According to Frances McDonagh, some media in Arab states in the region, covering the weeklong strife in Israel during Passover, Ramadan and Easter week and the preceding three months of protests, may have been slightly biased, but by and large, “some have genuinely sought to analyze and explain the ongoing events.”[i] However, “Many commentators have capitalized on the strife to advance negative portrayals of Israel, particularly after its forces conducted raids on Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif and the al-Aqsa Mosque.” But even the Tasnim News Agency and Tehran Times in Iran published biased stories that simply claimed, perhaps justly, that Israel’s social unity was eroding, its security services were vulnerable, and its relations with the United States were deteriorating. All these claims had validity even if the context and tone were distorted. But Israel was about to disintegrate in other Arab media outlets, In other words, some of the media may have been biased but tried to be objective, some were distorted while other outlets provided mainly false news to rally anti-Israel sentiment and stimulate violence against Israel.
However, some information reported in the media are very difficult to say whether or not it is false. Media avidly fed on the news and releases of parts of the US intelligence leak, probably the most serious and significant one in this century, to make claims that were adamantly denied by those accused. For one, As another example, a CIA update marked “Top Secret” was leaked that said that Mossad officials had participated in the protests against the Netanyahu government proposed judicial “reforms”. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office insisted that the allegation were “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever. The Mossad and its senior officials did not — and do not — encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government.”[ii] Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
False news included the poison pen writings that Netanyahu managed to get inserted in the press, not merely to misrepresent the opposition or his own position[iii], but, rather, to blaspheme and denigrate members of his own party who gradually became dissenters. He used this form of false news to drive them out of the Likud and consolidate his control.[iv] It was a necessary step in transforming the state regime, as flawed as it was, on the way to one governed by vigilantes.
Donald Trump never managed to get that far. Trump relied on his supporters to reinforce his own self-serving fabulism. He never made any effective efforts to control the media. He merely tried, and to some degree succeeded, in influencing it from his bully pulpit. For a Western democracy, Netanyahu pioneered in pressuring and attempting to control the media. “In a barren corner of the Golan Heights, some forty miles southwest of Damascus, stands a massive, gold-lettered sign. This is Trump Heights, an Israeli township named to commemorate Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the area, which was seized from Syria in 1967.” So began a story by Ruth Margolit in The New Yorker.[v] Years later, this empty site and its gold-lettered sign was the legacy, not only for recognizing the annexation of The Golan Heights, but for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A clear example of false news and the mass media is the role that Fox News played in the aftermath of the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States and the defeat of Donald Trump, the former president. Fox News publicized and reinforced the perception, spread by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others, that the presidential election process had been corrupted by a conspiratorial effort.
The reality was that it had not been, but rather that Fox News itself had been corrupt. Fox News executives and personalities spread and elaborated on those election conspiracies. Why? To keep its right-wing audience from switching channels and possibly moving to a new network or to one which Donald Trump threatened to start. At the same time, in private messages and emails,[vi] they disparaged these same conspiracy theories and, in fact, did not believe that the election had been corrupt. They not only lied deliberately, but knew they were lying and communicated that knowledge to one another. These media personalities included an owner of Fox, Robert Murdoch, and one of its leading on-air stars, Tucker Carlson. In a deposition in a defamation suit brought by Dominion Inc., Murdoch acknowledged that hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo promoted the false narrative that the election in 2020 was stolen from former President Donald J. Trump.[vii]
Murdoch, who thought Trump was “increasingly mad,” and his star hosts did not want to alienate Trump; their ratings were too dependent on ensuring his worshippers remained viewers. Tucker Carlson characterized Trump as good at “destroying things” and worried that the “golden goose” for ratings “could easily destroy us if we played it wrong.” So they engaged in pretence and would not admit, what they definitively knew, that Trump’s presidency had been a disaster “too tough to digest.”[viii] In contrast to these beliefs, the statements made on air were not only flagrantly false, not only known to be flagrantly false, but were repeated with intended “malice”. To make up for their fake adoration, after the election, they gradually played up a new right-wing saviour and Trump riva, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis while covering Trump’s rallies, if at all, with very little air time.
“What we’re seeing at Fox, however, is lying on a grand scale, done with a snide loathing for the audience and a cool indifference to the damage being done to the nation. Fox, and the Republican Party it serves, for years has relentlessly patronized its audience, cooing to viewers about how right they are not to trust anyone else, banging the desk about the corruption of American institutions, and shouting into the camera about how the liars and betrayers must pay.”[ix]
But Trump never recognized the legacy he owed Netanyahu who pioneered trying to manipulate and control the media in a strong democracy.[x] In 2014, as Prime Minister, an adumbration of his much more ambitious effort in 2023 to undermine the independence of the judicial system, he introduced and got passed the infamous “Jewish nation” bill intended to limit the ability of the Supreme Court to protect Arab citizens of Israel. In the same session, Bibi undermined the passage of a bill to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed free by firing Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni as ministers in his government because they had sponsored the bill targeting Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom. That American right-wing billionaire was spending an estimated $3 million USD per month publishing a newspaper and distributing it for free to serve as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and his Likud Party. Netanyahu called for new elections.
In the election campaign, he suggested that he would retain the post of Communications Minister as well as being Prime Minister – which he did upon re-election. He had already extracted pledges from his potential coalition partners that they would not vote against any legislative or regulatory initiative that the Minister of Communications might introduce. Take actions and introduce bills he did:
- Fired Avi Berger, the ministry’s director-general, who had planned to reform the broadband market to expand competition, and announced that he would be replaced by Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories;
- Introduced a bill to regulate cellular service and internet providers;
- Introduced a bill to license private broadcast channels;
- Took steps to enable the government to influence the management of public television and radio.
Was Bezeq, the privatized communications company, expected to act favourably towards Likud and Netanyahu for the significant financial benefits these changes would bring the company? And then what about the plan to split Reshet and Keshet, two competing broadcasters sharing Channel Two, into two completely separate entities each with much smaller news divisions? The news media could not be helped but be chilled, and even perhaps frozen into inertia, by the Sword of Damocles that Netanyahu seemed willing to wave across their heads.[xi]
The proven effects according to media critics:
- Routine ministerial statements are reported as news
- News reporters uncritically echo and expand on IDF announcements
- Arab citizens are lumped together as the “Arab sector”
- The West Bank becomes commonly depicted as Judea and Samaria
- Insurgents are always terrorists.
By 2023, the efforts to intimidate the media have become much more blatant. Yair Netanyahu, Bibi’s son[xii], echoing his Hungarian host, the quasi-authoritarian, Viktor Orban[xiii], excoriated Soros for his “Sorosization” and support of leftists and undermining not only legitimate governments but Israeli society itself. He insisted that Orban’s claims were not antisemitic. But did not Orban’s political director opine that, “Whoever controls the media, controls that country’s mindset and through that, the country itself.”[xiv] For Yair, those controllers were not Jews, but leftists and anti-Zionists, self-evidently false news when the only leftist significant outlet remaining was the money-losing Haaretz.
In 2016, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s freedom of the press ranking from “free” to “partly free.” In a more recent report in 2022, the organization scored 195 countries and 15 territories by 25 indicators to assess whether they were “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” 35 countries’ grades dropped; 34 countries improved, at least compared to 2016, including, surprising to me, Israel’s.[xv]
The attacks on the fourth pillar of a democracy in Israel foreshadowed the 2023 frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary. As an editorial in Haaretz on January 16, 2023 (“Silencing the Media to Destroy the Fourth Pillar of Israel’s Democracy”) wrote, “The efforts to upset the balance of powers and grant unlimited power to the executive branch aren’t about to end with the neutering of the judicial branch. The war of the branches begun by the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist partners is a multi-front conflict. While weakening the judiciary, they also aim to strike out at what is often called the ‘fourth branch’ – the media.”
If a critical function of the media is to hold the government accountable, government efforts to weaken the media and gain control over public opinion undercuts that accountability. But there are worse things than media bias, worse things than false news and efforts to control the media. There is fake news that appears most powerfully on social media.
[i] Cf. Frances McDonagh (2023) “Regional Reactions to Israel’s Protests,” Policy Watch, April 12.
[ii] Cf. Elizabeth Hagedorn
[iii] Benjamin Netanyahu is a serial liar. On just two occasions in February 2023 – a six-minute interview with Jake Tapper on CNN and an address to the Knesset – he told at least 10 blatant lies:
- The money in the 5-year plan for Arab development in Israel was for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The money was allocated to boost the Arab-Israeli community in Israel to bring expenditures for that community closer to the amounts allocated to Jews.
- In the Abraham Accords, I made “peace for peace” without any other concessions.
There were conditions – mainly that there would be no efforts to annex the West Bank, a promise he kept, if only in name, up until 2023. He promised to lobby Washington to enable UAE to purchase F-35 fighter jets. And more!
- The US transferred a “huge chunk” of Israel’s military to Ukraine, implying Israel provided military assistance to Ukraine.
Israel did not; the stocks belonged to the US military and had been stockpiled in Israel.
- I permitted the Palestinians to govern themselves.
He was obligated to do this under the 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Yitzhak Rabin.
- Palestinians have never accepted Israel as a state.
They did; the PLO accepted Israel’s right to exist as a state in 1993.
- My proposed judicial reforms will align Israel with other democracies in the world.
They will not. Even the override clause, according to Irwin Cotler, a former Attorney-General in Canada, will “allow the Knesset to re-legislate any law, regardless of what right it infracted” Canada’s Notwithstanding Clause was introduced as part of the country’s Bill of Rights and Freedoms, and was subject to Canada’s civil rights regime. Canada’s notwithstanding clause was subject to both a five-year limit as well as judicial review. There were many other differences with the proposed judicial changes in Israel from other prominent democracies – such as the independence of the judiciary.
- “Arab culture celebrates death while Jewish culture celebrates life.”
Need anything be said about such a racist and blatantly false claim?
- The protesters on the streets of Israel against the proposed judicial reforms are the same as the settlers who ran amuck in Harawa.
Comparing a peaceful and legal protest to a vigilante lawless mob’s pogrom which murdered one Palestinian, destroyed 30 properties and burned dozens of cars, is not only a lie; it is obscene.
- I opposed the disengagement from Gaza.
Bibi voted in support of the legislation to remove the 8,000 settlers in the Knesset three times and supported the initiative in the cabinet.
- In 2005, no one blocked highways in protest or disobeyed the law.
Bezalel Smotrich, the current Finance Minister, and his friends were stopped on the Ayalon Highway with spikes; authorities found 700 liters of gasoline in his home.
[iv] Look at all the senior members of Likud who have fallen by the wayside lest they pose a threat to Netanyahu’s leadership: Israel Katz, Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan, David Levy, Moshe Katzav, David Magen, Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom, Roni Milo, Dan Meridor and Moshe Kahlon. Others served as deflections from his own legal troubles. For example, in August 2019, Haim Katz resigned from his position as Welfare Minister after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he planned to indict him on fraud and breach of trust charges for allegedly advancing legislation which stipulated that companies must repay bond debt to small bond holders before it repays controlling owners. The legislation would allegedly benefit Ben Ari, a personal friend and financial consultant to major Israeli firms who are bondholders. But when Netanyahu was charged with precisely the same offence, “breach of trust,” he did not resign. Nor did he complain about the terrible media coverage Katz had received prior to his indictment. Yet Bibi criticized journalists, media channels and media owners for reporting on the allegations targeting himself. Bibi and his son, Yair, specifically attacked Channel 12 New’s legal correspondent, Guy Peleg, who became the target of threats. Netanyahu called not only for a boycott of Channel 12 but threatened to create more channels to “increase competition.” (“Report on Israel Human Rights Practices for 2019,” Israel Virtual Library) Netanyahu was rumoured to be the indirect source of the negative press coverage of Katz prior to the latter’s indictment. Also cited was the stimulation of media coverage which led protesters against the judicial “reforms” to heckle and harass Environmental Protection Minister, Idit Silman, at the Environment 2050 conference in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2023. There are numerous other examples of using senior Likudniks to deflect, take a fall or otherwise be undermined in the public. In a preview of the 2023 judicial crisis, in 2020, who put up and pushed Yudi Edelstein,the acting speaker of the Israeli Knesset, in an unprecedented move, to decline to convene the Knesset plenum to hold a vote to elect a permanent speaker and resigned from the speakership, thereby defying a specific judicial order from the Supreme Court? Edelstein insisted that the court’s decision constituted “crude and arrogant intervention of the judicial branch in the matters of the legislature, the elected branch!” violating the sovereignty of the people and the Knesset and undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy. One more example – the most senior member of Likud who challenged Netanyahu. At the end of 2020, just as the new Pfizer vaccines first arrived in Israel, former Likud No. 2 Gideon Sa’ar, vowed not to serve with Netanyahu again. Netanyahu was charged with converting Likud into a “personality cult.” A flash poll indicated that Sa’ar could win a stunning 17 seats in the coming election. And Sa’ar had been more “right” than Netanyahu – consistently opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, remaining close to the settlers and to the Orthodox even though he was himself secular As Sa’ar’s star rose in the party, beginning in 2014, Netanyahu began to spar with his every loyal lieutenant, Gideon Sa’ar. The conflict turned into a civil and media war against Sa’ar. Sa’ar ran against Netanyahu for the leadership but suffered a humiliating loss. Netanyahu did not forget nor forgive; he left Saar out of the government and handled senior positions to relatively new Knesset members. Sa’ar was pushed to the margins and left out in the cold.
[v] January 12, 2021 “Trump’s Legacy in Israel.”
[vii] Cf. The Superior Court in the State of Delaware, U.S. Dominion, Inc. et al v Fox News Network, February 27, 2023.
[viii] The Washington Post March 8, 2023.
[ix] Tom Nichols, The Atlantic, 2023-03-09. See also his 2018 book indicting the Republican patronizing elitists, The Death of Expertise: “What the Dominion filings show is a staggering, dehumanizing version of elitism among people who have made a living by presenting themselves as the only truth-tellers who can be trusted by ordinary Americans…This, elitism is the opposite of populism, whose adherents believe that virtue and competence reside in the common wisdom of a nebulous coalition called “the people.” This pernicious and romantic myth is often a danger to liberal democracies and constitutional orders that are founded, first and foremost, on the inherent rights of individuals rather than whatever raw majorities think is right at any given time.”
[x] Cf. my friend, Bernard Avishai, who wrote, “Benjamin Netanyahu: Media Manipulator,” in The New Yorker, June 4, 2015.
[xii] It was Yair who called for prosecutors and police who investigated his father to be tried for treason; even his father repudiated those remarks.
[xiii] The remarks were made in January 2023 at conservative media 3-day conference at Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Hungary on “The Future of Publishing.”
[xiv] Haaretz https://www.haaretz.com › Israel News January 26, 2023.
[xv] Freedom House: “Israel: Freedom in the World – Country Report.” Israel received a net score of 76, 34 out of 40 for political rights, and 42 out of 60 for civil liberties.