Let the media do its job

How can the government and its apologists stand in the way of a free and open media?

Media 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Media 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Quickly, I noted down the words that Minister Without Portfolio Binyamin Begin (Likud) was reciting in a radio interview in early November.
“Terrible lack of responsibility. A dastardly deed. Delusions of grandeur. Absence of conscience. Unprecedented. Betrayal of trust. Sabotage.”
That’s just a partial list. And in case anyone didn’t understand, Begin summed it all up: “It’s just disgusting.”
This list of epitaphs was directed towards whoever had leaked the reports about Israel’s purported intention to attack Iran. Maybe Begin was referring to the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, or to the current Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon.
Others have been saying similar things about the media.
“Why, for God’s sake, does the local media dare – where does it get the arrogance – to bring up for public debate such a secret, crucial, existential issue, such as whether or not we should attack Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring and using nuclear weapons against Israel?” accused Amos Regev, editor of “Yisrael Hayom,” the newspaper owned by US casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, in an editorial entitled “An Irresponsible Discussion.”
Similar arguments have been used by politicians and retired security officials, who have definitively determined that this is an issue of state security about which the public and the media know nothing and which should remain deeply secreted in the IDF General Staff’s bunker or in the cabinet room in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s always been this way with regard to military operations, they tell us.
Really? An “unprecedented” discussion? It may be that this discussion was never before presented as forcefully as it has been this time. Yet as far back as the 1950s, newspapers published open warnings about the dangers of Israel’s reprisals against Arab infiltrators. Even “Maariv,” which was a staunch supporter of then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s security-oriented policies, occasionally gave voice to politicians who disagreed with Ben-Gurion and and his chief of staff Moshe Dayan about the efficacy of their power strikes.
For example, many journalists questioned the wisdom of Operation Kinneret, the large-scale attack against the Syrian military posts on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in 1955.
“Emotions confuse thinking here,” then-minister Mordechai Ben-Tov was quoted as saying on the front page of “Maariv.” “Soldiers and officers don’t always know how to keep their responses in the proper proportions.”
In the 1950s, the criticism came after the fact. But 30 years ago, on the eve of the 1982 First Lebanon War, senior journalists warned about the dangers inherent in the military plans that had been cooked up in the back rooms. Then-defense minister Ariel Sharon was promoting the “Great Pines” plan, which included extensive conquests in Lebanon in order to hook up with the Christian forces.
Sharon was dreaming about reconfiguring the map of the Middle East, but there were those who were familiar with Lebanon’s human landscape and knew that counting on the Christian Phalanges was misguided from the outset. They shared their concerns with reporters, who became convinced that it was important to bring this message to the public.
It wasn’t done through noisy headlines. Mindful of the military censor, the warning bells were sounded between the lines. Eitan Haber, then a military reporter who later became bureau chief of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, for example, published his poem, “Prayer,” in “Yedioth Ahronoth” in February 1982. Haber wrote: “God, deal with us with justice/and kindness and save us/do not stop the storms, the thunder or the torrential/rains/the low-lying clouds/the snow storms/the rivers of mud/do not stop them for even one moment/and perhaps there will not be any more drought/the water levels/of the State of Israel/will rise/and several hundred/ young men will owe you/their lives.”
True, the poem was published in the inner pages of the paper, but at least a few of the readers got the message. In “Maariv,” defense correspondent Yaakov Erez also hinted about the plans that Sharon was forming in his office. Other papers did the same.
Journalists were accused of blasphemy against Israel’s holy of holies, its security. But they believed, and they were right, that Sharon’s hidden intentions went far beyond removing the Katyusha rockets from Israel’s northern border and included his fantasies about a new Lebanon – and that the plan would end badly. Maybe it was Sharon’s personality that drew the fire, or perhaps it was the lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War that enabled the military reporters to free themselves from the embrace of the military establishment.
To be precise, then as now, there is no “military establishment,” just as there is no “political establishment.” There are many sub-establishments, and even more individuals with differing opinions and worldviews. And it is crucial that these different and varied voices not be silenced.
