Does Israel Deserve Bad Press?

Israel is once again being bashed in the press. Though coverage of Israel is not yet as bad as it was during the intifada, it has markedly changed for the worse since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu. Knee-jerk critics of the press immediately scream bias, but is this true? Could it be that the negative publicity of the moment is deserved? Regardless of motivation, does it really matter?

During the Rabin-Peres years, Israel enjoyed its most favorable coverage in at least two decades. At least two explanations are possible. First, their policies were good and there were few things to criticize. Second, reporters agreed with their policies and wanted to support them.

The first explanation is weak. The press never has any difficulty finding negative stories or angles. The Rabin-Peres governments were hardly perfect. This suggests the second explanation is more plausible. Despite their denials of having any bias, reporters have their own agendas and, in the case of Israel, typically support policies that are more conciliatory toward the Palestinians. With few exceptions, reporters approved the direction Rabin and Peres were going; consequently, they chose to write about the “new Middle East” and the other positive aspects of the peace process.

Now along comes Bibi with his old defensive rhetoric about the evils of the PLO and the threats to Israel. This is, to begin with, not the same warm, fuzzy message of a new Middle East. In addition, Netanyahu is viewed as wanting to slow, if not halt, the peace process reporters believed in. Worse, the new Prime Minister espouses policies they outright oppose, notably building settlements.

The consequences of the clash between the agendas of the Israeli government and the press were predictable. Netanyahu is labeled a “hardliner,” his policies are portrayed as harmful to the peace process and the negative stories that were ignored the last four years are now being reported. To give one example, the number of Jews living in the territories significantly increased under the prior government, but you would be hard-pressed to find any stories criticizing Rabin or Peres for supporting this.

Not everything in the press can be blamed on bias. Netanyahu’s policies have had some negative consequences that merit comment. The Arab world’s hostility, justified or not, for example, is fair game. As are the related decisions by Arab nations to suspend normalization with Israel. Some news from Israel just sounds bad, such as the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the use of “torture.” Also, if an Israeli leader emphasizes the negative, he should not be surprised if that is the spin given to his remarks (even if he’s talking about something like PLO violations of the Oslo accords).

The bigger and more important question is whether press coverage has any impact. Certain columnists like Bob Novak and Anthony Lewis routinely bash Israel, so no one pays much attention to them. When the opinions and stories of columnists and reporters begin to mesh, however, a tone is set that can affect public opinion. Negative press certainly can’t be good for Israel, but how much it hurts depends on the political leadership.

The key to how damaging bad press will be is the reaction of the President. He sets the tone for how the coverage is interpreted. If the President reinforces the negative, or is the one to initiate it, as was the case with George Bush, support for Israel erodes. On the other hand, if the President ignores the coverage and does nothing to feed it, the impact is negligible. During his first term, Bill Clinton never publicly said anything that was critical of Israel. If this continues, the press cannot succeed in mugging Israel. Should the President lose patience with Netanyahu, as many people expect, and begin to openly express his frustration or unhappiness, the press will pile on and successfully paint Netanyahu as a villain.

With the rare exception of a press revelation that is new to a President, however, coverage does not drive policy. It is usually the other way around. Tangibly, unless Clinton shifts his policy dramatically, Israel will suffer little more than a black eye from the negative press. Make no mistake, most members of Congress hate settlements and will not be happy with Netanyahu’s pronouncements on the subject, but no one should expect any punitive action beyond the existing legislation deducting money from the loan guarantees for funds spent in the territories.

It would certainly be preferable to read nothing but good news about Israel, but that is not going to happen so long as Netanyahu is in office — unless he radically changes his policies. So be prepared to be angered when you read the paper or turn on the TV. If it’s any consolation, the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong enough to weather the media barrage.