Ari Paul Israel Media Criticism

While Israeli Media Examine Government Failure, US Papers Push ‘National Unity’

In the wake of the Hamas attacks, US editorial boards urged Israelis to put aside the concerns they’ve had about democracy.
Flags at Protests against Netanyahu 2020 Jerusalem. Nir Hirshman (ניר הירשמן) / Nir Hirshman Communication

By Ari Paul / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

As the world watches the ongoing horror in southern Israel and in the Gaza Strip, media grapple not only with the immediate violence, but to understand why this happened and how it can stop. This is truly no other Middle East skirmish anymore. Likely the deadliest offensive against Israel on its soil, and perhaps the most audacious operation by Palestinian militants, it’s been compared both to 9/11 and to the bloody 1973 war between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations.

How could Israel—so famous for its military might and advanced intelligence capabilities—have missed the warnings of such an attack? The coordinated nature of the rocket attacks and assaults on nearby towns make clear that this was a huge operation that took time and planning; paragliding attacks require practice runs that are not easy to hide (L’Orient Today10/9/23), for instance. Already, Israeli media have begun looking closely at the Israeli government’s actions to understand how and why this happened—in sharp contrast to US broadsheet opinion, which has largely rallied unquestioningly behind Israeli “national unity.”

Blaming Netanyahu

In the wake of the Hamas attack, criticism of the Israeli government was widespread in the country’s media (Times of Israel10/8/23).

The Times of Israel (10/8/23) noted that Netanyahu was quoted telling Likud Party members in 2018 about his stance on Gaza, summarizing his quote saying “those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza”—meaning to Gaza’s Hamas-led government—as doing so maintains the “separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza,” thus dividing and conquering the Palestinians once and for all.

Gaza is sealed off, contained and highly surveilled (Middle East Institute, 4/27/22); it’s hard to believe no one in the Israeli government didn’t know something was being planned.  The above ToI report quoted Assaf Pozilov, a reporter for the Israeli public broadcasting outlet Kan, saying before the attack, “The Islamic Jihad organization has started a noisy exercise very close to the border, in which they practiced launching missiles, breaking into Israel and kidnapping soldiers.”

An Israeli military veteran in the New York Post (10/9/23), hardly considered a pro-Palestine publication, blamed Israel for ignoring warnings from Egyptian intelligence about “something big.”

An editorial at Ha’aretz (10/8/23) put the blame squarely on Netanyahu, saying “he is the ultimate arbiter of Israeli foreign and security affairs.” It also pointed the finger at his right-wing policies on settlement expansion and allies with far-right extremist parties. “As expected, signs of an outbreak of hostilities began in the West Bank, where Palestinians started feeling the heavier hand of the Israeli occupier,” the editorial said, noting that “Hamas exploited the opportunity in order to launch its surprise attack.”

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At the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (10/7/23), David Halperin, chief executive officer of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote that for the last year, “my colleagues and I…have joined with others in expressing concern about the nature of Israel’s far-right government.” The article—which questioned why Netanyahu’s government, famously hard-nosed on security, failed to protect the people—was reprinted in the Jerusalem Post (10/7/23).

Alon Pinkas (Ha’aretz10/9/23) wrote more directly: “Netanyahu should be removed as prime minister immediately—not ‘after the war,’ not after a plea bargain in his corruption trial, not after an election. Now.”

‘Risks of disunity’

Unity, not accountability, was the key theme in US media (New York Times, 10/9/23).

But top US editorial boards are elsewhere, failing to ask questions about intelligence failures and Netanyahu’s hand on the wheel. Instead, they urged Israelis to put aside the concerns they’ve had about democracy, which brought throngs of liberal and left-wing Israelis into the streets to denounce the Netanyahu government’s neutering of an independent judiciary—a decision that has been likened to the “sham democracy” of Hungary (Foreign Policy8/3/23). This summer, military reservists joined the protests, causing alarm about the country’s military readiness (AP7/19/23).

Wall Street Journal editorial (10/7/23) used the Hamas offensive to downplay Netanyahu’s judicial power grab, saying, “The internal Israeli debates over its Supreme Court look trivial next to the threat to Israel’s existence.”

