Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanks Speaker Boehner following his address to a joint meeting of Congress in the Rayburn Room of the US Capitol, May 24, 2011.
(photo credit: SPEAKER.GOV)
Elections can bring out the best and the worst in politicians. They can also highlight the wisest and silliest of attitudes and actions. After all, democracy, as Aristotle wrote, “define[s] freedom badly... everyone lives as he wants and toward whatever end he happens to crave.” Perhaps it was in that spirit that Meretz party leader MK Zahava Gal-On appealed to the Central Election Committee at the beginning of this week.
Her request to Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran in his capacity as chairman of the Central Elections Committee was to prevent Israel’s television and radio stations from broadcasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech to both houses of the US Congress in March. She claimed that the speech should be considered as election campaigning, which is prohibited on the airwaves 60 days prior to election day.
In her brief, she attempts to prove that the appearance of the prime minister is for election campaigning purposes only. She uses the argument that the speech was planned without coordinating with the White House and against protocol. She also notes that the original date, scheduled for February 11, was shifted to March 3, only two weeks prior to election day. She even invokes US President Barack Obama’s remark that he would not meet with the prime minister so as not to interfere with Israel’s election process.
(As an aside, we note that Obama’s reaction is a gross violation of the very principle he is invoking. He is directly criticizing Israel’s prime minister during an election campaign and knowingly playing into the hands of the prime minister’s competitors.) An equally interesting parallel story that seems not quite to have caught the curiosity of Israel’s mainstream broadcast media is that of the activities of an Obama-linked aide’s involvement, quite direct, in an anti-Netanyahu electoral campaign here in Israel.
“One Voice” is funding a V-2015 campaign to defeat Netanyahu that includes five American campaign experts, including Jeremy Bird, an Obama campaign national field director. Bird is currently working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
A partner of One Voice is the US State Department.
Gal-On is not alone in this attempt to suppress freedom of speech. As reported in the Algemeiner, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who was President Obama’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, called on Israel’s leaders “to stay out of America’s politics.” This did not prevent him, however, from noting on his Twitter account: “Why should Netanyahu be able to speak and Herzog not?” He further noted that “if [US House of Representatives speaker John] Boehner is placing Congress into the midst of the Israeli elections, why don’t the Democrats invite Herzog too?” Indyk obviously believes that Americans are allowed to interfere with Israeli politics – something he has been doing for too many years. Is this not hypocrisy? Israel held direct elections for the office of prime minister, on May 29, 1996. Then prime minister Shimon Peres orchestrated an international summit conference at Sharm a-Sheikh on March 13. One of those attending was US president Bill Clinton, who participated only to further the cause of peace, as it were. Peres then went on to organize for himself a trip to the US on April 30 to meet with president Clinton at the White House.
Of course, this too, was not considered by the media at that time to constitute involvement of the Americans in Israel’s elections. The visit, though, was already within the then 30-day period when direct broadcasting of candidates was prohibited.
Israel’s Media Watch appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the broadcast of Peres’ visit to the White House. A young lawyer by the name of Tzipora Livni, a member of the Likud at that time, represented IMW.
We lost the case as Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who did not reject our reasoning, nevertheless decided on a technicality that we petitioned the court too late. Peres’ visit was broadcast live, but it did not help him. He lost the elections.
The law was subsequently revised and the paragraph prohibiting the broadcasting images of candidates within 30 days was abolished.
The limitation disallowing electioneering on the airwaves remains in effect. The major problem with the law is the definition of “electioneering.” Is it limited only to a direct call to the public to vote for someone, or can any candidate’s actions or words be considered electioneering? Back in 1999, IMW lobbied MKs to adopt a stricter interpretation of the law.
But in a conversation with then Meretz MK Dedi Zucker, he expressed the opinion that freedom of expression was paramount and that the law should be interpreted as leniently as possible. He was convinced that with a little more leeway and Netanyahu’s bashing by the media would result in a left-of-center electoral victory. He was correct. But today, the same Meretz party is attempting to turn the clock back and seek to bind a candidate into the straight-jacket they themselves rejected 15 years ago.
During the past decade, the Supreme Court judges chairing the Central Elections Committee adopted the lenient version of the law.
They preferred freedom of expression over the chance that the law would be violated. This interpretation, for example, allows the candidates to explain themselves, to present their positions on a variety of issues and defend themselves against criticism. The only thing it disallows is for a candidate to directly request that the public to vote for her or him.
With this in mind, it is of quite some interest to analyze Netanyahu’s appearance in Congress. Does Gal-On really believe that the prime minister will directly address that audience with a plea to vote for him? In fact, if he did so, Gal-On should implore the authorities to broadcast it, since it would show that Netanyahu is a fool, which he of course is not. As explained by the prime minister ad nauseam, he will go to Congress to lobby for stronger action against the Iranians. Does Gal-On really want this to be defined as electioneering? Consider the latest smear campaign against the prime minister. His opponents are using the testimony of former employees against his wife, Sarah Netanyahu. These employees have an ax to grind and their testimony, prior to court appearances, cannot be taken very seriously.
But is such negative campaigning considered to be electioneering? Of course not.
The public has a right to know if the prime minister is accused of a misdeed (which he is not in this case). Why then should the public not have the right to know if the prime minister is carrying out his job and doing it well, or not? The sad truth is that freedom of expression in the eyes of Gal-On and her Meretz cohorts is a selective right; it was Meretz leader Yossi Sarid who helped close down the Arutz 7 radio station while at the same time extolling the wonderful achievement of Abie Nathan and his illegal Voice of Peace radio station.
Hypocrisy seems to be a staple of the extreme Left in Israel, and it is media-assisted.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).