A Collection of the Week's News from Israel

A service of the Bet El Twinning Committee
of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation

5 MarCheshvan 5760     October 15, 1999     Issue number 241

A weekday afternoon Mincha minyan has been started in the Highway 7 / Highway 400 area. For info please call 905-669-6613.


Events

Saturday October 23, 9:00pm

The men of the community are invited to a commemoration of the 5th yarzeit of Harav Shlomo Carlebach , featuring all of the chevra in Toronto, to be held at Torath Emeth, 1 Viewmount Avenue. Admission $10 (or $18 including a tape of the performance).


News

Barak Plans to Uproot Fifteen Yesha Outposts

Prime Minister Barak plans to uproot 15 civilian outposts in Judea and Samaria. Uri Ariel, Mayor of Beit El, claims that the reason is not the legality or illegality of the outposts, but rather the Palestinian threat not to begin the final-status talks. A similar point was made by opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who said that he is becoming more certain that Barak promised the Palestinians that he would uproot Jewish points in Yesha. The 15 threatened outposts are:

* Shuna, near Eli

* Mitzpeh Kramim, adjacent to Kokhav HaShachar (six families)

* Haresha, one mile from Talmon, on a hilltop overlooking all of the neighboring communities (10 families)

* Maon Farm, where Dov Dribben was killed, outside Maon (6 buildings)

* Adei Ad, one mile from Shvut Rachel (11 buildings)

* Har Kabir, near Elon Moreh

* Mitzpeh Danny, in memory of terrorist victim Danny Frei, 700 meters from Ma'aleh Michmash (15 buildings)

* Mitzpeh Chagit, in memory of terrorist victim Chagit Zavitsky, two miles from Ma'aleh Michmash (7 buildings)

* N'vei Erez, in memory of Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein, killed in southern Lebanon eight months ago, one mile from Ma'aleh Michmash

* Magen David, one mile from Susia

* HaChayil, near Itamar (7 buildings)

* Hill 827, near Brachah

* Tzufit Farm, near N'vei Tzuf

* Itur 26, east of Kiryat Arba

* Areas 51 and 52, outside Kiryat Arba

Yesha Council leaders plan to strengthen and expand the outposts. A special task force will be established in each community that has a threatened outpost, and plans for re-populating evacuated sites will be prepared. The Council heads met Wednesday with Interior Minister Natan Sharansky (Yisrael B'Aliyah), and with Ministers Eli Yeshai (Shas) and Rabbi Yitzchak Levy (NRP). Council heads say that they will fight to preserve the outposts "with full force, within the law;" they expect thousands of people to arrive at the threatened outposts in protest of the evacuations.

The National Union party has submitted a no-confidence motion in the Knesset, on the backdrop of the outposts issue. A Knesset Forum for the Yesha Outposts has been established, headed by Ariel Sharon. Yesha Council head Benny Kashriel will meet with One Israel Knesset faction head MK Ophir Paz in the Knesset this afternoon. Paz said that he wishes to prevent a deterioration in the relations with the Yesha residents, "as occurred in the events that led to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin," in his words. MK David Azulai (Shas) said that he is in favor of uprooting the outposts if "this will advance the peace process," and advises the Yesha Council to accept the decision "in good spirit." He said, however, that "Barak seems to think that he is still in the army. He must not deliver ultimatum, but rather make decisions together with the Yesha people." MK Yuli Edelstein (Yisrael B'Aliyah): "All outposts approved by the Netanyahu government should remain, and the remaining 11 that were established shortly before the elections should be checked, with an aim towards approving them. If they are not approved, we'll have to meet with the Yesha leaders and army leaders, and have a party meeting on the topic, and decide on our next steps." Likud leader Ariel Sharon: "The legality of the outposts is a secondary problem; in my opinion they are all legal. The main issue that must be examined is the necessity of the settlements. I appeal to the Prime Minister, who himself comes from the settlements, who was raised on pioneering and Zionist values, not to make this move - which is anti-security, anti-pioneering, and anti-Zionist - of evacuating settlements." Ra'anan Cohen, Labor party Secretary-General: "We in the Labor party, will not permit the street to fall back again in the hands of the right-wing. The right speaks today of war instead of speaking about a real public struggle for what they believe in. We won't allow - we condemn those settlers that plan to engage in protests the way they did against Rabin. We thought that the lesson had been learned." MK Rabbi Chaim Druckman (NRP) said that the outposts are crucial for the Jewish communities in Yesha. In answer to a question, he said that he has red lines, but that he prefers to share them first with the Prime Minister.

On the other hand, MK Zevulun Orlev (NRP) said that only the extreme right-wing objects to any compromise whatsoever. MK Nachum Langental (NRP) said, "We knew from the beginning that the Prime Minister is not exactly a great supporter of the National Religious Party platform. Our strategy is not built around questions such as 'what will you do if this or that place is evacuated?' but is rather built on a long-range strategy, on the desire to influence the final-status agreement, on the desire to bring about unity in the nation, and on the desire not to isolate the Yesha communities and their residents from the rest of the nation." Arutz-7's Haggai Seri then said, "In conclusion, the bottom line is that the NRP plans to remain in the coalition even if the government evacuates 15 outposts?" Langental responded, "I didn't say that. I said only that our struggle is not whether to leave the government or not, but rather to facilitate as many outposts as possible."

Opposition to the uprooting of the Yesha outposts is not limited to residents of Judea and Samaria. A group of professionals, writers and other intellectuals has signed a petition against the move. One professor who signed the petition, Prof. Aryeh Zaritsky of Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, sees the evacuation of the southern Mt. Hevron neighborhoods as a strategically dangerous move: "In principle, I am opposed to surrendering even one centimeter of the Land of Israel. But from a purely defensive perspective, with a war quickly approaching, retreating from these hills reduces the total area within which Israeli tanks could freely move. If the policy of surrender around major cities continues, we will not only not be able to defend Be'er Sheva, but Tel Aviv as well... These areas are not settled by Arabs, and there is no reason to transfer Jews from plots of land on which they are raising livestock or caring for and cultivating the Land of Israel." (Arutz 7 Oct 13)

The Maon Farm

One of the outposts listed for evacuation is the farm outside of Maon, south of Hevron. Arutz-7 spoke with Yonah Tor, mother of one of the residents, Yehoshafat Tor. She related that the farm is "exactly 2.5 years old, as it was started the day after Pesach in 5757 (1997) - not, as some claim, after the Wye Agreements." She said that the three families there, with another one on the way, "are attempting as much as possible to build a real farm. There is a vineyard, with a newly-planted section, an olive tree grove, and a flock of sheep." She said that her son was wounded twice in attacks on the farm by Arab marauders. "This is a real effort of self-sacrifice," she said, "not only in the most literal sense, when Dov Dribben was killed here a year and a half ago by Arabs - but also in the day-to-day sense. The families are working with real dedication, faith, and love for the land." (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

Fifteen Killed in Bus Disaster

Fifteen people were killed in a bus accident Sunday morning in the north, west of Tiberias. The other 36 bus passengers are hospitalized; one is in grave condition, and six others are listed in serious condition. Investigations have shown that the driver, who was lightly injured, was driving under the permitted speed limit, but still faster than dictated by the rainy road conditions. The tour guide on the bus said that only minutes before it slid out of control into a 30-meter deep ravine, the driver had told him that the first rain of the year is the most dangerous for drivers. (Arutz 7 Oct 10)

Benetton Gives in to Arab Pressure

The Benetton company and its subsidiary Kappa have surrendered to Arab threats, and have withdrawn their plans to have their sportswear produced at the Barkan Sewing Workshop near Ariel in Shomron. A ten-day pressure campaign, led by the Israeli organization Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Abed Rabbo, led to the announcement last week that the companies would not "directly or indirectly" produce garments in the territories. Rabbi Arthur Waskow from New York, the Quakers, and Clare Kinberg, editor of the Jewish magazine Bridges, were also credited by Gush Shalom with helping in the campaign. Despite the fact that Israeli factories in Judea and Samaria generally employ large numbers of Palestinians, Gush Shalom announced that it "intends to go on with renewed energy with efforts to prevent Israeli and international companies from investing in settlements... For peace the settlements have to be removed, and by settlements we also mean Barak's 'settlement blocs.'" (Arutz 7 Oct 8)

Druze MK Speaks

MK Ayoub Kara (Likud), speaking with Arutz-7, recounted the incident last week in which insults and curses were directed at him by Arab MKs during a Knesset Interior Committee meeting: "Throughout the meeting, they did not give the security officials a chance to deliver their report on the Islamic movement," said Kara, who represents the Druze community. "My turn came to speak, and before I could request that the security officials be permitted to talk, the Arab MKs pounced on me, calling me a boot-licker and idiot, and telling me to shut up. This wasn't the first time; some of them often look at me with daggers in their eyes, and seem to be waiting for the opportunity to beat me up." Kara continued, "I see myself as an integral part of the Israeli people, but if they see themselves as Palestinians, how can they be permitted to be legislators in our Knesset, or to take part in Israel's crucial decisions on the Golan, Yesha, and the like?" He stressed the sacrifices his family has made for Zionism: "My uncle was killed by Acco Arabs in 1939 while smuggling ammunition from Syria to the Jewish communities of Yagur and Ramat Yochanan. My father volunteered in the Israeli forces in 1947, before the institution of compulsory service, and my brother fell while on IDF duty in Lebanon." (Arutz 7 Oct 7)

Syrians Beat Israeli

An Israeli representative was beaten by Syrian participants at the Arab-European Convention in Strassbourg, France. The Israeli, Avital Sahar, recounted that he was attacked after he displayed pro-Israel literature. The Syrian representatives were barred from further participation in the convention. (Arutz 7 Oct 13)

Cohen Retracts Anti-Yesha Decision

Minister of Industry and Trade Ran Cohen (Meretz), of has rescinded his plan to freeze government aid to Yesha factories. Cohen retracted his decision after being advised to do so by the State Attorney. Shortly after taking office this past summer, Cohen announced that he would freeze the aid to Yesha factories. Immediately afterwards, legal experts observed that such a decision was not in his purview, but could only be made by the entire government. Cohen said Monday that Yesha factories would receive "the exact same treatment as plants elsewhere in the country." Shomron Regional Council Head Ben-Tzion Lieberman praised the State Attorney's advice and Minister Cohen's resultant change of heart. "It was about time that Ran Cohen realized that he is not the Meretz representative in the Ministry of Industry and Trade," Lieberman said. "His earlier decision was illegal, and this is why the State Attorney advised him to retract it. The issue is not over yet, though," Lieberman added, as Cohen has been known to work "behind the scenes" to accomplish his goals, and that local council heads must be on the alert to ensure that the factories receive fair treatment by the government. (Arutz 7 Oct 12)

Abu Abbas Free to Enter PA

The Supreme Court has rejected a petition demanding that terrorist Abu Abbas be made to stand trial. Abu Abbas was responsible for the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder there of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. He was sentenced in absentia by an Italian court, and the U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution in 1996 calling for his extradition from the Palestinian Authority. Israel's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Oslo Agreement Law grants immunity to terrorists who have received Israeli permission to enter the autonomous areas. (Arutz 7 Oct 12)

Cuban Jews in Israel

One of the year's best-kept secrets is finally out: the Jews of Cuba are slowly immigrating to Israel. The story, first published in the London Jewish Chronicle, involves some 400 Jews who have lived in the Ashkelon Absorption Center for close to a year, and 500 more Cuban Jews who plan to arrive in the near future. This will leave less than 1,000 Jews in the Caribbean island country. Political commentators opine that Cuban President Fidel Castro approved the emigration in the hope that the U.S. rescinds its economic embargo against his country. Canada helped in providing the needed visas for the first stage of aliyah, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The last Jewish school in Cuba was closed in 1974, but a small Jewish revival is taking place in Camaguey, where most of the Jewish population lives. (Arutz 7 Oct 12)

Illegal Palestinian Structures Still Stand

The Barak government has not demolished even a single illegal Palestinian structure in Judea and Samaria, by explicit order of the Prime Minister. Arutz-7 correspondent Haggai Huberman reports that some 1,000 illegal structures whose razing had been previously ordered are thus still standing. They are all in Area C, under total Israeli control. The government is scheduled to discuss the matter of illegal Palestinian construction within the near future. (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

