Media Comment: The presidency

President-elect Rivlin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
President-elect Rivlin
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The campaign for the election of the 10th president of the State of Israel was described by many pundits as the dirtiest ever. The filth hit almost everywhere. A shoddy video attempted to connect president-elect Reuven Rivlin to the convicted criminals Moshe Katzav and Ehud Olmert. Is there any senior politician whose photo was not taken with a former president or prime minister? Even the writers of this column have had their photos take with the two.
Hatnua MK Meir Shetreet was accused of doling out a quarter of a million shekels in severance pay to his housecleaner, who worked in his home for only two years. Former Knesset chairwoman Dalia Itzik was reminded of her NIS 75,000 bill for a hotel room in Paris for four nights as well as NIS 70,000 spent on the tax-payer’s account for the renovation of her home in Jerusalem. This information “helped” her to “volunteer” that she had a third apartment.
Minister Silvan Shalom was forced to absent himself early on due to accusations of sexual misbehavior, which were proven to be unfounded. Former Labor party leader and MK Binyamin Ben- Eliezer dropped out this past weekend due to revelations concerning his expensive home in Jaffa, funded partially by multi-millionaire Abraham Nanikashvily, who seems to also be entangled in the criminal proceedings surrounding the Ashdod Port.
Only two candidates, neither of whose candidacies were serious to start off with, Nobel Prize laureate Professor Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, managed to emerge unscathed.
The truth is, though, that the same stories may be viewed very differently. Let us remember that of the past three presidents, two – Ezer Weizmann and Katzav – were forced to leave office.
Weizmann resigned in the wake of accusations of financial improprieties and Katzav as a sex criminal. It is the job of the media to uncover the truth regarding the candidates before the election, not after the results are counted. An alert media could have prevented the Weizmann-Katsav debacles. Instead, the good name of the office of the presidency was severely damaged.
One may well assume that the public would want to know of any serious offenses committed by the various candidates.
Eldad Yaniv publicized the issue of Ben-Eliezer’s expensive home. It is not a crime to be wealthy, but when a leader of the Labor Party, who did not make millions in business, spends funds which are only a dream to most Israelis on an extravagant home it is not surprising that eyebrows are raised.
Ben-Eliezer, a seasoned politician, was aware in advance that his home would become an issue; at least this is what MK Eitan Cabel, his senior supporter in the Labor Party, claimed. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich let it be known that she would support Rivlin. A president of the state must be capable of providing the public with an open and satisfying explanation of such things.
One cannot but compare Ben-Eliezer’s home with the very modest dwellings of many former presidents.
The same goes with MKs Itzik and Shetreet. Yes, these accusations seem like mudslinging, but if the accused are so innocent, why didn’t they from the beginning clarify their personal affairs? It is the job of the media, once it gets wind of such seemingly inappropriate behavior, to publicize it. Instead of pointing fingers in the air, claiming that sinister forces are at large and playing around with the presidential election, we should be grateful that we live in a democracy where information is free and politicians cannot get away with misdoings. The fact is that the video concerning MK Rivlin was roundly criticized by the media for what it was – a smear campaign.
There seems, however, to be a general feeling of discontent with the media’s treatment of the presidential election. During the past 20 years the media was derelict in its duty to engage in the admittedly difficult and sometimes expensive task of investigative journalism. Compare Ben-Eliezer with president Shimon Peres. The latter increased the presidential budget from NIS 20 million annually to over NIS 60 million. Ben-Eliezer’s home cost “only” NIS 9 million (as reported) – and taxpayers didn’t foot the bill. Itzik’s NIS 70,000 renovations are comparatively a drop in the bucket.
Did the media know about Peres’s extravagance prior to his election? The opulence of the Peres Center is, of course, not a state secret. Yet Peres can go to the pope and shake hands with terrorists in Rome, as well as engage in scores of precedent-setting “diplomatic work meetings” with visiting statesmen, with hardly a peep from the media. Not to mention the separate domiciles of president Peres and his late wife.
There is another aspect to the media’s failings. The platforms of the various candidates were discussed to some extent during the last days prior to the vote. But why didn’t the media present the public with a civilized debate in which each of the candidates could present to the public directly their vision for the next seven years? To quote polls is insufficient. The tough questions should have been asked directly and openly. The fact that the Knesset elects the president is not sufficient ground for claiming that such a debate is unnecessary.
Given the rowdy nature of Israeli talk shows, one might claim a debate would be demeaning of the presidency. A candidate who respects herself or himself and the public, however, would know not to bend down to the depths of the usual shows. In the distant past, Israel had debates between prime ministerial candidates and these were rather informative.
The president of Israel is no longer merely a figurehead. President Peres has amply demonstrated the power of the president to influence government policy. The release of terrorists could have been stopped by the president. Even the process of government formation can be influenced by the president’s choice in asking one politician or the other to undertake the task.
Former president Katzav could have taken a strong public stand against the expulsions from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. Had he done so, history may have been written quite differently.
The media during this year’s campaign should have forcefully demanded that the candidates provide direct answers to the public on the issues surrounding the presidency. It also did not put the heat on Peres for misappropriating his power, creating the anarchy that exists nowadays.
It might well be that the media has its own agenda. In cooperating with a serving president and low-profiling the campaign for a new one, a bond can be formed, one in which a certain type of president can be catapulted into the house on Jerusalem’s HaNassi Street. The pundits had this race wrong, most of them predicting a close end run between Itzik and Rivlin. It is a relief to know that our politicians do not (yet) always dance to the media’s tune.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (