MEDIA COMMENT: Accountability? Not in Israel

Personal foibles, ideological, economic policies are regularly attacked, yet our media is mostly derelict when it comes to holding politicians accountable.

Netanyahu at security meeting before end of cease-fire (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu at security meeting before end of cease-fire
(photo credit: GPO)
Almost three decades ago, one of us (YM) was involved in initiating legislation that would make the publication of a party’s platform a mandatory part of the election process for representation in the Knesset. The justification for such a law has now been echoed in a July 22 Vancouver Sun op-ed (“Can we hold politicians accountable?”) by Brian Fixter.
Fixter, a professor of law at Douglas College in British Columbia, was asked in his contract law class: “Can we ever successfully sue a politician for a broken promise?” and realized that the electorate really has not “enough measures in place to hold politicians accountable for election promises.”
Fixter opined that the promises of politicians should be considered contractual.
Unilaterally changing the terms should be considered a breach of contract with commensurate results.
In England some two years ago, the They- website was launched, designed to document and monitor promises made by elected officials worldwide.
The mission of the website is “to make politics and politicians more accountable.”
Election promise details are checked for accuracy against publicly available data and then published. Upon the deadline by which the promise was to have been kept, readers will be invited to vote on whether the promise has been kept, broken, or whether a compromise has been reached (due to objective circumstances and obstacles) and then it is “flagged” accordingly.
If a particularly important promise is broken, they will either launch a petition or assure that the data receives the attention it should in an upcoming election campaign.
Here in Israel, we know that our media can be ferocious in its criticism of government.
Personal foibles as well as ideological and economic policies are regularly attacked, held up to ridicule or worse. Yet our media is mostly derelict when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their election promises.
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin promised in his 1992 election campaign that, “Whoever even contemplates withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be abandoning Israel’s security.” A couple of years later, he promised the Clinton administration that he would be willing to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement.
The opposition at that time, led by present Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, repeatedly reminded Rabin that he had promised the opposite – but the media did not do so. The attitude was, as was later also repeated by prime minister Ariel Sharon, that “what you see from there you don’t see from here [the prime minister’s seat].” The media swallowed this poor excuse and did not consider that part of its duty was, and is, to serve the public, the media consumers, by constantly questioning all elected officials, from the government as well as the opposition, when they backtrack on commitments they make.
One of course should be careful in making sweeping generalizations; there are a few journalists who have actually done the job of looking up past statements and comparing them with actions. One of them is Channel 2 news reporter and commentator Amit Segal. On July 17 he summarized the Likud’s promises.
Ehud Olmert was prime minister during Operation Cast Lead six years ago. At that time, Netanyahu, during a visit to the communities neighboring the Gaza Strip, proclaimed: “What should be done? In the long run there is no alternative but to eradicate the Hamas rule.” This is quite different from Netanyahu’s approach with Operation Protective Edge, which was at the outset that “quiet will be answered with quiet.”
During the 2009 election campaign, candidate Netanyahu claimed that if in power he would bring about the collapse of Hamas rule. (A video of these election campaign statements may be found on the Globes website.) Today, the most that Netanyahu will state is that following a cease-fire Israel will demand that Hamas disarm.
Segal also calls Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to task. He, too, used strong words during the 2009 campaign: “When we will govern we will discuss annihilating terror and overthrowing Hamas. If you sum up the Cast Lead operation you may say that the soldiers won and the politicians lost.”
Former president Shimon Peres also does not win too many points. A week before the withdrawal from the Gaza strip, Netanyahu warned that the disengagement could lead to having rockets hit Ashkelon. Peres’ public response was: “Stop the warmongering, stop talking nonsense.”
The call for journalists to straighten out the record is not limited to right-of-center politicians. Take Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, presently heading the Hatnua party, for example.
As noted in the ALMonitor website, in the spring of 2011, when the first attempt was made for a joint Hamas-PLO government in Gaza, it was Livni who headed the opposition.
Netanyahu was prime minister. Livni attacked Netanyahu for not “making progress” in the peace process.
“To get support in the world is not only to go from country to country and tell them off that they are hypocrites and that we suffer from terror. The question is how does one create the hope that Israel is a real partner for a negotiating process which will end the conflict in the Middle East.”
As a member of the government and the cabinet, however, Livni meekly voted for the decision to impose sanctions on the Abbas regime in response to its decision to from a joint government with Hamas.
As stated a long time ago by our sages, exceptions reflect the rule, which in this case is that the media does not demand accountability from our politicians. Prime Minister Netanyahu has appeared (finally) at a few press conferences and allowed some questioning. Not one of our reporters dared challenge him, or Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, by reminding them of their previous statements. Ya’alon repeatedly stated that Hamas was defeated, when in fact it continues to shoot rockets at Israel, kill and maim Israelis and force thousands of residents to flee from their homes.
The IBA’s Carmela Menashe faithfully parrots all the info she is supplied by the defense minister and his aides. Menashe, a recipient of too many prizes for her “journalistic excellence,” is not capable of presenting her audience with an objective check of the reliability of the statements coming out of the ministry.
Representatives of the government are interviewed on radio and TV. The normal procedure in Israel is to ask their opinion, impolitely argue with them, even shut them up when needed – but hardly ever to confront them with their previous positions and demand an explanation for their broken promises.
Why? There are two options. The first is that looking up past remarks and making sure the citations are correct requires effort, and who wants to do homework? The second has to do with the media themselves. Whoever demands accountability from others should be accountable themselves, and as documented repeatedly in this column our media does not want to be accountable to anyone.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (