Trump’s speech last week, in which he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promised to move the American embassy there, was covered intensively – both in Israel and around the world. While the global media focused mainly on the responses to the statement among Palestinian and European leaders, the Israeli media focused on what was described as a historical and dramatic shift in Washington’s stance towards Israel. “Trump’s decision will fundamentally change US policy in the region”, announced the “Walla!” news website. “A paramount milestone in the Zionist journey”, declared the “Ma’ariv” newspaper. The political commentator of Israel’s leading newscast went as far as reciting “Shehecheyanu” – a Jewish prayer which was recited, for example, following Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Even the left-wing “Ha’aretz” newspaper, not exactly a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, presented Trump’s statement as “a substantial diplomatic achievement for Netanyahu”.
Unsurprisingly, the days after Trump’s speech were also accompanied by a surge of violence in the region. Thousands of Palestinians rioted in the Gaza strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Dozens of them were injured by the Israeli forces. Rockets were launched from Gaza towards Israel, and a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli security guard at the centre of Jerusalem. Israeli and American flags were burnt by demonstrators in European and Arab capitals. The Palestinians announced that they no longer see the Americans as potential arbitrators in future negotiations. Condemnations were issued by most of Israel’s allies around the world. In sum, this was hardly a glorious triumph for Israel’s diplomatic or defence interests.
Naturally, those justified diplomatic actions, which lead Israel to a better future, are sometimes linked with bursts of violence and conflicts with allies. However, was Trump’s declaration one of these rare circumstances, when risking a third Intifada was worthwhile? What does this “historical achievement” actually mean?
Back in 1995, following the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians (“the Oslo Process”), the American Congress and Senate acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and even pledged to move the US embassy to the western part of the city (Jerusalem is divided between an Israeli western section and a Palestinian eastern section). Ever since, every American President has biannually signed a waiver that delays the implementation of this decision. Trump was no different: even on the very day of his “historical” speech about Jerusalem – he signed yet another waiver that delays the relocation of the embassy.
In short, Netanyahu’s “rare accomplishment” is not really his. It will not influence Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem, nor improve its public’s safety; even on the symbolic level, it merely recycles a 22-year-old statement. All that, in exchange for an unnecessary wave of violence. Clearly, these are not pro-Israeli consequences, even if they boost the Israeli right’s morale.
But if there was nothing new about Trump’s statement, why did the Israeli media celebrate? What made journalists praise an event which generates avertible violence at present, and might sabotage the chances of obtaining a peace agreement in the future?
One reason is economic. A dramatic and exciting event always attracts more viewers and readers than meaningless announcements by a political buffoon. For profit-driven media organisations – the majority of media outlets in Israel – such media events are particularly crucial these days, as the entire industry struggles financially. Brutal media regulation, led by Netanyahu’s government, further aggravates the economic distress. The desperate striving for ratings and traffic, then, must have played a prominent role in the media’s unjustified enthusiasm around Trump’s speech; However, it is not the only incentive for journalists to cover Trump’s proclamation as a historical triumph.
Legitimate bias, illegitimate bias
The second motive is ideological. Although the Israeli right persistently accuses the media of being left-leaning, many of Israel’s leading journalists and news organisations are notably associated with the right. The most widely circulated newspaper in the country, “Israel Ha’yom”, is funded by Netanyahu’s biggest donor, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Adelson also owns “Makor Rishon”, a newspaper affiliated with the religious right and “nrg”, a news website. The most popular news website in Israel, “Walla!”, is owned by a personal friend of Netanyahu. Both owners have been recently interrogated by the police for their alleged involvement in corruption cases related to Netanyahu and their news outlets.
Unlike other media outlets, those affiliated with the right don’t feel obliged to abstain because of any ideological bias. Due to a longstanding, remarkably successful campaign against “the leftist media”, an affinity with the right can only benefit journalists and media organisations. Major news organisations – of all political shades – put considerable efforts into the recruitment of right-wing reporters and pundits, in order to demonstrate the “balanced” nature of their reporting. Moreover, since right-leaning journalists and media organisations introduce themselves as “underdogs” – an underrepresented ideological minority within the media, whose primary aim is to counterbalance the so-called leftist mainstream – they don’t shy away from openly biased reporting. After all, that is precisely what they are here for.
So right-wing journalists embraced Netanyahu’s narrative regarding Trump’s declaration for ideological reasons. But what about the rest of the media? Why would they frame the right’s agenda as if it were unquestionably in the Israeli national interest?
Here another factor enters the scene: fear. Like many of its counterparts abroad, the Israeli right conducts an ongoing public campaign against the media, describing it as leftist, unpatriotic and untrustworthy. Netanyahu himself accuses the media of “employing fans of terrorists”; “persecuting our soldiers”; and “conducting a Bolshevik witch-hunt” to take down the government. This orchestrated campaign appears to be successful: the public trust in the Israeli media has indeed been massively eroded over the last few years. One leading political correspondent recently told me that even when he criticises Netanyahu from a right-wing point of view, the comments he gets are still ‘you leftist liar’. The growing pressure, the slander online and offline, as well as Netanyahu’s public and regulatory war against the media – all have devastating consequences for journalists. Even good-willed professionals, who genuinely endeavour to serve the public faithfully, are eventually affected. They aspire to establish an “objective” and “balanced” impression in order to maintain their professional public image and avoid being labelled as a “leftist traitors”. Naturally, it results in media coverage that is distorted towards the right.
Watchdog media in a non-opposition world
Political correspondents are going through hard times, not only because of economic constraints and the defamation of their profession. Functioning as watchdogs in the absence of a strong political opposition is a complicated matter, particularly when any opposition to the right-wing narrative is considered as treason. A competent opposition leader would have attacked Netanyahu for the cynical advancement of Trump’s statement: this “historical declaration” was clearly purported to distract public opinion from corruption investigations which threaten both Trump’s and Netanyahu’s rule.
The driving forces behind Trump’s speech – the messianic settlers’ lobby in Israel and the messianic evangelical lobby in the US – should’ve been mentioned as well. Sheldon Adelson – who isn’t only Netanyahu’s biggest donor, but also the Republican Party’s – shouldn’t have been left out. A longstanding advocate of the embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, Adelson finally found two politicians who owe him enough to make his dream come true. Corruption, foreign interests and a foreign casino mogul: this should have been an easy prey for any functioning opposition.
Nevertheless, due to the lack of a proper political opposition to Netanyahu, each deviation of the media from the right-wing narrative situates it to the left of the left. Under these circumstances, journalists dread being identified with the left, and therefore think twice before they voice criticism against the ideological line dictated by the government.
However, this is exactly their role. A media coverage which aligns with the right; which assumes that motivating violence and undermining a potential future peace agreement is in Israel’s national interest; which portrays pro-Netanyahu decisions as pro-Israeli decisions – jeopardises the public discourse as a whole. It is biased, misleading, inaccurate – and utterly bad for Israel.
Ayala Panievsky is a graduate of the MA Political Communications program at Goldsmiths and a research associate at “Molad – The Centre for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy”. She is a former journalist for “Ha’aretz” newspaper, and an ex-media consultant for an Israeli Member of Parliament.