(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen (Res.) Moshe (Bogey) Ya'alon may be out of uniform nowadays, but he was certainly firing in several directions at once in a fiery interview he gave to Army Radio this week.
One of his primary targets was the local media - especially those who have come to be known as "etrog" journalists. This is a metaphor for the Succot custom of cautiously coddling (often in a padded protective box) an etrog, the citrus fruit used in the holiday ritual, so that no damage whatsoever can come to it.
"The phrase 'to etrog' a politician is not something I made up," said Ayalon. "It was made up by a journalist. I refer to some of those who are thought to be leading journalists - and there is no small degree of corruption there - that [their attitude], I feel, causes politicians to understand that if they want to be 'etrogized' and 'forgiven' in matters of substance and professional failures, it's a good idea for them to take certain positions."
He added: "Politicians have learned that if they support policies such as disengagement, convergence and capitulation, then the main current of public dialogue - I'm talking chiefly about the media - will elevate them."
Obviously referring to media coverage of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the run-up to Annapolis, Ayalon concluded: "I definitely think we are now in a similar instance."
It is Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich who is credited with coining the term, while speaking on a panel at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute in 2005, prior to the disengagement from Gaza. Previously one of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's sharpest journalistic critics, he commented then: "I think we need to protect Sharon like an etrog - I am willing to move in his direction until the end of September 2005: after that we'll reconsider." (Yediot Aharonot later cited this as one of the quotes of the year, and asked: "So what about 2006, Amnon - like a lulav?")
Several of Abramovich's colleagues took issue with his assertion, including Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea, who responded: "I have no interest in or intention of watching over Sharon beyond his maintaining the law, justice and using common sense."
Ironically, Haaretz writer Ari Shavit later accused Barnea, along with veteran journalist Dan Margalit, of bestowing a similar etrog treatment on their buddy, Ehud Olmert. Wrote Shavit: "Amazingly, though, in the 80 days of the 2006 election campaign, not one biting investigative report about Olmert appeared in Yediot Aharonot or Ma'ariv, or on Channels 2, 10, or 1... All of a sudden, the most professional of Israel's investigative journalists fell into a coma... Those who bear the most responsibility are Nahum Barnea and Dan Margalit... When he [Barnea] interviewed Olmert in an interview of strategic importance, he did not ask what he was duty-bound to ask, and instead behaved like a pal."
Shavit has been, perhaps, Olmert's sharpest critic in the media, but elsewhere in Haaretz there seems less concern over whether the prime minister gets the etrog treatment than over whether he deserves it.
"Ehud Olmert also wants to be coddled like the proverbial etrog," wrote Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar earlier this year, adding: "But Olmert has shelved his plan for disengagement from the West Bank, so what is left of his short term in office is mainly the failure of the Second Lebanon War and a huge pile of corruption affairs on the attorney general's desk. So how can Olmert seek etrog status, protected from every scratch?"
And in a column titled "Return of the Etrog," fellow Haaretz columnist Gideon Samet laid out a virtual checklist of policies the prime minister should follow, concluding: "Only after the etrog begins doing something from this list, will you know whether to get out soft packing paper so as to protect it."
With Olmert's move toward Annapolis, and the start of serious negotiations with the Palestinians, the PM's etrog status at Haaretz was seemingly confirmed by its editor, David Landau, who made some eyebrow-raising comments at the Moscow Limmud conference last month.
"More immorality happens every day at a single roadblock than in all the scandals put together," Landau reportedly commented, saying his paper was "ready once again to do an etrogizatziya" to allow Olmert to go to Annapolis.
Shavit is certainly not holding his fire, though. Channel 2, perhaps mindful of some of the criticism Abramovich has drawn over the etrog-treatment issue regarding Olmert, has lately decided to pair him with Shavit on-air - including several times this past week - in what seems to be an attempt at a more balanced perspective (even though both, it should be noted, are firmly on the left).
LET'S TRY now and put this issue in perspective, including Bogey Ya'alon's remarks. The media in this country, like in most other Western societies, unquestionably lean in a progressive direction (for reasons too extensive to go into here). For the most part, though, mainstream media outlets - except for a decidedly ideological organ such as Haaretz - don't stray too far from majority views, either to the left or to the right, because that's just not good business.
Did some individual journalists "etrog" Sharon, and are some now doing it to Olmert, as well? Sure. But let's not forgot that almost all the scandals that were uncovered about Sharon, including those that resulted in the convictions of his two sons, were either first exposed or extensively investigated by the media.
As for Olmert, it's hard to think of another prime minister whose behavior in political office, at least since the Second Lebanon War, has been more critically covered by the media, and this is certainly reflected in his abysmal approval ratings. This also goes for Annapolis, which for the most part has been covered largely with skepticism, if not outright cynicism, by most journalists here.
Olmert continues to serve in office not because, as Ya'alon indicated, he is being propped up by a coddling press; quite the opposite. It is because of the specific political dynamics in his party and the current coalition; the glaring flaws in our political system; the fact that he still has yet to charged with any specific wrongdoing; the relatively good economy; and the very small number of successful terror attacks in the past year.
That's why, despite the fact that Bogey hit some real targets in his comments, the ex-IDF commander's fire was a little indiscriminate and excessive in this instance. (He also shot himself in the foot with remarks about the Israeli hostages in Gaza and Lebanon that earned him some stinging counter-fire from their families.)
As for Olmert, we will see - as the investigations against him continue, and the difficulties of following up substantially on Annapolis become clearer - whether he indeed is regarded by the media as a precious etrog - or just a plain old lemon.
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