On December 5, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was knocked down.
“Tel Aviv offered a rare chance to topple Netanyahu,” wrote journalist Omer Benjakob on Twitter. A golden statue of the Prime Minister had been erected at Rabin Square by a then-unknown artist, and crowds arrived to take selfies, give the statue the finger and eventually to topple it.
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But to the consternation of those celebrating his fall, “King Bibi,” as Time anointed him in 2012, is still standing in Jerusalem. (Golden Netanyahu statue causes stir in Tel Aviv (Reuters))
“The golden statue merely bolsters Netanyahu among his supporters who see the ‘Tel Aviv bubble’ going wild,” wrote commentator Ravit Hecht.
The toppling and debate about it fed into the spotlight that is on Netanyahu, because of his personal conflict with various Israeli media personalities and outlets. His Facebook page regularly takes swipes at individual journalists.
Channeling Donald Trump’s frequent claims that enemies in the media have low ratings, Netanyahu slammed Channel 10 in a Facebook post on December 4, accusing it of being full of “radical leftists,” and of frequently criticizing his family. “No wonder the ratings are so low.”
“The Israeli media allows itself to systematically discredit the sons of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” was another accusation published on his Facebook page on a different occasion, “ever since they were young,” arguing that families of other prime ministers had been left alone.
The conflict with the Israeli media is conducted in Hebrew by the prime minister. In contrast, when he wants to remind the foreign public of his role in working with Christians and African states, highlight Israeli innovation or post about his experiences as a young fighter in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, he blends Hebrew and English. Abroad, particularly in the United States, he is seen as a popular statesman, but at home the prime minister appears under siege.
It is also a known fact that Netanyahu prefers avoiding interviews with the Israeli media, although he sits down with their foreign colleagues, as he did just recently on 60 Minutes.
“THERE WAS always tension,” says Yoaz Hendel, who was director of communications and public diplomacy for Netanyahu in 2011-2012.
“There is a well-known cliché that if even paranoids have enemies, he is paranoid and he has many enemies. Columnists and reporters critique him for things he has done and hasn’t done, for that reason one should first of all understand there is a real reason for the sensitive treatment that Netanyahu gives to the media.”
Netanyahu’s team is very cognizant of his defensiveness, and his staff have experimented with new social media strategies in the last year. Videos, disseminated over the summer and fall, widely credited to his spokesman David Keyes, received tens of millions of views. Over the summer the prime minister also attempted outreach through meetings with journalists in Israel.
“What happened in the last two years since the [2015 election] campaign, the shift, or change, is that he did it more publicly and bluntly, and mentions media outlets and people by name,” says Raviv Drucker of Channel 10. He says there is a major difference between the past tensions with Israeli media, and the use of social media that began before the election and culminated in a Facebook post on Election Day about “Arabs flowing to the ballot boxes” and being bused by the “Left’s NGO.”
“The fact is he won the election after he made this change… in his mind he figures this is the way to do it and why not continue, and now he is doing it more aggressively than ever,” says Drucker, who has been attacked on the prime minister’s Facebook page seven times in two months. The prime minister, says Drucker, has become “preoccupied” and obsessive.
SHUKI TAUSIG, editor of the Seventh Eye – a Hebrew news outlet that focuses on all aspects of the (mainly Hebrew) media in Israel – says that “Netanyahu didn’t invent this hostile and abusive approach of political and personal attacks on media.”
But Tausig argues that since the last election, Netanyahu has sharpened his attacks and gone beyond the historical norm.
“I would say that it is like a copy of Trump, the quality and quantity of his reactions to specific journalists in the last few months ago is becoming unique.”
What makes Netanyahu’s approach historic, in Tausig’s view, is that he is fighting an unconventional war against a series of opponents, and he risks wielding his torch in such a way as to burn down the whole institution of journalism. To win individual battles everything can be sacrificed.
Tausig argues this approach is similar to how Netanyahu approached the gas-deal controversy and other government regulators, willing to erode the institution to get his way.
BUT IT seems that Netanyahu’s approach is working partly because the public in Israel is suspicious of the motives of some journalists.
“The media overplays events in many areas, especially in its overly zealous pursuit of its political rivals,” wrote Israel Harel at Haaretz on December 9. “A growing number of Israelis see it as a group that, rather than seeking justice, is seeking the head of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The influence of the press is on the decline.”
A survey by the Edelman Trust Barometer and Debby Communications found that only 35% of Israelis trust the media (compared with a global average of 49%). A 2014 Israel Democracy Index survey found that only 28% of Jews and 37% of Arabs in Israel trust the media.
It was the least trusted institution (by contrast, 88% of Jews trust the army and 60% of Israelis trust the Supreme Court).
