THE MAN WHO CAN DO NO RIGHT

BY becoming Israel's first directly-elected prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu invited the world's traditionally anti-Israel media to focus on him personally, when bashing the government or Israel in general wasn't having the desired effect.

It is hardly surprising that a conservative leader should get under the skin of an overwhelmingly liberal press, at home and abroad. One would hardly expect CNN or Ma'ariv to have their knives out for a prime minister if he was going along with what they consider the best road. It is no coincidence that the only favourable press Israel ever gets relates to its willingness to make concessions at its own expense.

Even so, the extent to which the press has poured scorn and derision over Netanyahu since his election nearly one year ago has been breathtaking.

If the more esteemed organs of the world's media are to be believed, the man at Israel's helm has "lurched", "staggered" and "careened" from crisis to crisis from day one of his rule.

From Australia to England, Cairo to Pakistan, journalists have called him inept, inexperienced, arrogant, extremist, hard-line and "Hitler-like".

"Serious questions are being raised about his leadership" said some, telling how in his "arrogance", the "defiant" Netanyahu "dismisses" warnings by his security chiefs about violent confrontations with the Arabs. The premier also "rejects" international criticism and "ignores" the opinion of "virtually the entire world".

Netanyahu's government is "fractious"; under him "Israel went too far". "After six months as prime minister [he] still seems strategically unsure of himself." He is "amateurish" or "obdurate". "If it were not for Mr Netanyahu's procrastination" the peace process would have raced ahead, but he has "baulked and twisted and wriggled ... squandering the good will he inherited". Indeed, he is "playing a dangerous game".

The media repeatedly created expectations, and when these were not realised, exploded in disbelief and outrage. Thus journalists who led their viewers to believe that Netanyahu would succumb to US pressure to close the entrance to the Hasmonean Tunnel last October, and to stop building on Har Homa this past month, on both occasions expressed their astonishment and disapproval when he refused to be browbeaten.

As Time magazine (Apr 21) stated: "Editorial writers blamed ... Netanyahu's intransigence for undermining the Middle East peace process." It went on to quote Le Figaro, which editorialised: "There are reasons to hope, despite the failure Clinton faced with Netanyahu, that the worst will not happen."

Journalists also sought to justify the reactions of Israel's enemies: "Palestinian frustration with Mr Netanyahu is easy to understand..." ran an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan 1). "Little wonder [Jordan's King] Hussein blew up," penned Time (Apr 7), while BBC World newsreader Lindsey Brancher described the Palestinians as not too optimistic about the future of the peace process, "and quite rightly, really Mr Netanyahu doesn't seem to have changed his stance at all!" (Apr 8)

When the press found him politically unassailable, they picked on his family, slating his wife for firing a nanny for burning the soup (a lie); attacking him for hiring a Christian rather than a Jewish woman in her place, and scoffing at the difficulty experienced by one of his little boys in finding a place in a Jerusalem school.

A rare exception to this near rule of press prejudice appeared in the Daily Telegraph (Mar 28) when reporter Stephen Glover, disturbed by much of the media coverage of Har Homa, challenged his fellow writers: "Can [Netanyahu's] advent alone explain the lack of even-handedness in the reporting of Israel of which the description of Har Homa as a settlement on Arab land is the most glaring example? As it is Good Friday the day on which our Anglican forefathers have traditionally prayed that God should take from Jews 'all ignorance, hardness of heart and contempt of thy word' I shall permit myself a startling question. It is whether the media's propensity to speak or write of Jews less fairly than, say, Arabs, Africans, or even Americans, evinces some lingering traces of ancient religious and racial prejudice.

"I only ask the question. I know that my colleagues in the BBC and on Channel 4 News and in our liberal newspapers may be shocked by it ... It is true that there is almost no charge more painful to the enlightened intellectual than that of anti-Semitism. But the same intellectual may find him or herself being less than even-handed when speaking about Israel.

"I am not sure of the answer. But with or without Mr Netanyahu, it is a question which all those who report on events in Israel should always be asking."

As described elsewhere in this publication, the answer was more apparent than ever in media coverage of the "Bar-On Affair".

"BAR-ON" IN BRIEF

In January, the Netanyahu government appointed Jerusalem attorney and Likud activist Roni Bar-On as Attorney-General, a move which drew fire from critics who questioned his suitability, and led to his swift resignation.

Two weeks later, an Israel Television journalist claimed that the leader of the ultra- orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, had pushed for Bar-On's selection on the understanding the new AG would intervene in a corruption case faced by Deri.

It was alleged Deri blackmailed Netanyahu into appointing Bar-On, by threatening to withhold his party's much-needed support for the government in its bid to pass the agreement to withdraw troops from most of Hebron.

A 12-week police investigation led in April to recommendations that Netanyahu, Deri and two others be charged in Netanyahu's case for fraud and breach of public trust.

Police found no actual evidence of a link between Bar-On's appointment and Shas' support for the Hebron agreement, nor of a plea-bargaining deal between Deri and Bar- On. Deri alone was finally charged.

Analysts were divided over whether the episode involved a crime at all, or merely customary if distasteful political dealing.

For his part, Netanyahu called the final decision not to indict him an exoneration.


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