The press waves Netanyahu goodbye

On Sunday the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, reached an agreement to eject Benjamin Netanyahu after twelve years, the longest time any prime minister has held power in the country. Coverage described a fraught legacy: the New York Times called him a “polarizing figure”; per the Washington Post, “he leaves a country more divided”; CNN reported that he made “a wealthier, more divided Israel.” Many outlets remarked on the strange cooperation among those who removed Netanyahu from office. “They lead an eight-party alliance ranging from left to right, from secular to religious, that agrees on little but a desire to oust Mr. Netanyahu,” Richard Pérez-Peña wrote, in the Times. For The New Yorker, Ruth Margalit noted that “under a government that delegitimized any form of dissent, traditional concepts of left and right have become somewhat meaningless.” Naftali Bennett, a hard-right nationalist who was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, has now taken his place as prime minister; Yair Lapid, a centrist and former journalist, is set to take over in 2023.

Netanyahu’s relationship with the press has long been combative. For CJR’s global issue, Margalit wrote about his journey from a “master of television,” in his early career, to seasoned press antagonist. In 1999, after his first election loss, when Netanyahu sought to boost his media influence, his friend Ronald Lauder, the American cosmetics magnate, bought a majority stake in Israel’s Channel 10; in 2007, another ally, Sheldon Adelson, the casino-owning mega-donor, launched a free tabloid that amplified Netanyahu’s voice and views. By 2014, Israel got Channel 20 (“The Heritage Channel”), a mirror of Fox News with the motto: “Really Balanced Television”; soon, it was the only network with which Netanyahu sat for interviews. The same year, he sidelined his communications minister and took over the role himself. “Among analysts of Israeli politics,” Margalit observed, “the most common word used to describe Netanyahu’s view of the press is ‘obsession.’”

Then, in February of 2019, ahead of his next bid for reelection, Netanyahu was slammed with three major corruption cases; the most serious alleged that a media executive had taken down a story criticizing the First Lady in exchange for Netanyahu’s approval of a merger that would offset the executive’s corporate debt. Netanyahu fought to maintain his grip as long as he could: through indictments for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud; through a bid for immunity; through an extended trial. By the end of December, the Knesset dissolved, and Israel’s election became a campaign to unseat him.

While lawmakers scrambled to form a new coalition, Netanyahu took aggressive action against Palestine. In May, Israel went on a bombing spree; when missiles hit press offices in Gaza, Netanyahu insisted that Hamas had an intelligence office in the building. Soon after, Haaretz reported that, amid protests, Netanyahu had proposed a social media crackdown. Even as his tenure as prime minister spun out of control, the press had trouble resisting his hold over messaging; as Jon Allsop wrote in a recent newsletter, “Much of the top-line coverage in the United States has used fuzzy, passive language—‘warlike violence erupts’; ‘the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, reignited’—that obscures who has done what to whom.” In an open letter last week, a group of media professionals called for more strongly worded coverage of Israel’s hostility against Palestine.

Under Bennett, the outlook for the press remains to be seen. From Jerusalem, Noga Tarnopolsky, who covers Israel and Palestine as a freelance reporter, tweeted that “much of the media is breathing a sigh of relief with the exit of a PM who referred to us as enemies of the people & treated journalists with sneering contempt,” calling Bennett’s administration a “breath of fresh air.” Still, Mairav Zonszein, a writer and analyst for the Crisis Group, noted that the new administration “does not mark a defeat of the right.” And Al Jazeera observed that, as Bennett replaces Netanyahu, Palestinians are “not counting on change.” Reporters like Givara Budeiri—who, according to the International Federation of Journalists, was arrested and assaulted by Israeli police, then released with a broken hand, even after a cease-fire was declared—can only hope for better days. They can’t count on them.

Below, more on news coverage and Israel:

    • “Israeli media’s one-woman show”: For CJR last summer, Zonszein interviewed Or-ly Barlev, an independent journalist and activist in Israel who broadcasts via Facebook Live to hundreds of thousands. Barlev described living in a media landscape dominated by Netanyahu—or “Bibi,” as he’s known. “He has planted people in every panel, every studio; there is always someone speaking on behalf of Bibi,” Barlev said. “Not representatives of the right. Not right-wing intellectuals. Mouthpieces. Propagandists. And he feeds the media spins, which some journalists eat up.” Still, in August, she saw some signs of hope: “One of Bibi’s tools is to divide and fracture, and people are uniting. The contra has started.”
    • “All stick, no carrot”: For the Canadaland podcast, Jesse Brown spoke with Dalya al-Masri, a Palestinian writer and researcher based in Vancover, about media coverage of Israel and Palestine. They agreed that ambivalent coverage of Israel and Palestine is overly governed by fear (in Brown’s words, “all stick and no carrot”). “Journalists have the obligation and the duty to morally and ethically represent the truth and to represent the communities they cover,” Masri said. “There is a rightful fear. But most of this fear is driven by the silence. When we stay silent, and when journalists and newsrooms don’t really cover these issues, it starts to get really pushed under the rug.”
    • Out in the open: In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Yousef Munayyer wrote that Bennett’s policies “won’t mean justice or peace for Palestinians,” citing Bennett’s shameless opposition to a Palestinian state. “Bennett will not only continue to act as Netanyahu did, he is unafraid to tell the world about it too,” Munayyer argued.
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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites