuvered out of the Defense Ministry after clashing with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Elor Azaria, a soldier who killed a Palestinian assailant after the latter had already been subdued.
Daniel took the debacle personally, and delivered what would later be called the "plow monologue." He said he had always done what was expected of him as an Israeli patriot, from plowing the kibbutz’s fields to volunteering for combat service. But now, he said, he’s no longer certain he wants his children to live in Israel.
The speech generated shock waves. And many people certainly identified with him. But the editors of the Friday night news magazine had a problem: He gave this speech at 7:30 P.M., half an hour before the program began. They therefore asked him to repeat it during prime time, and he had trouble mustering the same passion.
Netanyahu, who had a good working relationship with Daniel (and once checked whether he would accept a high place on Likud’s Knesset ticket) neither forgot nor forgave.
Daniel shared an office with his good friend Amnon Abramovitch at Channel 12’s Tel Aviv newsroom. During their endless on-air arguments, both took a left-wing Zionist approach based partly on their own battlefield experiences.
Daniel, who often lost his temper during these broadcasts, always stressed the moral angle. He had a clear code of right and wrong in life, the army and politics, and was never willing to subordinate it to political needs or interests.
The last few years weren’t kind to him. He had health problems. And during the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, he found himself, for the first time in his professional life, in a strange position: The news dealt almost entirely with issues far from his own areas of expertise. He never dreamed of retiring, but as a senior citizen, he was asked to protect his health by not frequenting the studio.
Recently, he seemed to have returned to normal. He frequently attended military events and tours, the last being an international exercise hosted by the air force less than a week ago. During a break, holding a cigarette as usual, he voiced a brief, lethal opinion of the previous days’ events.
Daniel is survived by his mother, wife, daughter and a son. His eldest son, Ari, died in childhood.
Daniel’s many friends and colleagues were shocked and saddened by the death of this brave, generous, honest man whose picture appeared on millions of Israeli television screens for years. I, like many others, will miss him greatly.