The Journal also discounted any criticism of the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza, saying, “Israel has been allowing 17,000 Gazans to work in Israel each day and would like to allow more.” The editorial said “the assault also underscores the continuing malevolence of Iran,” because its government “cheered on the attacks,” “provided the rockets and weapons for Hamas,” and “may have encouraged the timing as well.”

Washington Post editorial (10/7/23) did blame the right-wing government for initiating the internal political crisis, but hoped that the political factions would soon come together. “Early signs are that Israel’s leading politicians are putting aside their differences with Mr. Netanyahu to meet the emergency,” it said. Another Post editorial (10/9/23) suggested that the US could take a lesson from Israel on the “risks of disunity,” criticizing Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul for setting off a “distracting backlash.”

An editorial at Bloomberg (10/8/23) admitted that Netanyahu’s judicial reform efforts “have needlessly riven Israeli society” and that his aggressive military policies in the Occupied Territories worsened things for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet the news service waved that all away, saying, “But all that’s for another time.” It also said the “assault deserves only one response from the world: outrage, and unwavering support for Israel’s right to defend itself.”

The New York Times editorial board (10/9/23) said that though Israelis were right to march against Netanyahu’s judicial restrictions, the Hamas attack changed the terrain, because “Israel’s military strength depends on its national unity, and Israelis have now come together to defend themselves.”

Of course, Israel, while mobilizing for war, has moved toward forming a unity government (Reuters10/10/23).

‘Your self-made weakness’

The other problem, according to Shimrit Meir (New York Times10/8/23), is that “Israelis acted as if we could afford the luxury of a vicious internal fight.”

Worse, the Times gave column space (10/8/23) to Shimrit Meir, a former advisor to far-right Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, to cite Israel’s political division as military weakness, urging the country to close ranks.

Israel was vulnerable to an attack because years of dissolving Knessets and new elections left the country divided, Meir said, adding that Israel had “forgotten its second role in the world, as a place that embodies the idea of Jewish solidarity,” and that the people “instead found themselves engaged in an all-out war—not against terrorists but against themselves.”

The idea that the Israeli populace–which has long included right-wing militarists, religious fanatics of various Jewish sects, left-wing anti-occupation activists and techy neoliberals—has always been one big family in political consensus without fierce debate is laughable. But for Meir, the dissension in recent years is a dangerous aberration:

As a nation, Israelis acted as if we could afford the luxury of a vicious internal fight, the kind in which your political rival becomes your enemy. We let animosity, demagogy and the poisonous discourse of social media take over our society, rip apart the only Jewish army in the world. This is our tragedy. And it carries a lesson for other polarized democracies: There is someone out there waiting to gain from your self-made weakness. This someone is your enemy.

She said she hoped that Israel returned “to its senses, ending the political crisis and forming a unity government.”

In other words, not only is Knesset opposition to Netanyahu’s internal policies now viewed as some kind of softness on the Hamas attack, but it was the nerve of the people to organize to protect their institutions that opened up the nation to the latest offensive.

No longer time for debate

The Washington Post (10/9/23) published an exceptional op-ed that pointed to the occupation as the root of violence.

The Washington Post, to its credit, ran an op-ed (10/9/23) from a Palestinian journalist that didn’t necessarily put the blame squarely on Netanyahu, but called on the US to support Palestinian statehood. But Post columnist David Ignatius (10/8/23) jumped in on the idea that the quarrel over the Supreme Court contributed to Hamas’ offensive. “Did that political chaos contribute to the Gaza attacks? I don’t know,” he said, adding that the “domestic feuds of the past few months might have led Hamas and its backers in Tehran to believe that Israel was internally weak and, perhaps, vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal ran fiercely jingoistic pieces from well-known American neoconservatives like Douglas Feith (10/9/23) and Daniel Pipes (10/8/23), while Mitch McConnell (10/9/23), the Republican Senate minority leader, called for more US support for Israel’s war effort. And far from questioning the Israeli government’s preparedness, law professor Eugene Kontorovich (10/8/23) said the US and others “must not only refrain from limiting Israel’s operation in Gaza but resolve to oust the genocidal regime in Tehran.”

While Israelis, including those in the media class, ponder if their country is run by inept and corrupt leadership, much of the US media skip all this and insinuate that now is no longer the time for debate, but a time to brush aside uncomfortable conversations in the face of war.

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Ari Paul

Ari Paul has reported for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, the Brooklyn RailVice NewsIn These TimesJacobin and many other outlets.

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