Ariel Sharon’s death, eight years since his second, devastating stroke on January 4, 2006, provides an opportunity to review one of the more intense lovehate- love relationships that have existed, over a period of decades, between Israel’s media and a major political and military figure. Of course, for the foreign media, the relationship is more properly described as hate-hate.
Swords were crossed in the past. Spiteful and even hateful remarks were aimed at Sharon, who first as a soldier, then as a commander and then as a politician, sought to assure his self-assigned role in Israel’s – and the Jewish people’s – consciousness. Asked by a television reporter as to his future, on the evening of the Likud election victory in May 1977 – in which he played no small part – he replied, “I think I am appropriate for a variety of positions in government.”
Eventually, he served in many, and found himself alternatively battling and being assisted by the media.
The love part of the relationship has its roots in the Gaza disengagement. Sharon’s crowning media achievement was having both Haaretz and notable left-wing media icons such as Amnon Avramovitz and Nahum Barnea line up in his camp. Haaretz, without any ethical scruples, declared in print, in editorials and in the words of then-editor David Landau, that any peccadilloes of Sharon’s would be downgraded in consideration of his new political line.
As Gil Beckerman recorded in 2004 in the Columbia Journalism Review, “as soon as the plan was announced in late 2003, the daily editorials in Haaretz began sounding as if Sharon’s speechwriters had written them.
The disengagement was ‘the life-saving medicine for a fast-moving disease, hungry for victims,’ the editorial board wrote on October 26, 2004.”
Avramovitz, who was severely burned during a tank battle in the Yom Kippur War, and who was a critic of Sharon, became a leading political pundit in Ma’ariv and then on Channel 1 TV and finally Channel 2. He about-faced in a conference at the Van Leer Institute in February 2005, declaring, “Sharon must be watched over as though he were an etrog; to keep him in an airtight box, padded with soft padding, cellophane and cotton wool, at least until the disengagement is over... Sharon established all these ‘settlements,’ and if the good spirit comes over him at the end of his life and he dismantles them all, he should be closely guarded.”
But the Gaza withdrawal was insufficient for the appetite of his new-found left-wing pundits and political commentator friends.
They wanted more, much more: the dismantling of all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. So much so that during this past week one of the central themes has been the claim of various people, such as attorney Dov Weisglas, who oversaw the disengagement in his role as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and General (res.) Amiram Levin, that Sharon may well have actually intended to dismantle many more settlements.
Oddly, or ominously, after being an object of particular scorn for Haaretz journalist Yoel Marcus over the years, it was to him of all people that Sharon agreed to grant an initiated interview to announce the disengagement.
The move went above the heads of his coalition partners and party loyalists, and was made even before the government debated or discussed the issue.
Sharon, or his advisers, knew very well that his success in implementing policy depended on a compliant and supportive media.
The Marcus incident more than perhaps any other was an indicator of the respect politicians have for the power of the media.
In an awkward turn of events for Sharon, his disengagement plans almost ran aground when, perhaps believing the mainstream media’s claim that he was riding high among the public, his decision to agree to a Likud plebiscite backfired. It was the community of Gush Katif residents and their supporters who managed to exploit the opportunities the media presented to momentarily stave off the approaching expulsion and destruction.
In 2004, right-wing theorist Motti Karpel suggested Sharon had been fooled by the media’s smoke and mirrors; he really did believe the public wanted peace almost at any price, Karpel wrote in his How Israel’s Media Overcame Ariel Sharon. When the polls indicated the negative trend, Sharon turned the Likud vote into one of personal confidence in him, yet he lost despite the exuberance expressed by the powerful leftwing elements in the media. In a sense, he defeated himself by trusting, against his own experience, what the media was telling him.
Sharon was no innocent babe. He understood the media, manipulated it and had his circle of supporters. One of his most well-known, trademark patterns of behavior was to virtually ignore any question posed to him during an interview. He would patiently wait until the reporter finished speaking, and then answer whatever he thought question should have been.
Haaretz pundit Uzi Benziman, who battled Sharon in a long-lasting libel case, asserts that Sharon’s “contribution” to a new IDF relationship with military correspondents was circumventing official press releases and leaking plans and opinions of fellow officers to selected correspondents.
Over the years, newspapers and reporters attacked Sharon ferociously, for military operations ranging from Qibya to the Mitla Pass to Lebanon, and over his unqualified support for the increase in Jewish presence in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. His ascent to the Temple Mount in September 2000 was arguably the highlight of the hate relationship.
But the same people who attacked him sacrificed their ethics without hesitation when it appeared they could gain politically by doing so.
Sharon’s love-hate relationship with the media ended with a grand finale: an outpouring of media attention paralleled only by the aftermath of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, on the other hand, whose steadfastness under pressure and whose care for the Jewish people certainly was not less than that of Sharon, barely registered in the media when he died 18 months ago.
Was the Israeli press used by Sharon, or did it use him? More importantly, are we, the consumers of the media, the ultimate victims of Israel’s biased media norms?
The writers are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).