According to Reports: A roundabout proof of Israeli democracy

Last month an unusual story by Herb Keinon appeared in the Jerusalem Post.  Keinon revealed that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had decided to “respectfully decline” a request from the New York Times to submit an op-ed to the paper.

And what was the reason for passing up this opportunity?  According to Keinon, Netanyahu’s senior media advisor Ron Dermer explained in a letter to the Times that the paper’s hostile editorial stance towards Netanyahu and the fact that, since September, 19 of 20 of the paper’s op-eds on Israel were negative were key issues in the decision.  In this atmosphere, an op-ed from Israel’s leader would amount to little other than tokenism.  As Dermer put it: “We wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of The New York Times.”

Keinon explained that Dermer was referring to a November op-ed called “Israel and Pinkwashing” in which Israel was criticized for, as Dermer put it, “having the temerity to champion its record on gay rights.”

The exception to the string of one-sided opinion pieces was the appearance of Judge Richard Goldstone’s Nov. 1 piece, “Israel and the Apartheid Slander.“  Goldstone, the South African judge who headed the UN Commission Report that bears his name, not only countered this false charge but also sought “to separate legitimate criticism of Israel from assaults that aim to isolate, demonize and delegitimize it.”  Ironically, last spring, Goldstone’s op-ed recanting the principal charge in the Goldstone Report – that Israeli soldiers had deliberately killed Palestinian civilians during the January 2009 Gaza war – had to appear in the Washington Post when the New York Times, as widely reported, refused to publish it.

The Times’ standard editorial line places virtually all the responsibility for impasse in the peace process at Netanyahu’s doorstep (even though it’s PA President Mahmoud Abbas who has been refusing to return to the negotiating table without preconditions).  Beyond this trend, what seems to have angered Israeli government officials was the appearance of a particularly troubling line in one of Tom Friedman’s December columns.  After expressing concern about where Israel is headed and about the erosion of support and even interest in Israel which he senses from secular American Jews, Friedman wrote something that to many both in Israel and abroad was not only intemperate but, uncharacteristically for him, smacked of an insidious anti-Israel canard: ” I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics.  That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

Thomas Friedman, Photo: New York Times

Friedman also underscored his critique of Israel, including threats to its democracy, by commending Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy as a “powerful liberal voice.”  In fact, Levy and his colleague Amira Hass are avowedly radical and arguably anti-Zionist and are typically as harsh toward Israel, including its “liberals,” as is the self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalist” Noam Chomsky towards the United States. Yet, as Friedman must know, the Times would never have Chomsky as even a guest columnist let alone a resident one.  When Ha’aretz no longer has, or is allowed to have, Levy and Hass writing for it (an event that’s difficult to foresee), people who bemoan the erosion of Israeli democracy will genuinely have reason to express bitter disapproval.

None of this is to say that Israel need have no concern about safeguarding its democracy  including being vigilant about efforts to introduce illiberal legislation or accept certain practices that erode equal treatment for women, the Arab minority, and so on.   It does mean, however, keeping Israel in perspective, treating it with equanimity.  We cannot forget that most Israelis came from countries with no democratic tradition, and have since lived through wars, terrorism, and constant threats that would have made normal life unbearable for almost any other society.  Indeed, the real story is why Israel has been able to remain so democratically resilient, even vibrant, under extraordinary circumstances.

Paul Michaels is the Director of Research and Media Relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.