NY Times: Guns Abound in PA

The New York Times reported Monday that the proliferation of illegal guns in the Palestinian Authority has finally prompted Arafat to crack down - but not totally. PA authorities recently entered the Balata refugee camp near Shechem, where a black weapons-market thrives, and arrested 17 arms dealers and confiscated a few weapons after an ugly showdown with the camp's youth. Israel has been demanding the collection of the tens of thousands of illegal weapons held by PA residents ever since the signing of the Oslo accords six years ago. The Times similarly reports, "Increasingly concerned about what they see as the militarization of Palestinian society, several Palestinian officials and human rights groups have been sounding alarms." In the Balata crackdown, however, the PA agents did not actually confiscate many weapons. "In this case, they were not pushed by us, but faced by internal problems they had to solve," said Civil Administration spokesman Shlomo Dror. "And even in this case, they were not willing to go to the end." M-16 rifles are readily available for purchase throughout the Palestinian uthority; prices average between $500 and $2,000 a gun, and the rifles are openly displayed as if in a produce market. "Every Palestinian needs a weapon to continue our struggle," Jihad Izzat, a Fatah leader in the Balata camp, was quoted as saying in the Times. "The authorities promised that the weapons of Fatah will be considered the weapons of the movements, nationalist weapons. They will never be confiscated." Palestinian legislator Hasem Khader said, "Weapons became a part of our character. Now they are so much more freely available and so much cheaper. So [just like] everyone can afford a house, they can afford a weapon." (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

Once Again, PA Police Brutally Assault IDF Soldiers

For the second time in three weeks, Arab Palestinian para-military policemen have brutally assaulted IDF soldiers. Saturday, three soldiers entered a store in Bethlehem, and were beaten by the Palestinian agents. Three weeks ago, two soldiers on leave entered a store in Shechem, and were similarly assaulted. The army demands that the Palestinian Authority take disciplinary measures against the assailants. (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

PA Incitement Continues

Palestinian Authority media incitement continues unabated, despite the PA's Wye commitments to the contrary. So says the director of the Palestinian Media Watch, Itamar Marcus, who noted specifically that "the most recent edition of Al-Ayam, a newspaper edited by a former close advisor of Arafat, published the following poem by a 16-year-old girl on its children's page:

Here am I, my tolerance broken and dreams shattered -

Here am I, in my hand the knife of revenge.

In the past, they killed me daily, stabbing me hundreds of times.

Here I stand, my right hand holds the knife

My left hand - a machine gun

And a bomb in my brain due to the fear."

Marcus noted that the poem's style is typical of other messages in Palestinian school textbooks and on official PA television. The Palestinian press also appears to encourage a bellicose stance on the part of Palestinian negotiators. "The phrase, 'There will be no peace unless...' is used repeatedly. This means that the press is far from the position that peace has already been somewhat achieved and that only the details need to be worked out. Instead, the opposite message is clear: 'We will resume the war if our demands are not met.'" Marcus observed that this is the message, too, of Arafat's "moderate" Fatah wing of the PLO: "The Fatah Secretary-General was quoted in the press last week as praising suicide bombers, adding that an ongoing battle must be waged against Israel until the return [of Palestinian Arabs to present-day Israel] is complete." (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

Another Drought Could Be Disastrous

"Another dry winter will force us to cut agricultural water use by 80% - spelling the destruction of Israel's agriculture." So said Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir Monday at a session of the Knesset Audit Committee dedicated to the country's water economy. Ben-Meir said that Israel's lack of water is serious, but not unduly so, and that mass desalination of ocean water must be financed. Other experts present at the meeting harshly criticized Ben-Meir's policies - including his continuing to draw water from the Kinneret even though it has fallen below the "red line." The level of the Kinneret, as measured Monday morning by Mekorot National Water Company, is 213.01 meters below sea level - one centimeter below the "red line." (Arutz 7 Oct 11)

Referendum Proposal Prepared

"An agreement with Syria could happen faster than you think," Prime Minister Barak told his close advisors this week. He instructed them to begin technical and strategic preparations for the popular referendum scheduled to be held in case the government votes to withdraw from the Golan Heights. At the same time, the Justice Ministry has completed its proposed legislation on the issue, and Barak will decide when to submit it to the Knesset. The Ministry's proposed bill states that a referendum will be held if an agreement is signed with a foreign country that involves the evacuation of sovereign territory, and if it is approved by at least 61 Knesset Members. The bill also "leaves open the option" of a referendum in the event that non-sovereign territory is to be handed over - such as in Judea and Samaria. Arutz-7's Yosef Zalmanson notes that Ehud Barak promised his coalition partners soon after the elections that a referendum would be held on a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. One of the issues still to be resolved is the extent of the majority to be required to pass the proposal. The Likud demands that a special majority of 60% of the public be required in order for the evacuation of the Golan - or Yesha - to be approved. (Arutz 7 Oct 7)

