Media Comment: The vacuum of critique

In 2005, Israel’s media was largely exuberant about the upcoming unilateral retreat, for Sharon was implementing one of its dreams: the end of part of the “occupation”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addresses the nation on the disengagement from Gaza, August 15, 2005 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addresses the nation on the disengagement from Gaza, August 15, 2005
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nine years ago Israel “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip. Most of Israel was mesmerized and many applauded the act. The pundits who appeared in the media repeatedly explained that leaving Gaza would lead to significant gains for Israel on the international front as well as on the security front, and their words seemed to influence public opinion.
Amnon Abramovitch, the irresponsible commentator and evangelist of Channel 2 news, coined the term “etrog” in reference to prime minister Ariel Sharon. In using it, he sought to instruct his fellow media personalities to safeguard Sharon from criticism, so that he could carry out the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Israel’s media was largely exuberant about the upcoming unilateral retreat, for Sharon was implementing one of its dreams: the end of part of the “occupation” and an end to responsibility for over a million residents in that stretch of territory.
Today, we all know that the withdrawal was disastrous. Sharon, who promised then-chairman of the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee that he would not leave the Philadelphi corridor separating Rafah from Egypt for a period of nine months after the act, was too weak to even keep this promise. He could not withstand the pressure of president George Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Shortly afterwards Hamas came to power in Gaza, and the rest is history.
Is this important? Are there lessons to be learned from this sad chapter in Israel’s history? Is there a thread leading from the withdrawal to our present precarious and dangerous situation? Listening to and observing the Israeli media today, one might even conclude that there never was a disengagement. The same “experts” whose predictions were so wrong nine years ago continue to try and brainwash us today. The media largely does not ask the tough questions. Dov Weissglass, arguably the brain behind Sharon’s actions as his bureau chief, and the one who disparagingly referred to the Kassam rockets fired at us as “flying objects” does not, even today, admit any error. Worse, he has the audacity to continue and try to tell us what we should be doing.
Weissglass, in an article in Yediot Aharonot on July 29, called for the resumption of talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, this being his way to improve the situation in Gaza. As rightly noted by General (res.) Ya’akov Amidror in an article in Israel Hayom this Sunday, Weissglass did not even have the decency to admit his mistakes in the past. The word “humility” is not part of Weissglass’ vocabulary.
But the real question is not about Weissglass.
Rare is the politician who will admit errors. No, the real question is where is Yediot Aharonot? Sure, freedom of speech allows Weissglass to pontificate, but would Yediot give space in its business pages to an executive who drove his company into bankruptcy? Would it consider it wise to allow such a person to provide the public with his sagacious advice? And it isn’t only Yediot. Weissglass also appeared on Channel 10’s London and Kirschenbaum show on July 22 in a debate on whether the disengagement was responsible for Operation Protective Edge, where he followed the same script.
There were some serious journalists that were responsible enough to relate to this sad chapter of our history in the context of the current operation in Gaza. Shai Levy, on Channel 2’s Mako website, recounted the history of Gaza during the past 10 years, noting clearly how the withdrawal led directly to the confrontations with the Gaza terrorists. Ran Baratz, on the Mida website, recalled another icon of our media, Haaretz’s Nechemia Strassler, who ridiculed Binyamin Netanyahu for his resignation from Sharon’s government prior to the withdrawal.
So wrote Strassler at the time: “On the very day [of his resignation] he provided the public with horror scenarios: ‘An Islamic terror base is being formed in Gaza; Hamas is growing strong.’ He [Netanyahu] became even more extreme: ‘rockets will be launched toward Israel from terror bases which we are allowing the Islamists to establish.’ Tomorrow there’ll be an apocalypse.”
Strassler, we should add, continues to be allowed to publish his worthless tripe in Haaretz. He is often invited by the Internet media to comment, and yet no one dares ask him why anyone should take his opinions seriously.
On August 5, Shlomo Angel rightly noted in an article in Ynet that, “The wind supporting the disengagement has turned into a deadly hurricane whose climax is the present Operation Protective Edge. So, why has this discussion been muted?” Back in May 2, 2004, Shaul Mofaz, then defense minister, asked by Yediot Aharonot about disengagement, replied, “I am convinced, as opposed to all those who see black, that in reality, there will be less terror from Gaza. The Gaza Strip will not be Lebanon.”
Yet Mofaz is still taken seriously by the media.
One of the few reporters who did make it their business to report on the connection of the withdrawal to the present is Amit Segal from Channel 2 news. He provided in-depth coverage during Operation Pillar of Defense two years ago, and repeated it during the present war. On August 3, he riddled with holes the “quiet for quiet” platitudes of our politicians, showing based on history that each period of “quiet” was preceded and followed by massive military aggression against Israel.
He also had a clip on Channel 2 reviewing the various promises of politicians of a brighter future, pronouncement which today sound ludicrous.
His father, Hagai Segal, the present editor of the Makor Rishon newspaper, used his weekly column to raise the disengagement issue. Both he and General Amidror showed that the claim that the withdrawal actually reduced the number of Israel casualties belongs at best to Israeli mythology.
These voices, however, were the exception.
When Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua write an op-ed article in Haaretz, it is considered to be so important that the various anchors, such as Arieh Golan of Kol Israel, Ilana Dayan of Channel 2 and Razi Barkai of Galei Zahal take pains to read the articles on their programs, interview people and discuss them. When Gideon Levy articulates his irrational world view, the media has a ball. He is invited to explain his views in greater detail, others to refute, and Levy and Haaretz have once again set the media’s agenda.
Yet articles written by noted and respected journalists attempting to raise the very serious issue of the present war in the context of the withdrawal from Gaza are largely ignored. If the events prior to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination are to be recalled annually to give that tragic event context, surely in discussions of the current reality in the Gaza Strip the disengagement should be recalled, too.
After so many military operations, including Summer Rains (2006), Hot Winter (2008), Cast Lead (2008-2009) and Pillar of Defense (2012) the media should devote more attention and airtime to reviewing the trustworthiness of its celebrities.
The related question of whether the public can trust the media is a central element in current events. In fact, it’s big part of the story.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (