Middle East


Israel: The Myth of Left-Wing Media Control

Newspapers Israel
An Israeli man reads a leading daily, Sept. 21, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

During the past decade, presentation of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Israeli media has come under attack from the right wing for being biased and manipulative, and for spreading a single, pro-peace message. But contrary to public myth, it is the right wing—not the left—that uses and manipulates the media to disseminate its political message.

The argument put forward by the right wing goes like this: Since the left controls the media, the Israeli public was never presented with an alternative to the pro-peace, pro-Oslo message of the 1990s, and was duped into blindly supporting attempts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Until, that is, the violence and terror of the past 20 months brought Israelis face to face with reality.

But even a cursory look at daily newspapers in Israel reveals another truth. With the possible exception of the self-styled liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, truly left-wing newspapers have disappeared.

Davar (the organ of the Workers’ Movement) and Al-Hamishmar (the publication of the Israeli Communist Party) vanished as the demand for socialist-inspired newspapers decreased, along with the Trade Union Movement whose members received these newspapers. In contrast, the two major mass-circulation tabloids, Ma’ariv and Yediot Aharonot, can in no way be described as promoting a left-wing message.

If there are any truly ideological newspapers left in Israel, they are organs of the right, such as Mekor Rishon (founded a few years ago as a means of combating the perceived left-wing bias in the mainstream media), and Hatzofeh (the only Israeli daily associated with a political party, the extreme right-wing National Religious Party).

Another case in point is the Arutz 7 radio station, set up by the West Bank settler movement in the early 1990s. This station, which has a strong religious component (it closes for the Jewish sabbath and festivals), has tens of thousands of daily listeners. On a typical day, Arutz 7 programming presents a nonstop diatribe against the so-called conspiracy of the left-wing press. Sunday morning features the “Eye on the Media” debate, which dissects the sins of the “left-wing bolshevist” media. The program reserves its most withering attacks for any journalism that dares to turn a critical eye toward Israeli settlers in the occupied territories or promotes a message of peace with Palestinians.

On Friday mornings, veteran journalist Adir Zik uses his allotted time to
castigate all other media outlets for their alleged anti-patriotism and promotion of a “false” message of peace and reconciliation. Zik is an ardent supporter of the conspiracy theory surrounding the 1995 assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which the right wing argues that Israel’s internal security service, the Shabak, played a part in whipping up anti-Rabin rhetoric in the period leading up to his murder.

And then there is The Jerusalem Post, an interesting example of a newspaper which, while attempting to retain a public image as a middle-of-the-road English-language publication, has undergone some major ideological shifts during the past two decades. Until the mid-1980s, it represented the Israeli establishment political elite and was edited by people close to the Labor Party, such as Gershon Agron and Arye Roth, with a moderate, left-of-center orientation in its news
analysis and op-ed columns. The paper was then bought by the Hollinger Group, headed by Canadian newspaper mogul Conrad Black (whose media empire includes, among other conservative publications, London’s The Daily Telegraph), and it underwent an almost overnight switch in editorial policy with respect to the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Since the buyout, editors such as David Bar Ilan (who later became a media adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) and the recently appointed Bret Stephens have made no secret of their political preferences. These are reflected in an editorial policy which, though it tolerates some diversity (such as this writer’s weekly column), supports Israel’s right-wing government, is largely anti-European, and has become more parochial in its focus on the Jewish world at the expense of a broader coverage and analysis of world news.

When it comes to the airwaves, the left-wing Voice of Peace radio station, which started its life as an illegal offshore station and was influential throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, ceased operations after the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993. Its only truly ideological content was the pro-peace jingle at the top-of-the-hour news broadcasts, in contrast to Arutz 7, which preaches a consistent, single-mindedly right-wing message. (Sup-porters of Arutz 7 perceive repeated attempts by legislators to close the station for failing to pay its license fees and receive state authorization as an attempt by media elites to gag alternative political commentary.)

As for the major television channels, the charge that they offer a monolithic political message is unfounded: One only has to tune in to the repetitive chat shows to see a diversity of opinion represented. For more than 10 years, the same six or seven interviewers (veterans such as Dan Margalit on Channel One and Nissim Mishal on Channel Two are the most notable) have interviewed the same 30 or 40 people from the political, academic, and military establishments about the same half-dozen topics. These shows—which typically devolve into disorganized shouting matches—enjoy high ratings, but they serve mostly to entrench each side in its opinions and have done little to advance genuine political debate.

Judging from recent full-page advertisements in Ha’aretz, the right wing appears to have adopted Israel’s last bastion of left-wing thought, although the paper’s editorial columns remain strongly biased toward the left and are somewhat tedious in their well-worn arguments. The Women in Green movement (a pro-settler, anti-Palestinian movement which took its name from a cynical mirroring of the pro-peace Women in Black organization) seems to have limitless funds to pour into advertising, not only in the right-wing press but also in the media outlets of the “opposition.” But while there have been major media exposés concerning European funding for left-wing, pro-peace organizations, we know very little about the sources of right-wing media funding.

The fact that the settlers’ umbrella political lobby, the Council of Settlements in Judea/Samaria (YESHA), is a signatory to many right-wing ads and petitions raises serious questions about the use of public-sector funds earmarked for local government authorities (some of which are channeled to YESHA for political activities). It is highly unlikely that the right-wing newspaper Mekor Rishon would run a paid ad in favor of a Palestinian state in the way that Ha’aretz accepts the right-wing ads that now appear regularly on its pages. No doubt, Ha’aretz is living up to its liberal self-definition (though one can’t discount the lure of advertising dollars, given the astronomical prices charged by the Israeli media for full-page ads), whereas Mekor Rishon has chosen ideological purity at the expense of profit.

Perhaps this would all be legitimate freedom of expression in a democracy, were it not for the fact that the right wing continues to cry wolf, bemoaning its perceived exclusion from the mainstream media outlets, and persisting in attempts to replace members
of state-run media with its own political supporters.

In so doing, the right is deceiving the Israeli public, perpetuating a myth of left-wing domination of the press. It is a cheap weapon in the arsenal of Israeli political debate and serves to subvert the discourse from the serious issues facing the country in its chronic conflict with the Palestinians.

The writer is chairperson of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics. He contributes a weekly op-ed column to The Jerusalem Post.