MAXWELL:  Israeli journalists out for blood

5/16/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


HAIFA, Israel

If you think the American press is tough on politicians, well, think again. The hard-hitting, focused commentary in Israel’s leading media outlets, conservative and liberal alike, makes that of most of their American counterparts read like sophomoric peregrinations.

Sure, many American commentators fancy themselves as having been rough on Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky saga. But that was a rarity, even in these times of gotcha journalism in the United States, and the press has calmed down.

Israeli opinion writers, however, do not need a cause celebre, either an issue or an event or a person, to go for the jugular. Serving a news-addicted, navel-gazing readership, they are on journalistic steroids, employing, among other devices, the scalpel, the rapier and the blunt instrument. They use satire, innuendo, conceit, parable, Scripture, myth, aphorism, hyperbole, understatement, allegory, ad hominem. They are as hardy and as independent and as unapologetic as the half-century-old nation itself.

I began to appreciate these traits anew when, upon arriving in Israel on May 4, I read the English edition of Ha’aretz, which calls itself “Israel’s leading daily newspaper.”

As each paragraph from Ha’aretz’s “Opinion & Comment” section stalked its prey, I thought of lawmakers back home, especially in Tallahassee, who squeal like stuck pigs when editorial writers and columnists home in on their policies and character flaws.

Following are comments from Ha’aretz that attack Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the publication’s favorite Likud target (at this writing, Netanyahu is struggling to retain his job):

+ “Bibi, who has never told Clinton the truth and has broken all his promises to him, is regarded by the U.S. president as a lying cheat. . . . Under his regime, corruption has received official protection, intrigues have become a style of government, truth has become falsehood and falsehood truth. No politicians, especially the members of his own camp, believe a word he says, and all his friends have abandoned him.”

+ “There are some people with names like Rivlin and Netanyahu, but the connection with their illustrious fathers disappeared long ago. They are true rabble, vulgar people without dignity or depth, liars and impostors with the aspirations of hooligans and mafioso.”

How many American editors would let their columnists write similarly of a powerful official?

Here is more:

+ “Ten days to go until the elections for the prime minister . . . Netanyahu is behaving like a wounded animal. He trusts no one. . . . Netanyahu looks like a pyromaniac who cannot quite light any fires but who is being pursued by flames just the same.”

+ “Bibi cannot cite any achievement in his three years of office. He has been exposed as a charlatan, and an incompetent one at that. He has neither initiated nor completed any task. He has turned the clocks back, so once again the whole world is against us. When his name is mentioned in Washington, the chiefs of the Clinton administration stop up their ears.”

+ “Bibi has been a prime minister without a map, without a plan, and _ principally _ without talent. He has functioned not as a prime minister but rather as the terminator of the culture of ethical government.”

+ “Bibi has restored norms that we long ago discarded, rekindled the flame of ethnic hatred, and widened the gap between secular and religious Israeli Jews. He has turned ethnic groups against one another and social groups against one another and has exacerbated social conflicts.”

+ “Even the fox in the fable . . . who waited for the cheese to fall out of the crow’s mouth surely behaved more elegantly, less instinctually. But Netanyahu’s devouring, almost bestial smugness, which exposed itself this week . . . lacked even a trace of self-restraint or personal grace. It’s an attitude familiar since the days when he leeched on to the pools of blood in the terrorist attacks: transparent, utterly shameless, sweaty and huffing, vulgar. Like the Jew in the story who both consumed a pig and let the spittle and the fat slither down his chin.”

I could not resist a few comments in the Jerusalem Post, an English language magazine, from a personality roundup of the election:

+ “What was billed as a battle between two dashing leading men, Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, has become the showcase for character actors. According to the polls, this year’s Oscar will go to Barak. If it does, he’ll owe the prize to, among others, a hoodlum rabbi, an ex-barroom bouncer, a snake handler, a professional grump and a most reluctant Russian.”

+ “Enter the supporting players, starting with Aryeh Deri. A convicted felon and leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, he has started a nasty vendetta against the legal system that sentenced him to four years in prison. His supporters see him as a modern-day Dreyfus, but to to the rest of the country he’s nothing more than a crook and a sorehead.”

+ “Next comes Avigdor Lieberman, the beetle-browed brawler and former Bibi aide who has founded his own political party. Lieberman, who is under more-or-less continuous criminal investigation, is running against the police, giving his candidacy a Capone-like aura.”

So, the next time I hear one of my U.S. colleagues crow about his organization’s hard-hitting commentary, I will walk away. Israeli journalists, whom I admire, refuse to give politicians any respite _ on any day. Civility has not entered the lexicon of Israel’s press.