Commentary Magazine


The Times Gets Israel Wrong Again—And Why It Matters

The New York Times is certain it knows exactly what Israelis think of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.S. visit: “Israelis see Netanyahu trip as diplomatic failure,” it proclaimed in a headline yesterday. The story asserted “a nearly unanimous assessment among Israelis that despite his forceful defense of Israel’s security interests, hopes were dashed that his visit might advance peace negotiations with the Palestinians.”

One can easily see how correspondent Ethan Bronner reached this conclusion: As he correctly reported, Israeli “newspapers and airwaves were filled with similar commentary.”

But it’s utterly refuted by the lead story in today’s Haaretz, the Times’s very own Israeli partner, which details the unequivocal verdict of a new poll: Ordinary Israelis—as opposed to the exclusive club of journalists, academics and leftist politicians who dominate the newspapers and airwaves—considered the visit a rousing success.

Of respondents who followed the trip closely enough to express an opinion, those who deemed it a success outnumbered those who deemed it a failure by a whopping 37 points (47% to 10%). Of respondents who thought the visit would affect U.S.-Israeli relations, twice as many foresaw improvement as foresaw deterioration. And Netanyahu’s overall approval rating rose by an incredible 30 points, from minus 15 five weeks ago (38% favorable, 53% unfavorable) to plus 15 today (51% favorable, 36% unfavorable).

Moreover, the claim that the visit dashed hopes of advancing peace talks is ludicrous, because outside the small circle Bronner quotes, most Israelis entertained no such hopes. Every poll for years has shown that roughly two-thirds of Israelis see no chance of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the coming years (i.e. this one from October 2010), because they believe the Palestinians “have not accepted Israel’s existence and would destroy it if they could.”

But why does it matter if the Times got it wrong? Because most people, including policy makers, rely heavily on the media for their understanding of foreign countries. Thus when journalists misinterpret elite opinion as the majority view, policy makers wind up making egregious errors.

A prime example is the “Arab Spring.” The media had proclaimed for years that ordinary Arabs were concerned above all with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Western governments set policy accordingly. They devoted enormous efforts to the “peace process” and virtually none to pressing Arab autocrats to democratize. And then they were taken by surprise when it turned out that what ordinary Arabs really cared about was their tyrannical, corrupt governments.

Similarly, President Barack Obama has been repeatedly surprised by Netanyahu’s ability to defy him successfully, because Israeli elites, via the media and diplomatic corps, had assured him Israelis would turn on any premier who risked a fight with an American president. In reality, most Israelis will back their prime minister if they perceive him as defending core Israeli interests, which has been the case in every Obama-Netanyahu spat.

Ideally, foreign correspondents would explore the world beyond their comfortable circle of like-minded elites. But since they don’t, readers need to take their reports with a large grain of salt.