Media Has It In For Netanyahu
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Media Has It In For Netanyahu

Prime minister’s win seen more as triumph of fear than democracy.

Associate Editor

Was there ever an election that left everyone feeling so lonely, even the winners? Especially the winners?

It was Israel’s “Dewey Defeats Truman,” except only the Chicago Tribune had to live that headline down while there was almost no one who foresaw, or could easily explain, the dynamics leading to Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory.

There’s nothing new about that. The mostly liberal American media never greeted the election of a conservative Israel prime minister with anything other than fear. When in 1977 Menachem Begin became prime minister, Time magazine introduced him to its readers, “Begin as in Fagin.” Some may like Begin, said a diplomat, “but that doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous.” In 1978 Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This week, The New York Times headlined, Netanyahu “Further Divides U.S. Jews,” a divide that has been routinely pinned to every non-Labor prime minister. Shmuel Rosner, of the Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), pulled out the old clips. The British Guardian headlined of the newly elected Ariel Sharon: “Sharon Divides World Jews,” just as Netanyahu now “divides.” When Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, visited the United States, the Forward wrote, “for American Jews,” the visit “drove home the distance between the two great Jewish communities, not their closeness.” Even in 1958, before “everything,” American Jews were “troubled.” The day when we’re told that a conservative prime minister doesn’t “divide” American Jews will be the first.

Likud’s victory made some writers positively livid. Time magazine’s Joe Klein wrote, Netanyahu “won because he ran as a bigot,” based on two sentences in the final week. And Jews, writes Klein, have become as bad as their worst oppressors, “a great many Jews have come to regard Arabs as the rest of the world traditionally regarded Jews”… It is “an appalling irony that the Israeli vote brought joy to American neoconservatives and European anti-Semites alike.”

There was no end to the anti-Bibi hysteria. Harold Myerson, a Washington Post columnist who is Jewish, wrote that Netanyahu “might have called for stripping Israeli Arabs of the right to vote altogether. [He is] the Jewish George Wallace. … Perhaps Likud and the Republicans can open an Institute for the Prevention of Dark-Skinned People Voting.” Fact is, Netanyahu made no effort whatsoever to stop Arabs from voting.

Although Netanyahu’s campaign statements (since retracted) about a stalemated peace process and telling his followers that the Arabs were voting “in droves” were certainly controversial, Rosner, a former correspondent for Haaretz, writes, “American friends and critics, at least be sincere about this: You are not angry with two unfortunate statements — you are angry because Netanyahu managed to squeeze yet another electoral victory. You were angry with him before the election. You wanted him gone. And Israelis didn’t really care.”

Meanwhile, beyond the Times, serious mainstream American journalists were growing increasingly negative about Obama’s acting like a Disney stepmother to Netanyahu. Bob Schieffer, host of “Face The Nation” on CBS said this past week, “I can understand why the president would be upset” with Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric. “Yet when the prime minister backed away from that Thursday, the White House reacted with pointed, even snarky skepticism — as if they wanted to keep the public fight going. I question that. …. It’s time to stop the back-and-forth and repair the alliance, quietly.”

When Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show, after Obama’s election, “I hope he fails,” Limbaugh was widely considered too surly and crude for decent company, lacking the graciousness we expect of political losers. But it seems there are plenty of Jews and journalists who are hoping Netanyahu fails. His victory was “ugly,” wrote a Times editorial. He was “racist,” “craven,” he laid bare his “duplicity, confirmed Palestinian suspicions.” But what of Israeli suspicions about the Palestinians, and trusting Obama?

The Times reported that Netanyahu’s “hard-line statements won him right-wing votes… but alienated allies in Washington and Europe.” How correct is that? Europe, Asian, even Arab leaders actually seem more than willing to let campaign bygones be bygones. Izzy Lemberg, a producer at CNN’s Jerusalem Bureau and now a columnist, noted in the Jerusalem Post, “The Arab League wrote off Netanyahu’s statements as ‘electioneering’ and appear to be cautiously unperturbed by them.”

India, on its way to being a world power, was quick to let Netanyahu know that he was loved in New Delhi. The Algemeiner reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted in Hebrew — in Hebrew! — “Mazel tov, my friend Bibi… I remember our meeting in New York last September warmly.” And the European Jewish Press reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron was among the first world leaders to congratulate Netanyahu: “As one of Israel’s firmest friends, Britain looks forward to working with the new government.” And Fulvio Martusciello, head of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Israel, declared after Netanyahu’s victory, “What is important at this stage is not to isolate Israel.” So are world leaders alienated from Netanyahu, or is that the Times’ wishful thinking?

How many newspapers or broadcasts reported on Hanin Zoabi, one of the Arabs elected to the new Knesset? During the campaign Zoabi told Lebanese media that Arab Knesset members represent the “Palestinian national project,” not the Israel in whose parliament she’ll serve. She has called for an Islamic uprising and defended the kidnapping and murder of the three teenaged Israeli boys last summer. She supports Hamas. She has proven to be so verbally flammable, in violation of laws, that only a Supreme Court decision (overseen by the Arab justice Salim Joubran) allowed Zoabi to remain on the ballot. Perhaps if more American journalists were as eager to report the anti-Israel anger of Zoabi and some others on the Joint Arab List (now the third largest party in the Knesset) it would have given American Jews a better understanding of why Netanyahu’s warning about Arab voters was taken in stride by many Israeli voters, rather than infuriating American Jews who no doubt knew little about the Arab slate.

That Zoabi, a pro-Hamas candidate, was allowed to stay on the ballot by the decision of an Arab judge, a ruling fully accepted by everyone including the prime minister, certainly went against the storyline of Netanyahu’s supposedly anti-Arab vote suppression.

On PBS, Charlie Rose assembled a wonderful post-election panel: Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic; Ari Shavit of Haaretz; Yossi Klein Halevi, author of “Like Dreamers”; Ronen Bergman of Yediot; Lisa Goldman, the Israeli-Palestine fellow at the New America Foundation; and Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End The Israeli Occupation. But of the six, not one was a “happy warrior” for Netanyahu, the winner.

Shavit said this was “a referendum on hope versus fear, and sadly fear won over hope.”

Is fear not a valid Israeli emotion when the “barbarians” (ISIS) are at the gate, they of the beheadings and burning alive? ISIS is a morning’s drive from Jerusalem and could easily consume a weak Palestinian state. To the west, the tunnels of Hamas. To the east, the nuclear plants of Iran. What’s not to fear?

If Israel has to go alone, so be it, writes The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens: “Repay contempt with contempt. Mr. Obama plays to classic bully type. He is abusive and surly only toward those he feels are either too weak, or too polite, to hit back…. The Israelis will need to chart their own path of resistance…. Israel survived its first 19 years without meaningful U.S. patronage. For now, all it has to do is get through the next 22, admittedly long, months.”

jonathan@jewishweek.org

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