Attacking the media historically was political suicide. Mark Twain once quipped, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel,” a witticism successful politicians such as Bill Clinton often referenced. In relations between the media and public, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said the best approach of a politician was “never complain, never explain.” Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, gave similar advice to Nixon’s team in the wake of the Kent State massacre in 1970.
But in the age of social media, these old maxims are being pushed aside. The world of social media and online media is sometimes called the “fifth estate” to contrast it with more traditional “fourth estate” mainstream media.
Using social media, where politicians may have more followers and “likes” than old media have, allows them to reach the public directly.
“I don’t see a threat to freedom of speech or freedom of journalism,” says Hendel, “but I see the process that Netanyahu has done… his reactions and treatment and behavior to those who criticize him in the last two months changed everything.” He compares it to behaving like a “talkbackist” – referring to online reactions people write at the bottom of news articles and other online publications – which has reduced the prestige of the office of the prime minister.
“We all lose,” says Eli Pollak, a professor and former chairman of Israel Media Watch. “No one is relating [to Netanyahu] in a professional way and we all lose – those who want to replace him lose and those who want him in power lose.”
Dr. Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who heads the Media Reform project, and a lecturer in public policy at the Hebrew University, agrees that the public is the real victim in this battle.
“What bothers me is the fact that this delicate point of equilibrium between checks and balances of state and government and the fourth estate has been taken off. This is really something that hurts the Israeli public.”
Michael Freund served as deputy director of Communications and Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, and was an adviser to Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999 during his first term. He dealt closely with the local and foreign press. He too feels that the “media landscape has changed completely in the last two decades, as politicians now have ways of reaching the public that were simply inconceivable in the 1990s.”
He explains that Netanyahu’s media strategy has also shifted accordingly: “Back then he did a lot more interviews than he does today, as that was the primary delivery mechanism available at the time. The strategy of the past few years has seemed to be more measured in that sense… he has employed social media and other means to get his message out… And it’s not just him – many politicians in Western countries have embraced this model.”
In a sense, Netanyahu is a forerunner of Trump, not the other way around.
“Personally, I think that many of the media elites simply do not give him a fair or balanced opportunity in terms of how they cover him and his family,” says Freund, echoing a sentiment among many who have worked with Netanyahu over the years. “And that in part is rooted in ideology. Most of the media in Israel as you know have long been dominated by people with left-of- center views, and that comes across quite clearly in the manner in which they cover things.”
Freund argues that in Israel it was “common practice at the Hebrew dailies for someone to be both a news reporter as well as someone who writes opinion pieces for the same paper. This inevitably creates a situation where it is very easy for someone to slide into opinion when he should be reporting the news, which affects not just the journalistic quality of the product but the balance and objectivity that is supposed to be brought to the subjects being covered.”
FOR ALL the criticism of the nature of Israeli media, which itself is a source of the conflict, the reality is that since the foundation of Zionism, many leading Zionists had a journalistic background.
Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and A. D. Gordon were all contributors to newspapers. Zeev Jabotinsky was a journalist and editor at Do’ar Hayom , while Davar, once the leading Hebrew newspaper in the country, was founded by the Histadrut.
Gershon Agron, founder and editor of The Palestine Post , forerunner of The Jerusalem Post , eventually became mayor of Jerusalem.
Media were closely affiliated with political parties in the early days of the state. But the papers that went on to survive to the modern era – Yediot Aharonot , Haaretz and Maariv – were not.
Both Yediot and Haaretz are connected to historic newspaper families, Mozes and Schocken. By the 1990s, Yediot ’s circulation had reached 350,000 on weekdays, controlling more than 65% of the market according to the Government Press Office in 1994.
While old party newspapers such as Davar (associated with Mapai and the Histadrut) were closing down in the 1990s, the television market was opening up, with the new Channel 2 (1993) and Channel 10 (2002).
Israeli radio was a closely controlled government monopoly.
Indeed, many assert that Netanyahu’s conflicts with institutions such as the Israel Broadcasting Authority stem from this long history in which institutionalized journalism is seen as inimically hostile to the political Right.
Netanyahu’s colleagues remember him as always being deeply involved in crafting his media image. “I know from my experience in the 1990s that there are many politicians who have very little to do with the speeches they make beyond the fact the words leave their mouths, but that was absolutely not the case with Netanyahu,” says Freund.
“He was actively involved in crafting the thoughts and words that he said… in many cases Netanyahu would make a lot of edits, he would change things, and he was involved from the very beginning in terms of deciding what to include, the points and turns of phrase, even structural issues, which is something that a lot of people don’t do.”
FOR FREUND, a source of the hostile feelings goes back to the Oslo peace process.
On December 5, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was knocked down.