The Great Escape

"Nobody could believe that they would actually escape!" So said the Palestinian Authority Governor of Shechem last week, regarding the disappearance a few days earlier of three senior Islamic Jihad terrorist prisoners from a PA jail in his town. Palestinian Media Watch director Itamar Marcus read a translation of the Al-Quds newspaper article for Arutz-7 listeners: "The governor said that the prison director permitted the four men to travel to the Al-Quds University to register for courses there. The men were accompanied by a guard, who waited outside the building while the four entered. Some hours later, only one returned, and it then became clear that the three others had escaped." Marcus noted that the account "is almost hilarious, if it didn't have such dangerous implications. It's so unbelievable that some reporters I read it to broke out laughing when they heard it. We are talking about three senior terrorists, responsible for last year's Machane Yehuda bombing and several shooting attacks in the Shomron, and one of them is even the head of the Jihad's military wing! They should have been very closely guarded. Now we find out that they were not just set free, but that the PA jail had them transported a great distance from the jail before allowing them to go home. What were prisoners doing registering for college courses, anyhow?!" Marcus concluded that the incident shows the folly of the Israeli consent at Wye to waive its demand to try and incarcerate terrorists who remain under secure guard in a PA prison. (Arutz 7 Oct 7)

Inter-Palestinian Violence

An Arab resident of Hevron died last Monday, only a few days after his arrest (for being involved in a quarrel) by the Palestinian police. LAW - a Palestinian civil-rights society - reports that Muhammad Ahmad Shrieteh, 33, was brought to the Alya hospital in Hevron from the Hevron police station in "very poor health." His brother said later that the deceased had been tortured at Beit Nouba police station, and that he found him there "lying on the ground suffering from convulsions." LAW holds the Palestinian police responsible for the death of Shrieteh, and demands that the PA investigate the incident and try those responsible for violence or ill-treatment. LAW also reports on the shooting of a Palestinian para-military policeman by members of Yasser Arafat's Force 17 on Sunday of last week. The Force 17 men, who are believed to have been drunk, assaulted the police in downtown Ramallah, and then attempted to escape; during the ensuing chase, the Force 17 agents shot and seriously injured one of the policemen. LAW reports that "such incidents are alarmingly frequent amongst the [Palestinian] security services. Weapons abuse has caused the death of 12 people since the beginning of this year." (Arutz 7 Oct 7)


Commentary

No Peace with Assad By David Bar-Illan

If Assad is really a man of his word, why should Israel insist on early warning stations? THE most charitable explanation for the strenuous wooing of Syria's president Hafez Assad by Prime Minister Ehud Barak is that it is a public-relations ploy.

Shimon Peres, who has practiced such cajolery himself, alluded to this purpose when he endorsed Barak's overtures in a recent radio interview, saying that Israel should never appear to be guilty of recalcitrance.

Whether the public-relations gain is worth the humiliation of begging Assad for the privilege of negotiating with him is debatable. Even a compulsive peacenik like President Ezer Weizman says it is harmful to national morale.

But more than morale is involved. The reckless falsehoods in the paeans with which Barak keeps serenading Assad will haunt future negotiations. If Assad is really a man of his word, why should Israel insist on early warning stations? A handshake should do. And if he is the glorious molder of modern Syria, why should he let openness and democracy ruin his remarkable achievement?

The truth is, alas, quite different. Assad, one of the most murderous and ambitious dictators of the post-War era, is no more true to his word than any other despot. "An honest dictator" is an oxymoron. Like all dictators, Assad keeps his word only when it suits him or when he is forced to.

As Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes recounts in the current issue of Commentary, Assad has kept none of the agreements he has made. Not with Arab governments, not with Turkey, not with Israel and not with the United States. As one Turkish Prime Minister put it on a Jerusalem visit, "Don't be fooled by Assad. He signed 18 agreements with us and kept none."

