Netanyahu, stop

The prime minister has had a fraught relationship with the Israeli press since the 1990s, one that has given rise to frequent verbal attacks on various members of the press.

September 2, 2019 02:31
3 minute read.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fanned the flames against the media over the weekend, accusing Channel 12 of “fake news” propaganda, broadcasting antisemitism and attacking democracy.

Friday began with news that Guy Peleg, Channel 12’s crime reporter, now needs a security detail due to the inflammatory rhetoric against him. Peleg has been behind a series of damning news reports lately regarding the criminal investigations against Netanyahu.

A key part of democracy is having a robust and critical press that has the freedom to critique the government. In an era where totalitarian regimes increasingly target media, and where populist politicians from Ankara to Moscow to Washington have appeared to gain strength by fighting against the “media elites,” Israel is now at risk of joining the tragic march that leads to a more divided society and less media scrutiny.

The prime minister has had a fraught relationship with the Israeli press since the 1990s, one that has given rise to frequent verbal attacks on various members of the press. Part of this is politics, and there is no reason Netanyahu or any other politician should refrain from critiquing major media companies and platforms. A free media must also accept some criticism of its own biases and explore them.

But the pattern of withering denunciations from Netanyahu goes beyond these types of critiques. His naming of journalists like Peleg, who is simply doing his job to a high standard, is an attempt by the prime minister to politicize the media at a fragile time while encouraging populist sentiments against individuals and channels.

In this case, Netanyahu’s offensive against Channel 12 began with claims that it should be boycotted for producing, with HBO, the current series Our Boys, about the 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Netanyahu termed the series “antisemitic,” and many have expressed reasonable concern that the program was misleadingly titled Our Boys implying that it would be about the three Jewish teens who were abducted and murdered. Instead, it seeks to ignore attacks on Jews to focus solely on Jewish perpetrators.

But Netanyahu didn’t stop with criticism of the HBO series for ostensibly producing a biased show. He continued to attack Peleg and his bosses Avi Nir and Avi Weiss, as well as the owners of the Keshet TV channel. He then posted on Facebook to his 2.4 million followers that Channel 12 was “fake news,” and that Peleg had continued with misrepresentations and “false propaganda.” He claimed that the whole channel is “propaganda.” It was his second post targeting Channel 12 since August 30. That is an unreasonable attack against the Israeli media.

The prime minister called Channel 12’s work an “attack on democracy,” and warned that the TV channel was trying to “steal the elections.”

This all seems like an attempt by Netanyahu to distract the public on the eve of elections. Playing to the populist feeling that the Our Boys program is unfairly critical of Israeli society helps encourage his base. Critiquing the channel for its reports on alleged corruption and naming specific journalists appears designed to make the news about the individual journalist, as opposed to the content of the report. Connecting the TV show with incriminating news reports is an attempt to make it seem like Netanyahu is a victim of bias just like Israel is, because of HBO.

The prime minister should not let short-term political gain obscure the need for a strong and critical media in Israel. A free media makes a country stronger – the media is the watchdog in a democracy, and Netanyahu’s attempts to weaken it are just another piece in his overall plan to weaken Israel’s democratic institutions: the Supreme Court, the attorney-general and the police.

Netanyahu has the right to defend himself and work to clear his name. But there also have to be red lines. Israel’s democracy is at risk. Netanyahu needs to stop.

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