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Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2002 / 6 Kislev, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The other election: Count on the media to get it wrong, too | Both Republicans and Democrats will be sorting out the results of this week's midterm congressional elections for some time. But just as the dust was settling on America's political battles, news came that Israel was about to embark on a brief election cycle that will bring a ballot for a new Knesset in late January or early February 2003.

Elections in small, foreign countries don't generally elicit much coverage in the United States. Indeed, even elections in major European countries, such as those held during the last couple of years in Britain and France, did not generate that much interest here.

But there is always one exception to this indifference: Israel.

Whether it is the media's obsession with the Middle East peace process or just the general axiom that "Jews are news," Israeli elections tend to generate more coverage in American newspapers and networks than most senatorial or gubernatorial matchups.

Those who care about Israel shouldn't see this exaggerated focus as necessarily bad. The spectacle of the State of Israel going about the messy business of politics makes a marvelous contrast to the surrounding Arab world, where democracy is unknown.

But those looking to the American media for information about the Israeli election will still have a major problem. While we are all too familiar with some of the biases of the mainstream media when it comes to covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, the distortions in the secular media about Israeli political battles are often just as wrongheaded.


The starting point for this bias is no different from the problems in the rest of the coverage of the Middle East: labels. American journalists freely apply labels to Israelis that don't necessarily fit. As far as newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post or networks like ABC or National Public Radio are concerned, the Israeli electoral spectrum is a chicken with only one wing: a right one.

The Likud Party, currently led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is universally referred to as "right-wing" or "hard-line," when it is not being pigeon-holed as downright "extremist." Such labels have contributed to the general American belief that the party that has governed Israel for the majority of the last two decades is a pack of lunatics.

The power of this label was confirmed for me a few years ago, when after making his first visit to Israel, one American governor told me that his greatest surprise was discovering that the leaders of the Likud - then, as now, running things in Jerusalem - were not extremists but politicians just like him.

By contrast, the Labor Party is referred to as "moderate" or "centrist." That makes them the "good guys" in the eyes of the American media and, by extension, their audiences.

But the truth is, Labor is not any more or less extremist in its membership or its leadership than the Likud. It is just as much a creature of the left as Likud is of the right. Each is dogged by minor parties to their flanks that seek to win votes by portraying the larger party as a loose coalition of flaccid compromisers and opportunistic patronage hogs, a description that accurately describes both Labor and Likud.

Historically, Labor was the mainstream socialist party of government in Israel. That changed in 1977, when Menachem Begin led the Likud to its first victory, a development that sent most American journalists into hysteria. In the years since, Israel has remained largely split down the middle between the right led by Likud and the left by Labor. Israel is still a country without a centrist party, as both factions vie for those "floating" voters in the middle who decide the outcome.

But the American media tends to judge these parties solely on their willingness to accommodate Palestinian demands for territorial surrender or a perception that one is less interested in aggressive defensive measures than the other. On these questions, there certainly is a difference, but not as much as we are led to believe.

Likud has proved that it will bend farther than anyone thinks if a chance for peace is at stake. After all, it was Begin who gave up the Sinai to Egypt, and Benjamin Netanyahu who gave up the store in the Hebron and Wye River accords. And though Labor was the author of the disastrous Oslo accords, its leaders - Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - have been responsible for some of the most draconian crackdowns on the Palestinians.

But the main distortion that characterizes American coverage of Israeli politics is the flat refusal of our editorial writers and correspondents to understand the shift to the right in the last two years. Ariel Sharon's unprecedented landslide victory over Labor's Ehud Barak was based on the fact that the Israeli electorate understood that despite the clear failure of the Oslo gambit, Labor hadn't let it go. Israeli centrists understood that Labor had lost its way. From all appearances, it looks like that is still the case.


Unfortunately, most American journalists are such partisans of the Israeli left that they still haven't reconciled themselves to the new alignment.

Their only advice for Israeli leaders is to go back to where they were when the Palestinians rejected Barak's peace offer and chose war instead. But most Israelis understand that under the current circumstances, there isn't much to talk about.

American commentators never tire of quoting Israeli polls that say three-quarters of the people would give up the settlements so prized by many in Likud. But they leave out the fact that they would only do so for a real peace that is not in the offing. Hence, the same polls also reveal that most Israelis don't trust the Palestinians and oppose territorial surrender in the absence of a real peace. That is why polls showing the Likud on its way to victory are so inexplicable to our media.

The contest for prime minister of Israel will be decided in the Likud primary between Sharon and the once and perhaps future premier Bibi Netanyahu. Expect to hear endless labeling of the two as hard-liners, but what we probably won't hear or read is why either of these two pragmatic opportunists will probably trounce the winner of the Labor primary. To the extent that this question will be answered, it will generally be in terms that put down the Israeli people as driven by fear instead of the hard-nosed common sense that actually informs that electorate.

This distorted view of reality undermines American support for Israeli democracy. That shouldn't be tolerated. Three months from now, Israelis will decide who will be their leaders. Americans should treat the outcome with the same respect we demand for our own elections.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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