We frequently boast that notwithstanding its limitations, the Israeli media is unfettered by government intervention and could serve as a role model for a free press in any democracy.
As in most Western countries, Israeli journalists are inclined to the Left and substantially outnumber the more conservative-minded. In fact, one constantly hears complaints that to hold right-wing views is a major stumbling block in obtaining promotion in the media world. But that is not unique to Israel.
The majority of Israelis who read a newspaper on a daily basis read one of the tabloids. In that sense, the broadsheet Haaretz stands alone. It presents as a serious liberal newspaper and aspires to assume the mantle of a Hebrew-language counterpart to The New York Times. Despite a limited circulation, it is extraordinarily influential and read by most opinion makers.
Its news coverage and access to inside information exceeds that of the tabloids. However, whereas it carries superb pieces on culture and society, with especially insightful articles on religious issues, its frequent endorsement of radical policies does tend to increasingly link Haaretz with fringe rather than mainstream opinion.
Indeed, many would even argue that a considerable proportion of Haaretz editorials and op-ed columns are politically off the wall. Its op-ed and magazine articles demonizing Israel and inclined toward post-Zionism are increasingly being quoted by Arabs and anti-Israeli propagandists. In fact, a man from Mars observing the level of the newspaper's frequent vitriolic condemnations of Israeli governments could understandably be misled into believing that some Haaretz writers are consciously acting as propagandists for the Palestinian cause.
CURRENT EDITOR David Landau is an observant Jew wearing a black kippa. He made aliya from London and is a highly talented writer. His book on haredim published in 1993 to this day remains the best reference work on the subject in the English language. And the English edition of Haaretz was unquestionably his brainchild.
I first met him in March 1987, when he was a senior staffer at The Jerusalem Post, then being edited by Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel. Landau had been sent to cover the second Asian Jewish Colloquium of scholars in Hong Kong, which I had organized on behalf of the World Jewish Congress and the Asia Jewish Pacific Association.
Since he assumed the role of editor at Haaretz, the newspaper's traditional bias relating to the Israel-Palestinian conflict has intensified.
Landau concentrates much of his wrath on religious Zionists, regarding those who settled across the Green Line as messianic lunatics and the greatest threat to Israel. This obviously makes him a darling of the ultra-Left.
Today Landau allegedly even refuses to correct articles containing blatantly false information if they conflict with his political agenda. According to the Web site of the highly respected American Jewish media watchdog organization CAMERA, not only did Landau decline to consider its complaints regarding alleged falsehoods published in Haaretz, he even went on record informing the JTA that "as a matter of principle" he had instructed his staff not to respond to criticism from CAMERA because they were a "McCarthyite" organization.
NEEDLESS to say, this casts an ugly shadow on a daily newspaper purporting to represent the highest levels of journalistic integrity. It is now widely accepted that many policies promoted by Haaretz are effectively supportive of Israel's adversaries.
In fact, Nahum Barnea, the distinguished Yediot Aharonot columnist, went so far as to describe senior Haaretz journalists Gideon Levy, Amira Haas and Akiva Eldar as failing to pass the "lynch test" - i.e., even failing to condemn Palestinians when they murdered two Israelis in a lynch mob in Ramallah at the onset of the second intifada.
More recently, consistent with frequent Haaretz depictions of Israel as a racist entity, the paper's chief Arab affairs expert, Danny Rubinstein, told a UN body that Israel was indeed an apartheid state.
Of course, behind this torrid situation stands the publisher of Haaretz, Amos Schocken, who is personally convinced that Israel does indeed practice apartheid.
BUT IT was only recently that Landau threw away all semblance of journalistic integrity and publicly confessed to crossing the ultimate red line that distinguishes reputable journalism from propaganda.
According to The Jerusalem Post, at the recent Russian Limmud Conference in Moscow, Landau, one of the few non-Russian-speaking participants, dropped a bombshell. He stunned those present by boasting that his newspaper had "wittingly soft-pedalled" alleged corruption by Israeli political leaders including prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, when, in the opinion of Haaretz, the policies of those leaders were advancing the peace process.
When participants challenged him concerning the morality of such an approach, Landau responded with the extraordinary assertion that "more immorality happens every day at a single roadblock [in Judea and Samaria] than in all the scandals put together."
He then unashamedly assured those present that Haaretz was ready to repeat the process in order "to ensure that Olmert goes to Annapolis."
Even former Bolsheviks in the audience must have gasped at such views, openly stated, which incorporated all the hallmarks of the Stalinist era.
It is surely scandalous for the top editor of what purports to be a reputable and prestigious daily newspaper to publicly proclaim - and take pride in - having deliberately "soft-pedalled" and possibly even covered up acts of corruption by senior political leaders in order to promote his own political agenda, and, moreover, boast that his paper would continue to do so in the future.
Could one, for instance, visualize The New York Times suppressing information about an American president involved in corruption out of a desire to promote the administration's foreign policy objectives? No newspaper of integrity in the world would tolerate an editor making such an outrageous statement.
THE ISRAELI Press Council code of ethics contains clauses explicitly condemning such practices. Article 40 (and 16a): "A newspaper or a journalist shall not refrain from publishing information where there is a public interest in its publication, including for reasons of political, economic or other pressures."
Article 7: "Mistakes, omissions or inaccuracies which are in the publication of facts must be corrected speedilyâ€¦."
If in the face of such violations of their charter by the editor of one of their most prestigious newspapers the Press Council fails to publicly condemn such behavior, it should be dissolved and the public must demand an accounting.
Exploiting a newspaper as a propaganda vehicle for a clique of leftist ideologues willing to do anything, including suppressing or "soft-pedalling" information about potentially criminal actions in order to pursue a private agenda must not be tolerated in a country which purports to adhere to ethical and democratic norms of conduct.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.