Israel's Shallow Campaign Discourse

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campa
Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campaign meeting with members of Israel's French Jewish community, at a Jerusalem hotel on February 8, 2015, ahead of the March 17 general elections. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Orit Galili-Zucher, formerly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's media adviser, tweeted this week that Netanyahu's campaign against the Israeli media is "100 percent cynical and sets out to further weaken the already weakened media and divide and conquer journalists. The Prime Minister who controls Israel Hayom, Channel 2 and some of the IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority) is whining about Yedioth Ahronoth."

Galili-Zucher lashed out at the man she worked for in recent years, ignoring the fact that she also played a role in formulating such policy, but the essence of her comment was clear. In the attack Netanyahu tweeted and posted on his Facebook page against the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronot, the Israeli PM stayed in his comfort zone, raising superficial issues -- and the somewhat childish Israeli media fell for his spin.

Thus, the headlines and talk shows focused on the PM's claims that Yedioth's publisher was engaging in attacks on him and his family, instead of dealing with the truly pressing issues for the Israeli public -- housing and cost of living, education and health systems.

In fact, several polls in recent weeks indicate that people place social-economic issues at the top of their agenda and are somewhat less interested in diplomatic issues, believing as they do that the conflict with the Palestinians is intractable (though there's a solid majority who believe that a two-state solution awaits at the end of the road).

Who cares what Netanyahu thinks about this or that publisher? Or whether he feels he's been victimized by the media?

However, although the media know that the public prefers to hear about economic issues, few journalists are bothered by the fact that for the past four years, the ruling Likud party has not set out a written platform detailing its vision or plans for solving the housing crisis, and has no road map to block the escalating cost of living.

It would be an oversimplification to connect the current election cycle's shallowness only to news reports about the PM's wife pocketing bottle deposits from the official residence and her attitude toward people who work for her. Netanyahu himself has made fun of these trifles in a campaign video. And he is right. Several thousand shekels, even tens of thousands of shekels, that were or weren't misspent are not the main issue.

Journalists are not the only ones who should be blamed for the lack of serious public discussion about pressing matters. After all, with all due respect to the media, the agenda is set well before the media catches on -- by the honorable prime minister himself. Zucker-Galili is right when she diagnoses the media as weak and trampled.

Why? Because it is not strong enough to at least make the prime minister answer serious questions.

Throughout almost all of 2013 and deep into 2014, Netanyahu did not give one interview in Hebrew (despite giving countless interviews to the foreign press).

Furthermore: for more than two years, from May 2012 until Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Netanyahu did not hold one press conference.

The few he held during the war focused on security issues. The Israeli media did not succeed, and perhaps did not try, to bravely demand answers. Journalists in Israel and the media associations do not cooperate with each other in order to apply group pressure -- and this is the result. Divide and conquer, as Zucker-Galili tweeted.

In a Knesset speech he gave in the summer of 2011, Netanyahu presented a general program to solve the housing crisis. Since then, the Israeli public, including the media, has not made the prime minister accountable for what he promised. What happened to that housing plan? Why did it not succeed? Where were the mistakes and how does one deal with the situation from now on?

If one thing characterizes the current Israeli government, it is the deep contempt of the man leading it for some of the basic tenets of democracy. He does not hold press conferences, gives scarce interviews and repeatedly refuses, despite entreaties from members of his party, to present a written socio-economic plan before the elections. Of course, he also gave condescending response when requested to participate in televised debate with his chief rival Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union.

Going back to the responsibility of the media in this election game: Until they wake up and find a creative way to demand that Netanyahu provide relevant answers to the many questions currently left unanswered, hold news conferences on pressing issues, and demand the publication of a socio-economic platform -- until then, the Israeli public will continue to wish for serious treatment of these issues, but it won't get one.


Tal Schneider, a former media law attorney, is owner of The Plog, a leading Israeli political blog. She was the Washington, D.C. correspondent for the daily Maariv.