Is­raeli pub­lic dis­course is be­ing dragged into the squalid realm of re­al­ity TV

The National - News - - OPINION - JONATHAN COOK Jonathan Cook is a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Nazareth

Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu com­man­deered the coun­try’s air­waves last week in what many as­sumed would prove a mo­ment of pro­found na­tional im­port. They could not have been more wrong.

The con­text was his de­ci­sion last month to move for­ward the gen­eral elec­tion to April, widely seen as a des­per­ate ef­fort to turn the vote into a ref­er­en­dum on his in­no­cence as long-stand­ing cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions close in.

The po­lice have rec­om­mended that he be charged over three sep­a­rate al­le­ga­tions of bribery. By call­ing the elec­tion, Mr Ne­tanyahu has forced the at­tor­ney-gen­eral, Avichai Men­del­blit, onto un­fa­mil­iar – and con­sti­tu­tion­ally tricky – ter­rain.

Mr Men­del­blit, an ap­pointee of Mr Ne­tanyahu’s, has in­di­cated that he will make a de­ci­sion on whether to is­sue an in­dict­ment be­fore the bal­lot, so that vot­ers have the facts to make an in­formed choice.

But Mr Ne­tanyahu has said he won’t drop out or re­sign, even if in­dicted, and there is no de­ci­sive prece­dent to sug­gest he must.

In­stead, he would pre­fer to bully the at­tor­ney-gen­eral into de­lay­ing a de­ci­sion un­til after vot­ers have spo­ken. That was the pur­pose of his un­ex­pected live na­tional TV ad­dress.

His sup­port­ers have al­ready set the stage, claim­ing that an in­dict­ment mid-cam­paign would in­flu­ence the out­come and usurp the will of the peo­ple. Ei­ther way, Mr Ne­tanyahu hopes to ben­e­fit. If an in­dict­ment is served be­fore the vote, it will rile up his base and bol­ster a care­fully crafted nar­ra­tive that he faces a cam­paign of per­se­cu­tion from state au­thor­i­ties.

If Mr Men­del­blit de­lays, Mr Ne­tanyahu will aim to ex­ploit any elec­toral suc­cess to face down pros­e­cu­tors, ac­cus­ing them of seek­ing to re­verse his pop­u­lar man­date.

Mr Ne­tanyahu’s strat­egy was on full show last week when he took to the main TV chan­nels. He used this mo­ment of en­forced na­tional at­ten­tion for noth­ing more se­ri­ous than a self-serv­ing gripe.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors, led by a far-right po­lice com­man­der he per­son­ally ap­proved, had sup­pos­edly joined a left­ist plot to oust him. The proof was that they had de­nied him a chance to con­front in per­son his ac­cusers – for­mer aides turned state wit­ness – and chal­lenge their tes­ti­mony.

Claim­ing that he had been stripped of his le­gal rights, Mr Ne­tanyahu de­manded a show­down be broad­cast live – ef­fec­tively trail­blaz­ing a new type of re­al­ity TV show for sus­pects in high-pro­file crim­i­nal cases.

Of course, Mr Ne­tanyahu un­der­stands only too well that such con­fronta­tions with wit­nesses are de­cided by the po­lice, not the ac­cused, and used only when ev­i­dence needs to be tested.

The po­lice be­lieve they al­ready have the ev­i­dence re­quired for a con­vic­tion, and hope to test it in a court of law, not in the type of TV spec­ta­cle in which Mr Ne­tanyahu ex­cels.

Mr Ne­tanyahu’s move was in­tended to re­in­force his claim that the “sys­tem” – which has kept him and the ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist right in power for a decade – is rigged against him.

There was a strik­ing par­al­lel with events last week in the United States, where pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sim­i­larly ad­dressed the na­tion to cor­ner his op­po­nents in Con­gress.

In his case, Mr Trump sought to rally his base by fear­mon­ger­ing about a sup­posed “in­va­sion” of im­mi­grants, sug­gest­ing that the Democrats were sub­vert­ing his ef­forts to block their en­try with an Is­raeli-style wall.

