To answer the question of how an important, legitimate and necessary investigative piece by a respected veteran journalist could be turned by the prime minister into a radical left media conspiracy to unseat him, we must look back to the night of his landslide victory in the last election on March 17, 2015.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was not only a political victory over his rival on the left — leader of the Zionist Camp, Isaac Herzog — but also a victory over the “left-wing media.” Even during the election campaign, Netanyahu argued on social media that the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Noni Mozes, is working against him and to elect Herzog by means of “ridiculous, false and provocative smears against me and against my wife as part of a media campaign to replace the Likud government with a left-wing government.” For the first time in Israel, the prime minister led a personal delegitimization campaign against the owner of a leading paper and hitched this fight to his election campaign.
Indeed, judging by the results, this strategy has succeeded beyond all expectations. Netanyahu has convinced Likud members that he’s persecuted and that the media is an arm of the left. He left out the fact, naturally, that he himself controls the most widely distributed paper in Israel, Yisrael Hayom, through his associate and the paper’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, and that he uses it to disseminate messages and attack Mozes and Yedioth Ahronoth. This attack signaled an escalation in the complicated relationship between Netanyahu and the Israeli media.
The way Netanyahu has experienced things, he won the last election despite the media persecuting him, and he did it on his own, with his own two hands — even when Likud leaders were convinced he was about to fall and even started to fight over his inheritance. On that election night, a (new) Netanyahu was born who believes there’s no one else, that his power is virtually unlimited and that he can and must work alone — a Netanyahu who not only sees the media as an enemy that seeks to defeat him but also uses it politically and cynically.
Netanyahu painted the mainstream media in Israel in shades of the extreme left that seeks to defeat the right. And so his supporters interpret all information it publishes — articles, investigations, analysis — as illegitimate persecution unworthy of a serious response. Thus, Netanyahu benefits twice over: He no longer has to respond to any claim by the media, because any investigation ends up being about the relationship between the prime minister and the press instead of the issue it covers itself. At the same time, he grows stronger politically on the right, which in any case has negative feelings about the Israeli press. This is the reason Netanyahu took the Communications Ministry for himself after the election: in order to terrorize the nation’s media and shape it to suit himself.
If one wondered why the prime minister needed so many meetings with media leaders last summer, we can start to see that it was part of a systematic strategy. For Netanyahu, whoever didn’t want him as prime minister should make a pilgrimage to see him and listen to his speeches about how great a leader he is. On this continuum, we can analyze his destructive fight to destroy the public broadcasting corporation (designed to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority), which many good journalists from the right and the left joined in the naive belief that they would be part of a strong and free organization that would serve the Israeli citizen. In Netanyahu’s world, the heads of the corporation are already the messengers of the left and Mozes, even before they come on air.
An investigative article published by Haaretz last week, which examined Netanyahu’s obsessive campaign to destroy the free press in Israel, received an aggressive and off-topic response delivered by Netanyahu’s associates, hinting that the paper cooperates with Nazis.
The Ilana Dayan affair is a direct continuation of Netanyahu’s campaign, which aims to bring about his re-election for a fifth term. Dayan is an important, accomplished, ethical, fair, trustworthy journalist with centrist political views. Her father is an admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu. Her cousin is the right-winger Danny Dayan, formerly the head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council and today the Israeli consul in New York. In recent months, she has worked on an investigation that goes deep into problematic conduct at the prime minister’s office. She gathered dozens of witnesses, has interviewed key figures and exposed disturbing conduct at the prime minister’s office: the persecution and abuse of employees by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, as well as her inappropriate and unseemly involvement in decision-making processes.
Dayan sent more than 30 questions ahead of time for the prime minister’s response, and Netanyahu, true to his strategy, asked his adviser Ran Baratz — who has encouraged Netanyahu to fight the media with all his power and by all means — to prepare an investigation that would cast doubt on Dayan’s trustworthiness. The long response presents Dayan as no less than an enemy of the state, a political propagandist of the extreme left.
Dayan immediately understood the powerful potential of reading the entire response, word for word, in front of the camera. For about six minutes, she recited the words sent from Netanyahu’s office on Nov. 7 and created an unforgettable television moment that would reveal the level of obsession, paranoia and disconnect from reality on the part of the prime minister of Israel. The effect was tremendous. Dozens of journalists protested the response on social media, supported and praised Dayan, and were shocked at the irrationality that has gripped the prime minister. Politicians from the center-left stood by her side. “We must not be silent in the face of this targeting, incitement and persecution, but ... work together to change the government and to save democracy in Israel. This is the struggle we started at Rabin Square on Saturday [the 21st anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination], and we must continue,” Tzipi Livni wrote on her Facebook page.
And the Likud? Senior figures who recognize that Netanyahu has overstepped all bounds and is inciting against journalists are in a bind. They know that many Likud voters love the prime minister’s fight against the press, and they figure that a public declaration against him could cost them their political career. Thus, as sad as it is, the thought that the Dayan affair could hurt Netanyahu politically is naive. Dayan has succeeded both in making a brave journalistic move but also in playing right into Netanyahu’s hands.
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