Weakening trust in democracy

Over the entire weekend, there was a war on our border – much more serious than a few months ago.

By ELI POLLAK
October 24, 2018 21:54
A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire burning scrubland

A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire burning scrubland in an area where Palestinians have been causing blazes by flying kites and balloons loaded with flammable materials, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near kibbutz Nir Am, June 5, 2018. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

 
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Israel’s public trusts the Israel Defense Forces and it is considered to be in the center of Israeli consensus. The last Israeli Democracy Index found that 88% of the Jewish public – and 41% of the Arab citizens – trusted the IDF. (Incidentally, from an all-time low of public trust in the media in 2016, the media had risen in 2017 by 4% reaching the “respectable” number of 28% last year.)
This past July, in the aftermath of the passage of the Nation-State Law and in response to voices within the army against it, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot called upon everyone to keep the IDF out of politics. Unfortunately, the events of this past week seem to indicate that it is the senior officers of the IDF who have embroiled the IDF in a very political issue namely, the correct response to the war on the Gaza border.

The rocket that destroyed a house and almost killed a mother and her three children in Beersheba created an outcry even within Israel’s Peace Now-promoting media. From the prime minister downward, the politicians were quoted as promising that Israel’s restraint has reached an end. After conferring with regional council leaders bordering on Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “I have now concluded an assessment of the situation with the heads of the IDF and the top echelons of the security forces. Israel considers the attacks on the fence, on the Gaza perimeter, on Beersheba and everywhere with severity, and I said at the beginning of this week’s cabinet meeting that if these attacks do not stop we will stop them. To tell you today, Israel will act with great force.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, in an interview on Kol Chai radio said, “We must hit Hamas hard. This is the only way for reversing the situation and bringing the violence level down to almost zero.”

Eisenkot was quickly brought back from a visit to the States. The Cabinet met, and what happened? As reported in the media, last Friday approximately 10,000 demonstrators came to Gaza-Israel border and approximately 100 bombs, grenades and Molotov cocktails were hurled at the IDF forces and tires were burned. There were three attempts to infiltrate Israel. Some even succeeded, but the Gazans were forced to retreat after the IDF opened fire. Two Gazans were reportedly killed by the IDF, though the Hamas health authorities denied this and claimed that 150 people were injured. Dozens of fire balloons were sent and nine fires were initiated within Israel as a result.

Clearly, the border was “on fire.” Israel was again attacked with weapons of death and destruction and what was the media response? As reported in Israel Hayom, Reshet Bet and elsewhere, a “security source” claimed that “relative to the past half year, Friday was a day of reduced confrontations and perhaps the quietest one along the fence since the present round of confrontations was initiated.”

What was the governmental response? Liberman announced on Sunday that the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings would be re-opened and goods would be allowed in. As the demonstrations were mostly only at a distance of 500 meters from the fence, the army recommended leniency.

How did Israel’s media respond? Israel Hayom’s headline was “Gaza – the attempts to bring about an agreement are being renewed.” The sub-headline was “The Friday test of Hamas passed with relative quiet.”

This is a joke. Over the entire weekend, there was a war on our border – much more serious than a few months ago. For example, between August 12 and August 30, there were 29 fires caused by balloons and kites, an average of 1.5 per day, compared to the “relative quiet” of nine on this past Friday and Saturday. The level of the past weekend was perhaps the lowest during the month of October, but much higher than the previous months.


But our media swallowed the lie hook, line and sinker. No questions were asked and the veracity of the IDF proclamations was not questioned. The media did not do their job of seriously questioning all those responsible for their ongoing false proclamations. The media were allowing the IDF to get away with not merely providing the heads of state with alternatives but actually making sure that the IDF does not restore Israel’s deterrence.

There is nothing wrong with the IDF making recommendations. There is, however, something deeply disturbing when the IDF makes false statements aimed at promoting a certain policy. The worst part of this story is not the loss of deterrence vis a vis Hamas, but the loss of trust by the Israeli public. Eisenkot is not consistent in his call to keep the IDF out of politics. The media is not doing its job in calling the IDF to order here. It simply parroted the IDF uncritically.

The media’s role in weakening the public trust in important institutions is not limited to the IDF. Last week, three women journalists accused veteran senior journalist Dan Margalit of sexual harassment 30 years ago. We, of course, do not know the truth, and in spite of our severe criticism of Margalit as a journalist, at this point, we cannot accept public hearsay. The fact that Margalit, in the wake of the accusations, either left or was forced to leave his job in Haaretz is irrelevant here. He claims innocence and we must accept this until proof is provided.

There are good reasons why one cannot bring someone to court for crimes presumably perpetrated 30 years ago. A basic rule of law in a democracy asserts that one is innocent until proven guilty. Is it possible to have a fair trial 30 years after the fact? But Margalit is not the story here; rather it is the three women journalists who accused him as well as perhaps others.

The media deflect any criticism of their ethical performance or supposed bias by loudly claiming they are all professional. All are the best. They investigate and they report on what they find. They reveal the personal foibles and errors of judgment of politicians, business people and public figures. We are told we can, indeed, must trust them because they do their best.

Yet, if the claims against Margalit are true, indeed, as others against Ari Shavit were (by the way, also employed by Haaretz as is Yitzhak Laor who, in 2014, was accused of sexual harassment, causing Mifal Haypayis to reverse its decision to award him a prize), then are we to understand that strong, powerful women who take on the establishments – political, economic and military – women like Ayala Hasson or Yonit Levi, all of a sudden cannot quite call out a colleague for decades?

Or are other loyalties at work here, loyalties that also could influence, to the detriment of the truth and objectivity of the news, how they report political issues and diplomatic matters and which should cause the media consumer to question what is at work here? In both cases, the public loses out and our trust in our democracy is weakened.

The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).


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