If the Golan today is "the safest place in Israel," as Assad apologists like to declare, it is not because Assad is an honorable man, but because Israeli forces on the Golan are within striking distance of Damascus.

Nor does Assad need the Golan to harass and bleed Israel. He can do it through the 10 Palestinian terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose headquarters are in his capital, and through his Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah makes no major move without Syrian approval. Its supplies and weapons come through the Damascus airport, its training is done in areas under Syrian control, and it initiates hostilities and halts them on Syrian command. That Syria uses the Hezbollah as an instrument of war against Israel is a fundamental breach of the cease-fire accord Assad signed with Israel 25 years ago. And since the Hezbollah is a Syrian proxy, the only effective way to fight it whether from the security zone or the international border - is to threaten Syrian targets in Lebanon.

In the hope of negotiating with Syria, Israel has avoided such targets. It has preferred to take seriously Assad's sweet promises of peaceful intent whispered in the ears of visiting Westerners. But nothing has changed in Syria since the late Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1992 that abandoning the Golan is tantamount to abandoning Israel's security, and Barak explained (in 1993) that Israel needs "every meter" on the Golan for defense and deterrence until relations between Israel and Syria resemble those of Holland and Belgium.

Syria is still an oppressive, totalitarian dictatorship and one of the world's largest exporters of hard drugs. It is still sponsoring terrorist organizations, and building up its missile force and non-conventional weapons arsenal.

And Syria still occupies Lebanon, despite several agreements to depart. In his contempt for his neighbors' sovereignty, Assad is no different from Saddam Hussein, except that Assad - more cunning and ruthless - has managed to avoid being forced to retreat by a Western coalition.

Israel can probably achieve a peace agreement with Assad, but only if it meets all his demands. This means that the Syrians will control Israel's vital water resources and strategically dominate Israel's north. In the unlikely event that Assad agrees to international forces on the Golan, they will be as useless as they are in Lebanon. An agreement with Assad will undoubtedly produce an impressive ceremony and perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize, but it will not end the threat of war. Not only because it will affect neither the hostility nor the race for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in Iraq and Iran. But because, as Barak asserted six years ago, withdrawal from the Golan will deprive Israel of the security and deterrence.

At that point, the temptation to force Israel to accept the 1947 UN partition plan, and the implementation of the "Right of Return," which would spell the end of the Jewish State's existence, will prove too great for the Arab regimes to resist. (New York Post Oct 10)

The writer is the former Editor in Chief of the Jerusalem Post and the former Communications Chief for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


The Media as Propaganda Tool   By David Bar-Illan

'We are focusing on the columnists, not on the reporters,' said Prime Minister Ehud Barak's bureau chief Haim Mandel-Shaked. He was explaining Barak's public-relations policy to the press contingent in the back of the premier's plane on Barak's first trip to Washington.

It is a very wise move. Three years of government service made me realize how deeply columnists, commentators and op-ed writers affect Israel's political atmosphere, and how much this atmosphere influences foreign governments and press.

What increases the attraction and compounds the power of these pundits is that they do not only express their opinion. They mix mostly unattributed and unsubstantiated but colorful political gossip and speculation with punitory. Radio and television commentators, heard and seen by millions, have the most immediate impact. But it is the print columnists who have the most lasting effect. Not that they are widely read. Ha'aretz, the more serious of the three mainstream papers, has a relatively small circulation. And of the readership of the popular tabloids, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv, only 5% -10% turn to the opinion pages.

In fact, Yediot has cut its weekday opinion section down to one page, and dispensed with its own editorials altogether.

But numbers are unimportant. Opinion shapers and politicians of all persuasions follow the columns assiduously, and the Friday commentaries - that special brand of advocacy journalism masquerading as overviews of the week's events - provide the grist for the traditional political Friday night discussions in Israel's living-rooms.

More than any other factor, the columnists, commentators and op-ed contributors formulate the catechisms of political correctness in Israel. They shape the conventional wisdom, the almost monolithic intellectual fashion. There are, to be sure, journalists who are uncomfortable with this group think. But few possess the kind of courage, curiosity and strength of personality needed to buck it, and even fewer question the probity and motives of its creators. Most would rather play safe and be politically correct.