But whereas many have de­scribed Mr Ne­tanyahu’s lat­est in­ter­ven­tion as “Trumpian”, in truth the Is­raeli leader is as well-prac­ticed as his Amer­i­can coun­ter­part in the dark arts of me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Two of the three bribery cases he faces re­late di­rectly to al­le­ga­tions that he of­fered leg­isla­tive favours – in one case cap­tured on tape – to Is­raeli me­dia moguls in re­turn for bet­ter cov­er­age in their pub­li­ca­tions.

Mr Ne­tanyahu has long demon­strated an ob­ses­sion with con­trol­ling his im­age, and has proved an arch-ma­nip­u­la­tor of pas­sions to mo­bilise sup­port for his hawk­ish agenda.

It was at the last gen­eral elec­tion, in 2015, that he turned the tables on his right-wing ri­vals at the last mo­ment. He ral­lied by claim­ing that Is­rael’s Pales­tinian cit­i­zens – a fifth of the pop­u­la­tion – were turn­ing out in “droves” at polling booths. Only a vote for Mr Ne­tanyahu, he sug­gested, would save the Jew­ish state.

Not only did he im­ply that vot­ing by Pales­tinian cit­i­zens was il­le­git­i­mate, he claimed that the Is­raeli left was “bussing” them to the polls, cit­ing this false­hood as proof of the left’s treach­ery.

Now Mr Ne­tanyahu is again de­ploy­ing the “left­ist” slur, this time to dis­credit the po­lice and pros­e­cu­tion ser­vice.

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, Mr Ne­tanyahu’s Likud party is the only fac­tion op­posed to a plan by the Cen­tral Elec­tions Com­mit­tee to bar on­line pro­pa­ganda in the cam­paign’s fi­nal two months.

Un­der­scor­ing the way TV has in­creas­ingly be­come a tool in Is­rael not for clar­i­fy­ing is­sues but for in­flam­ing emo­tions, the US TV co­me­dian Roseanne Barr has been in­vited to ad­dress the Is­raeli par­lia­ment at the end of the month.

She will use the op­por­tu­nity to de­nounce as Jew haters ac­tivists who stand in sol­i­dar­ity with Pales­tini­ans in the in­ter­na­tional boy­cott move­ment. Only in Is­rael’s cur­rent de­graded pub­lic dis­course would Barr, who has a his­tory of mak­ing of­fen­sive com­ments var­i­ously about Jews, Mus­lims and black peo­ple, be taken se­ri­ously as an ar­biter of racism.

An­a­lysts widely ex­pect this elec­tion cam­paign to be the dirt­i­est in Is­rael’s his­tory. But, al­though they worry about Mr Ne­tanyahu’s dem­a­goguery, they still over­look what is by far its grub­bi­est as­pect.

Pales­tini­ans un­der oc­cu­pa­tion have been ef­fec­tively dis­ap­peared from the cam­paign. They will have no voice in choos­ing the Is­raeli politi­cians who have de­ter­mined their fate for the past five decades.

In fact, not one of the Is­raeli Jew­ish par­ties is high­light­ing Pales­tinian rights or putting the oc­cu­pa­tion at the cen­tre of its plat­form. The vast ma­jor­ity of Is­raeli politi­cians want to en­trench the oc­cu­pa­tion, not end it.

Is­raeli com­men­ta­tors noted that Mr Ne­tanyahu had an­other press­ing rea­son – apart from le­gal threats – to bring for­ward the elec­tion. He feared that oth­er­wise Mr Trump might un­veil his long-promised peace plan.

How­ever bad that plan will be for Pales­tini­ans, Mr Ne­tanyahu does not want his un­will­ing­ness to make con­ces­sions ex­posed.

But Mr Ne­tanyahu is not the gravest threat to Is­rael’s “democ­racy”. The most dan­ger­ous thing of all is the wide­spread re­fusal in Is­rael to recog­nise that the Pales­tini­ans are hu­man be­ings too – and that they should be able to de­ter­mine their own fate, just like Is­raelis.


Ne­tanyahu has proven ex­pert in the use of tele­vi­sion to in­flame pas­sions and mo­bilise sup­port

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