Until I heard for the first time the theory that it was Benjamin Netanyahu leaking some of the material against him so that he could prove his claims of persecution and take another step toward destroying the free press – I thought I’d heard everything. But a close examination of some recent developments confirms at least one thing: A lot of media outlets are making a concerted effort to prove that Netanyahu’s allegations against them aren’t true.
The way to do this, judging by the news programs and the conduct of the editors, is to broadcast his press conferences at which they aren’t allowed to ask questions, to yield the screen to his unbridled responses, and to turn rightward, into the warm bosom of “the Israeli majority.”
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In the effort to refute the claims of Netanyahu and his son Yair (who has called Channel 12 News “Al-Jazeera”), these outlets are repeatedly making absurd decisions, inviting to their studios such commentators as Shimon Riklin or Boaz Bismuth – the editor of a newspaper founded and funded by Netanyahu’s backer and which serves his needs – and allowing them to attack the integrity of the media from within. And what’s sad, or pathetic, is that all these moves – including giving activist Yaakov Bardugo control of Army Radio’s 5 P.M. news slot – isn’t achieving their desired goal. The media is increasingly maligned and the persecution of journalists is growing.
That’s how Rina Matzliah (full disclosure: we’re friends, but I haven’t spoken to her about the latest incident), found herself in a position that she never wanted to be in, giving Netanyahu and his plants in the media a valuable gift: After he had said that in a properly run country Raviv Drucker would be in prison, thus redefining a properly run country as a fascist dictatorship, Netanyahu responded to Matzliah’s remarks similarly, when he accused her of persecuting him and of obsessively hating him.
But this time there was no need to refer to prison. The message had already penetrated; after all, no journalist has been thrown into prison and there’s no greater proof than this that Israel has a free press, right? From there the path to gratitude was short, and the CEO of Channel 12 News suspended Matzliah for a week, only because she quoted things that Netanyahu supporters had indeed said: “Even if he raped my daughter, I would vote for him.”
Zeev Sternhell, who passed away on Sunday, warned, “Let’s not make a mistake: Fascism is first and foremost radical nationalism, a war machine against the value system of liberalism. … The culture of lies, demagoguery, incitement against opponents, marking the enemy within and pressuring cultural institutions to toe the line that’s dictated by the regime, are gaining strength. Conformity and the worship of consensus, self-censorship, the fear and the obsequiousness are already there.”
The nature of Netanyahu’s battle with the media may indeed be yesterday’s news, but its nature has changed over time. If, before the investigations against him, his aim was to balance what he saw as biased, negative coverage of himself and his family; if the transcripts from his conversations with Arnon Mozes of Yedioth Ahronoth and the recordings from Case 4000 (the Bezeq-Walla case) indicate fear of the media’s power to do him damage – now it’s a different story. The balance of power has shifted.
It occurred during the media’s efforts to prove that Netanyahu’s accusations were false – efforts that are doomed to failure, because the appetite he and his family have developed for flattery will never be satisfied.
Slowly but surely the editorial offices are falling apart and journalists have handed their power over to Netanyahu. But as Sternhell repeatedly warned, we cannot let appearances hide the deliberate undermining of Israeli democracy. Remembering Sternhell (also) means dropping the obsequiousness and reorganizing to fearlessly address Netanyahu’s harassment, lest the media be castrated, and democracy along with it.