Top pundit tells all

Listen to Dan Margalit's confessions and weep over what it says about our political system.

margalit 88 (photo credit: )
margalit 88
(photo credit: )
In Israel's media world Dan Margalit is an icon. His many roles as anchorman and pundit have made him and his friends Amnon Dankner and Tommy Lapid - Israeli patriots all - key members of a closed media club. Together with the mostly post-Zionist cabal spawned by Ruth Yovel (editor of Channel 2's popular Friday newscast) they and their colleagues occupy many key positions, effectively excluding other voices. Dan Margalit always aspired to fight corruption. His moral passion gave him the guts to expose Leah Rabin's illegal bank account in 1977, forcing then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to resign. It is most instructive, therefore, to read Margalit's candid interview in the February 16 Haaretz Magazine where he explains the bitter break between him and his beloved and closest friend, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It tells us why Israeli elites - in politics and the media - are in a moral quandary. Margalit's break with Olmert interrupted a 35-year unusually intimate friendship in which the two consulted each other almost daily, knowing each other's "most intimate secrets…" and experiencing "many milestones… both personal and professional together," and seemingly advancing each other's careers. The rift was caused by Margalit's growing conviction during the second Lebanon War that Olmert was an unsuitable leader, and by the many serious allegations of corruption that surfaced since he became prime minister. How could he - Margalit was asked - write only last February, before the recent elections, that Olmert was "a wise, intelligent and practical person, firm of spirit and without illusion"? There was no way to predict how Olmert would turn out as prime minister, Margalit answered. As for the allegations of corruption: After Olmert appointed Prof. Daniel Friedmann, a vociferous opponent of the Supreme Court and its judicial activism as justice minister, Margalit charged Olmert with "setting a fire to destroy Israel's legal system" of creating "a situation in which this government, these politicians [and] the owners of capital who are benefiting from this government, their spokesmen and lawyers will now celebrate." This against fairly recent columns in which Margalit categorically rejected repeated allegations that Olmert was corrupt. "I did not see then flagrant things like those that are arrayed against him today," Margalit excuses himself. "In general, I did not take an interest in economic affairs, and I did not deal with his relations with the business world. He always had stories about meeting people in America at the top of the economic world." Since Margalit does not disclose what the stories were, we can only guess whether they were indicative of more than just a friendly relationship between a politician and businessmen. MARGALIT'S LACK of interest in economic affairs is probably why he so easily dismissed corruption allegations when he became aware of the too-close-for-comfort relationships between politicians like Olmert and business and media people. But should we not expect a top pundit, who is devoted to fighting corruption, to educate himself about economic affairs? This would have been useful since Israel's economic system which permits government to "allocate" so much wealth is not only corrupted, but also a major reason for most of our social and economic ills. How can anyone concerned with good government as Dan Margalit certainly is remain ignorant and uninterested in economics? I just find it amazing. But I suspect it is part of the reason why it is so difficult to fight corruption or reform Israel's economic system. Another reason for Margalit's obtuseness may be his confusing moral conceptions. His 1997 book I Saw Them All vividly exposed, in numerous hair-raising stories, the extent of corruption among our elites, including our media (it should have caused a storm of indignation, but the charges were mostly hushed up). In the book Margalit charged his own friend and former MK Yossi Sarid of twice paying a fee to editors to suppress damaging stories. Yet he concluded that "Sarid... is the cleanest person. A man who would not touch dirty money; a meticulously honest man." Margalit believed as he did because he sees a significant if "thin line between doing shady deals on behalf of a political party and personal bribery." This apparently is why Margalit defended Olmert when he was accused of questionable campaign financing. This reasoning may also be behind Margalit's indifference to what others consider serious ethical breaches. It apparently has not occurred to Margalit that the exchange of privileged information by public figures in return for media support may be as corrupting as an exchange for money; nor that friendships between journalists and officials may be the reason why, as he himself documents, the media often cover up terrible offenses by its favorites even while destroying those who it politically and personally despises? And let me remind Margalit and his cohorts that a media which offers us a uniform take on news and opinion - which Israel's main newspapers and TV outlets mostly do - removes from the public discourse significant alternative voices. And that is a surefire way to undermine a genuinely pluralist democracy.