Media Comment: That ethnic cleansing clip

These comments and many others did not answer why Netanyahu did not come out with his statement to Israel’s TV networks instead of YouTube.

PM Netanyahu: Dear Arab citizens of Israel--take part in our society in droves (photo credit: screenshot)
PM Netanyahu: Dear Arab citizens of Israel--take part in our society in droves
(photo credit: screenshot)
Last Friday afternoon, on time for viewers especially in the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uploaded a video clip to YouTube that went viral.
In the clip the prime minister made the following observations in English: “I’m sure that many of you heard the claim that the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are an obstacle to peace. But no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel, that they are an obstacle to peace. That’s because they aren’t...
Yet the Palestinian leadership demands a Palestinian state with one precondition: no Jews. There is a phrase for that. It is called ethnic cleansing.”
Netanyahu’s criticism of countries who perceive the settlements as obstacles to peace received an immediate response from the Obama administration. US State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau noted: “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank. ...Using that type of terminology is inappropriate... We share the view... that ongoing settlement activity is an obstacle to peace.”
The clip raises many questions. Why in English? Why no subtitles in Hebrew? Why was it posted just before Shabbat? Why didn’t the prime minister broadcast his message through Israel’s TV channels? After all Friday evening is primetime TV in Israel. Why was this broadcast just now? What provoked it? Was this the first time the prime minister used the term “ethnic cleansing” in the context of Palestinian demands? Didn’t Netanyahu and his aides know that this would lead to a strong condemnation from the US? The clip was food for many pundits. Unfortunately, most of the commentary coming from left-wing media was not to the point but limited to Netanyahu-bashing.
Consider the comments of Israel Prize laureate for journalism Nahum Barnea, who wrote last Sunday: “Netanyahu is no fool, he knows that his speech presents him naked [referring to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes fable]. But the times are not simple. Any headline, only not the headlines on an unending police investigation, on an indictment in the saga of [the PM’s] homes, on flights, presents and goodies, therefore he is running from one medium to the next, from one photo op to the next.” To Barnea’s credit he then does explain why in his eyes removal of settlements would not be ethnic cleansing: we are occupiers and in addition, the residents of Judea and Samaria have never agreed to live under foreign sovereignty.
But can his comments be taken seriously? If Netanyahu wanted to deflect Israeli public opinion, why did he talk in English? Why on Friday afternoon? Does Barnea truly believe that Netanyahu, who “is no fool,” would risk the wrath of US President Barack Obama and the bad publicity it would cause him back home just for the purpose of deflecting stories? Obama can harm Netanyahu much more than momentary headlines on accusations that thus far have not amounted to anything and which have followed the prime minister for the past 20 years.
Meirav Batito, another Yediot Aharonot commentator, wrote: “The timing of the video... [was] when most Israelis are fatigued from the past week, relaxing and too weak to resist something which just might sound less logical during the traffic jams on Sunday, on the way to work.”
As for the content, her comments were: “Netanyahu put Arabs against Jews and this always works for him... he puts one public against the other, mixes issues, compares government policy to strengthen the settlements to the citizenship of Israel’s Arabs.” She ends by going below the belt: “Only he knows how to instill equations which make a parallel between ceasing settlement construction to the atrocities against the Jewish people, and the Americans from their part can continue to censure until tomorrow.”
At least Barnea does not take Netanyahu for a fool.
Arieh Golan, the left-wing ideologue of Reshet Bet radio, also had some words of wisdom Monday. His answer to Netanyahu was: “Israel will receive in the next decade $37 billion in aid from the United States, and this is truly important news... but there is some additional news, the ethnic cleansing... does not include in it the Jews living in the State of Israel, for them, the USA is helpful, really helpful.”
Haaretz could not resist bashing the prime minister. It took his clip, edited it and then immediately went on to provide excerpts of the statements of Trudeau from the State Department to make sure the viewer would not miss how damaging (in the eyes of Haaretz) the clip is. Its editorial on Monday was headlined “not cleansing and not ethnic.” It opened with: “The Israeli Palestinian peace is not threatening, sadly, to burst tomorrow... why then did Netanyahu initiate a public, political and diplomatic discussion of the issue by stating that removal of settlements equals ethnic cleansing? ...Netanyahu wanted to create noise. Why? One possibility is that... two months prior to elections in the US, he wanted to draw a hard line for the next administration, and to irritate the outgoing Obama administration.”
These comments and many others did not answer why Netanyahu did not come out with his statement to Israel’s TV networks instead of YouTube. We would dare to say that Netanyahu, like other leading Israeli politicians such as Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the Bayit Yehudi Party, tend to give their most important messages to the public, as well as their insight, via social media. In our minds the reason is obvious: a mistrust of the media and their capability to provide a politician with a fair stage from which to present her or his political and ideological position on any issue. One does not forget so quickly how Yonit Levy mistranslated the prime minister during his speech to the joint session of US Congress on the Iranian issue.
The silly response of the mainstream media to the clip is another reason. By going through YouTube, anyone can access the prime minister’s remarks, getting them from the horse itself rather than through the filter of the commentators.
The media could have considered that the prime minister was answering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, preparing for the future meeting with him. It could have noted that by being sharp, the prime minister sought to preempt a unilateral step by Obama after the elections which could compromise Israel’s future. It could have asked why didn’t the prime minister mention the ethnic cleansing of Jews during the mandate period, when they were forcibly removed from Jerusalem neighborhoods, Gush Etzion, or Hebron and Gaza in 1929? The shallowness and one-sided commentaries are first and foremost losses of the media itself. If only it would be a bit more open to other opinions.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.