Netanyahu's war on critical journalists threatens Israeli democracy

Photos of reporter Amnon Abramovich needing a police escort to escape a demonstration in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should sound an alarm for all Israelis.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press during a Likud Party meeting on March 1, 2020 in the city of Lod, Israel. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images.

Topics covered

freedom of press, israeli democracy, journalism, free press, indictment, benjamin netanyahu, israeli media

Jun 25, 2020

When his criminal investigations began three years ago in December 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at a large political rally in Tel Aviv and mocked reporter Moshe Nussbaum’s expressive eyebrows. The features are so well-known that they are practically a trademark for the veteran journalist, who covered the investigation. The crowd roared hysterically at the sight of the prime minister himself ridiculing the journalist. Nevertheless, the scathing coverage that Netanyahu received for this ugly stunt (inspired by President Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s advisers admit behind closed doors) eventually led Netanyahu to call Nussbaum to apologize.

Since then, Netanyahu has been indicted for bribery and his attacks against journalists he suspects of celebrating his downfall have only gotten worse. In fact, Netanyahu is openly spearheading a campaign to delegitimize certain journalists he finds especially odious. He calls them out by name and incites his supporters to smear them.

It therefore came as no surprise when on June 23, a critical reporter needed to be rescued by the police from a demonstration by Netanyahu supporters in Tel Aviv. Veteran journalist Amnon Abramovich is a commentator for Channel 12 who appears on news shows regularly. His reports and comments about Netanyahu are witty, incisive and frequently devastating.

Abramovich has covered Netanyahu for decades and has never gone easy on him. Nor has he ever concealed his disdain for the prime minister. In the last few years, however, his relationship with Netanyahu has become even more tense. Netanyahu’s supporters have come to see Abramovich as a symbol of Netanyahu's (alleged) harassment by the media and the left.

Abramovich suffered critical injuries in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when his tank took a hit and caught fire. His disabilities caused by his injuries and scars still visible on his face are subject to ridicule by Netanyahu and his supporters.

However, Netanyahu’s attacks don’t end with mocking the reporter’s appearance. In a video released in July 2019, Netanyahu called the aversion that Abramovich and other Channel 12 journalists show toward him “pathological” and said that it “hasn’t changed for the last 20 years.”

Netanyahu has been able to transmute these sentiments into political energy. His supporters rage about the “left-wing media.” Anyone who watched the video of Abramovich surrounded by a tight police cordon as he was extricated from the jeering crowd must realize that were it not for the officers, the incident could have ended in a physical altercation or worse.

President Reuven Rivlin and the leaders of the Blue and White Party were quick to condemn what happened and warn where it was leading. “We must not accept spectacles like this with indifference. No reporter should need to have security while he is doing his job, regardless of his opinions. Do not close your eyes to this. It is not how we act. It is not how the people of Israel act,” said Rivlin.

Blue and White leader and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz tweeted, “We are allowed to disagree. We are allowed to have differences of opinion. But we are absolutely forbidden to threaten journalists. A free press lies at the foundation of a democratic and pluralistic state.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, in whose city the demonstration took place, said, “There is an ugly wave washing over us and it comes from above. Threatening journalists is a threat to democracy. The writing is on the wall in big, black letters.” 

This time, the disturbing videos of the event and the sharp responses to it have not prompted Netanyahu to apologize like he did three years ago. Quite the opposite happened.

Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair, a popular figure on Twitter, tweeted, “Hold on, hold on. No one can curse out Amnon Abramovich just because he was injured in the army? Excellent. Will you tell all the leftists and journalists who curse out the prime minister day after day, even though he lost a brother in the army and was shot and wounded in the operation to free the hostages in the Sabena hijacking, and who was almost killed along the Suez Canal, that it is forbidden?”

The prime minister clearly has no plans to take responsibility for these threats, even though he incited them. What once happened quietly and behind the scenes has now become an open war.

One might think that all Israeli journalists would take the side of Abramovich and rise to the defense of another long list of journalists marked by Netanyahu, but this did not happen.

Top journalists identified with the right complained of a double standard. They argued that the president doesn’t rise to their defense when they are attacked. Cursing people out falls under freedom of expression. It may not be pretty, but it gets a pass, right-wing radio host Erel Segal argued. Kalman Libskind, his co-presenter, said, “When people curse out Amnon Abramovich, there is a huge commotion. … Yet when Arabs beat up Gilad Shalmor in Jaffa, no one talks about the Arabs. The way that everyone is claiming to be shocked isn’t really convincing. It is political.”

This debate is exactly what makes Netanyahu so successful. He has been able to make attacks on journalists into a squabble between right and left.

Journalist Rina Matzliach of Channel 12 said on her June 20 show, “Netanyahu supporters say they would still vote for him if he raped their daughter.” The comment raised anger within Netanyahu’s camp and Matzliach's family began to accompany her to work out of fear for her safety. As a political commentator who has been critical of Netanyahu and Likud voters, Matzliach might indeed make harsh remarks. The incitement against journalists is a warning signal. 

Netanyahu has had a tense relationship with the press throughout his political career. This isn’t the first time he has claimed to be a victim of harassment and persecution. He even created his own newspaper, Israel HaYom, with the help of his billionaire friend Sheldon Adelson, to counter the effects of what he sees as a hostile media. This time, however, Netanyahu is in the fight of his life. He needs the frenzied crowds to delegitimize the voices in major media outlets that are critical of him, and he seems to be taking things up a notch and there is no one to rein him in.

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