Tuning Out: World Media's Half-hearted Coverage of Israel's Elections

'Bibi wins, the end, right?' one news editor told me. Half the number of foreign reporters are covering this election as compared to those of 2009: there is little appetite for the election's dismal story of stagnation and depression.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

Israel boasts the highest number of foreign reporters per capita of any country in the world. Even in a period when international coverage is being cut to the bone, major media networks maintain Israel bureaus and the job of a Jerusalem correspondent is a coveted one. But as Israel enters the last week of its election campaign and the population prepares to go to the polls on January 22, global interest in the 2013 elections seems at its lowest ebb ever.

Special correspondents and television crews will arrive in the country over the next few days to bolster the permanent press corps stationed here, but their numbers will be nothing like those of previous years. Based on accreditation requests received so far, the Government Press Office expects at least 50 percent fewer foreign journalists to cover these elections than in 2009.

So why the lack of interest this time around? Is Israel no long the target of disproportionate media attention, as many of its supporters tend to complain?

"There doesn't seem to be much drama [in these elections]" says one news editor working for a global news network. "Bibi wins, the end, right?"

And that does indeed seem to be the end of it. Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's prime minister today and will still be prime minister next month, with elections seeming little more than a formality.

Things were different four short years ago. In those previous elections, there was not only a question of who was going to be prime minister, but also the prospect that the status quo might not be set in stone.

The two-state solution was still on the table and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were holding regular meetings with their Palestinian counterparts. Barack Obama had just been sworn in as president of the United States and dedicated his first full morning in office to calling the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. There was a genuine feeling that change might be possible.

And there was also a proper cast of characters: brave Livni, a pragmatist working for political compromise, facing off against brash resurgent Bibi, opposed to any concessions. Lurking on the sidelines was the sinister Avigdor Lieberman, kingmaker and villain.

The same political figures are still there, but seem so much more anodyne. Even if the once dark horse Avigdor Lieberman survives the criminal indictments he faces, he is now firmly a member of the mainstream, Netanyahu's second-in-command of the ruling party.

This time round, the only colorful narrative to have emerged is even further to the right than that of Yisrael Beiteinu and Lieberman - the rise of Habayit Hayehudi and its leader, Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, the suave media star of these elections, has neatly managed to encapsulate the two brands by which Israel is best known in the world these days – militarism and hi-tech.

Radical with a veneer of urbanity, his solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank with Palestinians allowed limited self-rule in the rest – tells his constituency exactly what they want to hear.

But it doesn't make sense to foreign observers, who fail to see the logic of this stubborn denial of a Palestinian state when it has already been recognized by the UN.

That is not the only thing about this election that doesn't compute. The world is completely baffled by an Israeli political discourse that has slid so far to the right.

Attempts to contextualize the rise of the right quickly falter; the lingering effects of Russian immigration, fear of Islamist takeover in neighboring countries, a simple lack of faith and trust in the prospect of peace.

But they're the same old clichés. It's hard to explain the changing dynamics of Israeli society when public opinion surveys continue to show that although two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution including a compromise on Jerusalem, they are planning to vote for parties that are sworn opponents of these policies.

The "no partner for peace" trope - that this dissonance was down to Israeli disillusionment and Palestinian intransigence – has long failed to convince.

Who in the international community is buying Lieberman's depiction of Mahmoud Abbas as "a diplomatic terrorist"? The wider Middle East is changing and the Western world, even the American administration, is losing patience with the status quo.

As for the center left narrative, the foreign media isn't reflecting it simply because there really isn't one.

A joint campaign might have stirred some excitement, but failed to materialize. Kadima, the supposedly moderate centrist party which actually won the most amount of seats in last election, isn't expected to get even a single mandate this time round. The only new figure in the center is a vaguely telegenic media personality, Yair Lapid, with an incoherent social justice agenda. Livni is not exactly setting hearts on fire, and the Labor party leader is obstinately refusing to engage in the issue of the occupation and the two-state solution.

The Israeli narrative of 2013 offers little hope of change or breakthrough – a dismal story of stagnation and depression. Small wonder that the world media is keeping away.

Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A campaign advertisement depicting Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and a reflection on the window of a campaign poster depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jan. 7, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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