It is difficult to attack this phenomenon. In a free society the right to express opinions is, and should always be, sacrosanct. There are only three legitimate grounds for subjecting opinion columns to scrutiny.

The first has to do with tone and language. In the volatile atmosphere of the country and the region, name-calling and repugnant analogies are tantamount to incitement.

A religious-party newspaper that compares secular leaders to Nazis, or left-wing writers who condemn whole communities for the transgressions of individuals, serve to inflame passions, not to add to the national debate. The same is true of journalists who compare Israel's prime minister to Ceausescu, Mussolini or the Prince of Darkness.

Under current circumstances such name-calling is as irresponsible as it is dangerous. It betrays a corruption of mind and language which does not belong in civilized discourse.

The second problem has to do with accuracy. If "facts" in support of a thesis are transparent half-truths and fabrications, or - as is most often the case - if inconvenient facts are ignored because they may get in the way of an effective argument, unblinking scrutiny is in order.

But what is most bothersome about opinion columns has more to do with balance in the venues in which they appear than with the columns themselves. The radio and TV stations and the leading newspapers in this country unconscionably mislead the public by purporting to represent a balanced cross-section of opinion. They do not.

This is particularly offensive in the publicly owned electronic media, which are required by law to be even-handed. But the three main Hebrew newspapers are also deceptive, for they all pretend to be apolitical and independent.

Ha'aretz seldom allows opinions contrary to its own extreme dovish positions to invade its pages. It has been said about Ha'aretz that the last government it supported was the British Mandate. Now it is a flag-carrier for post-Zionism, and virtually all its writers follow a line so uniform that it is difficult to tell one from the other.

On the subject of the peace process it is somewhere between the ultra-dovish Meretz and the radical Hadash. Some of its reporter-columnists (Amira Hass, for example), espouse the maximal PLO demands - the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and the effective dissolution of the Jewish State.

Against an army of party-line writers only two journalists regularly represent an opposing view: Yisrael Harel, former head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, who writes an op-ed piece on Thursdays; and staff reporter Nadav Shragai, who covers Judea, Samaria and Gaza sympathetically and contributes an occasional opinion peace.

The tabloids Yediot Ahronot and Ma'ariv are not quite as one-sided, but their political bias is glaring. Yediot, in particular, is notorious for inviting articles from known right-wingers and refusing to publish them if they are deemed too strong. The star reporter-commentators on these tabloids - Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer on Yediot, Ben Caspit and Chemi Shalev on Ma'ariv - influence Israeli opinion more effectively than virtually any politician.

The imbalance in the opinion pages of these popular papers - between them they reach almost every Hebrew-reading household - was particularly felt during the last election campaign.

Media Watch, a non-profit organization headed by Weizmann Institute professor Eli Pollack, made a statistical study of the articles published in the tabloids in the four election months, January-April of 1999.

Of the 113 political op-ed articles published in Yediot, 10 (9%) favored Netanyahu and 103 (91%) opposed him. Of the writers, 26% are identified as right of center, 64% left of center, and 10% others. Not surprisingly, even the right-wing writers were carefully chosen to include anti-Netanyahu writers. Ma'ariv was only slightly more balanced. Of 166 political articles, 40 (24%) were pro-Netanyahu and 126 (76%) against him.

Nor has Netanyahu's defeat in the elections made much difference. In a sample month (August '99),Dalia Ya'iri's popular radio program hosted 55 political personalities. Of these, 78% were left wing, 22% on the Right. In Shelly Yachimovich's program the proportions were similar: 71% to 29%.

What is most disturbing about this imbalance is the conviction shared by most Israeli journalists that there is nothing wrong with it.

Repeatedly and consistently, editors, program hosts, reporters and commentators proudly state that they are opposed to right-wing leaders and right-of-center policies, and that they will do whatever necessary to cause their defeat.

The mainstream Israeli press thus assumes a role that far exceeds its intended function and purpose in a democratic society: to report the news fairly and serve as a forum for varied opinions. Instead, it has become a propaganda instrument in the service of a political persuasion, with its unelected minions operating as arbiters in the democratic process.

This not only distorts the media's role in a free society. It threatens democracy itself. (c) Jerusalem Post Oct 11)


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