The present election campaign is one of the most complex that Israel ever experienced. The political scene has undergone dramatic and major changes. If one trusts the polls, the Labor Party – the inheritor of the state-building Mapai hegemonic movement – is no longer a dominant force. Close to half of the electorate will be voting for parties that did not exist in recent elections. Splits and breakaways abound. In this situation, it is no wonder that the media, whose job it is to report events, play a central role.
We do not know, and there are no reliable research results that can assure us what the media’s influence on the election results really is. For example, let us assume that the media are pro-left wing and actively support the left-wing parties. Does that help the Left wing?
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. The Israeli electorate is typically involved and discerning. Clear bias in one direction can boomerang and cause many to vote for the other side.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often blames the media for treating him differently. He is held under the microscope. His actions, whether true or only perceived, have received negative treatment when compared to those of other prime ministers like Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak. We all can recall the request of commentator Amnon Abramovitz that the media wrap Sharon as if he were a vulnerable-to-damage etrog. In contrast, it is claimed that the actions of his competitor Benny Gantz receive little or no attention. Even if his notable lack of success in the one civilian job he held is mentioned, there is no in-depth follow-up. The upshot of all this would seem to be a warning to the electorate: Beware! The left-wing media are once again taking sides.
But are they really?
There is no question that Gantz and his Blue and White Party are less than open about their future actions. Mr. Gantz does not allow reporters to question him freely. His scripts are carefully prepared. Does the media accept this? Not exactly. It is general consensus that Gantz and his party are hiding their personal views and objectives, and this has been mentioned by almost all political commentators many times.
Chaim Levinson wrote on March 7 in Haaretz after the publication of Blue and White’s platform: “Whether deliberate or not, the Blue-White platform... confirms the party as an eclectic collection of good people without a real direction.”
Galatz’s Efi Trigger, on the morning news, repeatedly points out that Gantz does not answer questions from reporters. The media would love to question him, if for no other reason than that questioning him would enhance ratings.
At the same time and for the same reason, the media are also unhappy with Netanyahu. For the past 10 years, Netanyahu has rarely given interviews. Yet, the stress is more on Gantz’s refusal rather than Netanyahu, and perhaps justifiably so. Netanyahu’s views are well known. Those of Gantz are not and need clarification, or better, propagation. But it would not be justified on this issue to claim the media are anti-Netanyahu.
It is perhaps surprising that one of the most important sources of criticism against Gantz comes from the radical left-wing newspaper Haaretz. As reported by Dr. Aaron Lerner on March 6 on the Israel National News website: “Haaretz pulled no punches, starting with details of how Gantz screwed up on his year-long assignment to prepare for then-PM Ehud Barak’s chaotic retreat for Lebanon and concluding with his fiasco in failing to prepare the IDF, as chief of staff, to deal with the Hamas assault tunnels reaching across from the Gaza Strip.”
OF COURSE, Haaretz supports anyone who could threaten Netanyahu’s reelection, just as the Israel Hayom newspaper supports Netanyahu. There is nothing wrong with that. The point is that even Haaretz could voice criticism of Gantz. This is not unique. Amiram Barkat wrotes in Globes on February 25: “Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz’s party abounds in promises, but is unclear on how to implement and pay for them.” He then adds: “So far, no representative of Blue and White has put forward any serious suggestion how even a fraction of the welter of promises can be financed without busting the budget framework.”
And now back to Netanyahu. In many ways, he gets off the hook rather easily on certain issues. Hardly anyone in the mainstream media is attacking him for not removing the illegal Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar. His actions, or rather his lack thereof, concerning the forceful occupation of the Mercy Gate on the Temple Mount by the Wakf Islamic religious trust are mainly reported but not criticized. The facts are that the Wakf has illegally occupied the place, violated the status quo, created a new mosque, and the government is trying to “solve the problem by peaceful means.”
Again, they are giving the Jordanians a veto against Israel upholding the law by throwing out the Wakf. The situation is similar to the collapse of Netanyahu’s 2015 plan to place surveillance cameras at the Temple Mount compound.
Another complaint coming from the Likud has to do with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and the State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Here, too, the media are easy on the prime minister. He had 10 years in which to legislate a separation of powers that would safeguard against excesses of the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court. He was presented a plan by the Kohelet think tank, and he had a right-wing minister of justice in place, but has done nothing.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has been roundly criticized for the latest budget deficits, which clearly will impact the next government. But Netanyahu is prime minister, and in the words of Harry Truman, “The buck stops here.” The excesses are partially a result of the present government decision to update the pensions of police officers. They are related to the unsuccessful and expensive Kahlon initiatives meant to significantly reduce apartment prices. Netanyahu, who understands economics, could have stopped the fiscal recklessness but did not. None of this comes through clearly in the media. One could argue, in all fairness, that the media are derelict in their job of criticizing the prime minister.
One problem the media have created for itself, which contributes to their lack of acceptance by major sections of the population, is its visceral and quite personal hatred of Netanyahu as a person. We have made this point in previous columns. Once the media’s approach is seen and perceived as hostile to Netanyahu for what he is rather than for what he does, as indeed it is, the public is easily, and mostly rightfully, persuaded, that the media are biased and unfair in their coverage of him and his government.
But the bottom line is that many of the complaints voiced by the prime minister are double-edged swords. If the media would really doing its job, he might have to pay a hefty price.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (imediaw.org.il).