The controversy ended almost as soon as it began. Yesterday, Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde told an audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had told him a couple of weeks earlier the New York Times and Haaretz were Israel’s “main enemies” because “they set the agenda for an anti-Israel campaign all over the world.” That comment, made during a private meeting with the journalist, set off a minor furor with many, including Linde, saying they thought it odd those two journalistic institutions would outrank Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran as the Jewish state’s main foes and that such a statement reflects Netanyahu’s Nixon-like paranoia about the press. However, the prime minister’s office immediately denied Netanyahu had said it, and Linde soon backtracked, telling Haaretz the words were merely his interpretation and not a direct quote.
Nevertheless, this non-story is a reminder of a great truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While it would be absurd to actually rank the Times or Ha’aretz higher in the list of Israel’s foes than actual military and terrorist threats, biased media reports are a not inconsiderable problem for a beleaguered Jewish state. So whatever it is that Netanyahu actually said to Linde, his concern about a distorted vision of Israel’s policies being the lens through which most foreigners view his country is neither foolish nor paranoid.
Newspapers that invariably frame the conflict as one in which Israel is an oppressive state that bullies the Palestinians, violates human rights and responds to alleged threats with disproportionate force do help undermine support for the Jewish state. Journalists who treat the dispute over the West Bank and Jerusalem as one in which only the Palestinians have rights while the Israelis merely have overblown demands for security similarly help create a diplomatic playing field in which Israel is always at a disadvantage. Even worse, those who rarely, if ever, place stories about the conflict in the context of a 100-year-old Arab and Muslim war to eradicate the Jewish presence in the country, or who make any effort to accurately portray Palestinian public opinion about peace or their unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state do their audience and Israel a disservice.
Haaretz reports the news based on its political bias against Netanyahu’s party and ideology. The Times news and opinion sections follow the same script just as slavishly. The influence of these two papers is not inconsiderable, though it must be admitted the bias of America’s newspaper of record has done little to harm the widespread and bi-partisan support for Israel in the United States. However, the misperceptions of Israel and the conflict the Times has helped perpetuate have had an impact on American Jewish opinion. The effort to depict Israel as the Goliath of the Middle East rather than the David is a blow to the self-esteem of some liberal Times readers and has given them a reason to distance themselves from Zionism.
As such, Netanyahu does well to worry about this problem and to seek to counter the influence of those who have a destructive impact on his country’s image. Though the prime minister shouldn’t give in to the temptation to demonize the international media, just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him, or his country.