S.Y. Agnon, the famous Israeli writer, once toyed with the idea that the German culture was all but forgotten, with German scholars traveling all over the world, desperately looking for exiled German Jews who were the last to preserve the lost German culture and save it from oblivion. I cannot help thinking about this fictitious anecdote whenever the U.S., once a great democracy and now the great "democratizer" of the globe, becomes less and less democratic, running propaganda channels like al-Hurra while pressuring a country like Qatar to close or "restrain" its relatively free television channel al-Jazeera (New York Times, Jan. 30). A time may come when the world has to remind America of the meaning of democracy.
Israeli journalist Aluf Ben (Ha'aretz, Jan. 18) recently reported of the resurrection of Israeli censorship, with the enthusiastic chief military censor, Colonel Miri Regev, trying to re-impose obsolete regulations dating from British Mandate rule in Palestine (1917-1948) that set draconian fines and penalties for disobedient media. When, a couple of weeks later, the United States government started examining reports on the intensified role of state censorship in Israeli media, it was almost amusing to read the Israeli reaction:
"[S]ources at the military censor justified their decision to ban news items by claiming that they were acting at the behest of the Bush administration to 'moderate information.' To representatives of the media who complained at the banning of the items, the military censor said it was done following a request from Washington." (Aluf Ben, Ha'aretz, Feb. 5)
Whom would you believe? The American concerns about growing media censorship in Israel, or the Israeli claim that the U.S. is harming the freedom of the Israeli media? I for my part tend to believe both.
The Decision That Was Not
Censorship, however, seems to be a minor danger for Israel's free media. The greater danger lies in the media itself. If free media means independent media, a media that reports and evaluates reality independent of the regime, then the Israeli media is definitely not free. For the Israeli press, Sharon has become the champion of peace, and ascending this throne means not only immunity from media criticism but also total blindness on the part of the media to facts on the ground, even to words on paper.
Take last week's cabinet vote on the "Disengagement Plan" for example. Two decisions were endorsed in that "historic" cabinet session: one about the new route of the apartheid wall, the other about dismantling settlements. On Feb. 20, Ha'aretz published the full text on which the cabinet would vote. As for the wall, the text left no room for doubts. It read: "We decide … to approve the continuation of the construction of the fence," etc., etc. Clear and unambiguous.
Compare this to the "decision" to evict settlements. Dividing the settlements into four groups, the text refers to a previous cabinet decision dating June 6, 2004 – which unambiguously said it did not suffice to evict settlements, postponing the decision by six months – and states four times, to each of the settlements' groups, that "the cabinet will convene soon before the eviction of this group, debate the circumstances prevailing at the time, and decide whether these circumstances can effect the eviction."
Is this a decision to evict settlements? Clearly not. Nowhere does it positively state that any settlement would be evicted. All it says is that the cabinet would meet in some future time to consider such an eviction. So, in fact, Sharon's cabinet decided, once again, not to decide on settlements eviction. Compare this with the news headlines, both in Israel and all over the world, which loudly celebrated the alleged historic decision to dismantle settlements.
Consequently, the next day Ha'aretz's Hebrew front-page headline solemnly read: "Cabinet Approves Eviction of Settlements," even starting a countdown ("149 days to the eviction"). Only deep down in page two, in the Hebrew version of Ha'aretz but not in the English one, after hundreds of empty words about the allegedly historic decision, the over-industrious reader might have come across the following explanation of the odd formulation of the "decision":
"Minister of Education Limor Livnat [Likud, opposes settlements' eviction] and Minister Shalom [Likud, demands referendum prior to any eviction] requested that the decision would state: 'this decision does not suffice to evict settlements', i.e., that the cabinet would hold another vote before each phase of the eviction. The suggestion met objection from Interior Minister Pines [Labour], who said it was a compromise that would create an illusion that the decision was reversible … but Sharon accepted Livnat's and Shalom's position, and the formulation of the cabinet decision was changed. Meaning: the cabinet would have to vote again before the eviction of each of the four groups of settlements." (Ha'aretz, Feb. 21)
So did the Israeli cabinet approve the decision to evict settlements, or didn't it? Apparently, it did not. Unlike the prophetic mainstream media, I do not know whether Israel will not evict the Gaza settlements; all I am saying is that Israel's cabinet has not taken any decision to evict them yet, contrary to the false impression propagated by the entire media.
His Master's Voice
As this alarming example shows, the Israeli media is highly prejudiced, to the extent that it has lost basic reading comprehension skills and replaced them with a blind loyalty to Sharon and his new image as "man of peace." If you think the media has fallen victim to its own wishful thinking, seeking peace to the extent of ignoring any contrary evidence, think again. You may remember the appalling column of Yoel Marcus, considered Israel's most influential political columnist, who, on the day the democratically elected Palestinian leader Abu Mazen was sworn in (allegedly, Israel's dream of a democratic post-Arafat era coming true), urged Sharon to smash the new leader and take revenge on Palestinian civilians – a clear incitement to war crimes:
"The prime minister's decision to give Abu Mazen the cold shoulder until the terror stops is perfectly justified. … To say that Sharon was too hasty in calling off the meeting or to criticize him for not giving Abu Mazen 100 days of grace is ridiculous. … Israelis are tired of this wise-guy stuff. … We don't owe this guy a thing. … There is a breaking point and a time when the government must take off its gloves and present the other side with a flat ultimatum: For every indiscriminate round of fire on a civilian target, we will retaliate in kind on the closest and most populated Palestinian city. We will give it to them good. An eye for an eye." (Ha'aretz, Jan. 18)
Remember these lines: when the next Israeli military strike needs its apologetics, all Marcus (and his colleagues) will do is re-air them. The Israeli media is not following Sharon in the path to peace: it is following Sharon wherever he goes, like a loyal hound, playing peaceful when its master is well-tempered, but happy to expose its sharp teeth when he takes to the hunt. In fact, a few days later Ha'aretz's Zeev Schiff revealed the origin of his colleague's outrageous zeal, it then turned out that it had come directly from the prime minister's office.
"Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led the most extreme position in these discussions. … He demanded that the IDF deploy artillery to shell targets in the Gaza Strip, including in towns and villages, as long as Hamas continued to launch Qassam rockets or mortars at Israeli communities. He adopted a blatant eye-for-an-eye approach – to pay the Palestinians in kind, but with much more and much deadlier force." (Ha'aretz, Jan. 25)
The similarity is evident: disguising it as independent advice to the government to "take off its gloves," Marcus simply echoed Sharon's position. Literally.