June 1982 isn’t the only date that should echo through the ears of anyone who wishes to silence the debate on Iran. The date, October 1973, should, too.
It is hardly a military secret that there are at least four possible alternatives to dealing with the Iranian threat: More severe international sanctions on Iran; continued covert activity against the nuclear armament process; an attack on the nuclear reactors by the US , Britain or NATO ; an Israeli attack. If Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are becoming increasingly enamored with their burning belief in the fourth option, it is permissible to ask if they have taken everything into account, and why they’ve taken the three other options off the table.In fact, it’s not just permissible, it’s preferable. It’s even necessary.
It is necessary to ask these questions so that Israel will not once again find itself bound to conceptions that blind decision makers to any other parts of the puzzle that makes up reality. In 1973, the belief that the IDF had the power, and that the gods with the brass ranks on their shoulders had the ability, to conduct affairs of state better than any citizen almost brought us to the abyss.
If only the media would have investigated the IDF a bit more during the early 1970s; if only the censor would have permitted the media to publish the information that was visible to anyone looking over from the Israeli side of the Suez Canal; if only the newspapers would have better analyzed Sadat’s demands and threats. But those were pre-election times and the government wanted to present an image of stability and calm. The conviction that the Egyptians would never dare to attack was all-encompassing, and the entire debate was clouded by overconfidence in Israel’s capabilities, sky-high self-confidence and disdain for the enemy.
If we have learned anything since then, or from the First and then the Second Lebanon Wars, it should be that the media must ask questions now, before the decision is taken, so that those questions don’t pop up later, with the wisdom of hindsight. That way, we won’t have to call on Prof. Yehezkel Dror, the strategic policy-planning expert, to explain to us, yet again, how flawed our decision-making processes are or that too many aspects of an issue are not investigated ahead of time or that alternative means of action are not even considered.
Could it be that the decision makers are mired in their preconceptions, which stem from the fact that they have framed the Iranian issue in the context of the events that preceded World War II ? Since so many of our leaders compare Ahmadinejad to Hitler, maybe some of them are trying to play Churchill? Does embedding the Iranian question within this world of associations lead to effective decision-making?
But it’s a military secret, the critics immediately tell us in an effort to silence us. They remind us that Israel managed to destroy the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian facility in 2007 (according to foreign sources, of course, we must add) only because secrecy was maintained. But these examples aren’t relevant: Israeli preparations for a possible military action against Iran have been obvious to the entire world for more than a decade.
It seems that there isn’t even a single newspaper in the entire world that hasn’t explained why Israel needs the second strike-capable submarines it obtained from Germany; that the F15I strike aircraft’s advantage is its long range; that the air force has trained in Turkey, Romania and Sardinia. During the air shows on Independence Day, the air force reveals its ability to repeatedly refuel its planes in the air.
So what is this big secret that the media is forbidden to report or discuss? That Israel is seriously considering – and preparing for – the possibility of an attack on Iran? These are not questions concerning intelligence or tactics. We are not talking about the number of planes, the types of weapons, the angle of the attack, or any other tactical issues. This is a broad strategic decision that could affect Israel, positively or negatively, for many years to come.
Nor is it a military secret that the media brings topics that have been pushed to the sidelines in closed sessions or confidential documents to the public agenda. A senior intelligence officer told me several years ago how frustrated he has felt ever since he discovered that some of our senior officials invest more time in reading the newspapers than they do in reading the most secret intelligence reports.
We therefore have the right to ask, and we have the obligation to speak. The decision will be made by the government, but just before they put their fingers on the trigger, our leaders should present all of the various aspects of that decision to the public.
And that is precisely the role of the media.
So let the media do its job – to report, within the limits of the censor, to ask questions, to examine the issues. And for that you don’t have to have a PhD in nuclear physics nor an MA in military history. All you need is a bit of common sense.

The writer is a historian and media scholar. He is a member of the editorial board of ´The Seventh Eye´ and a senior lecturer at the School of Communications at the Ariel University Center.