Most Americans have been following the story of the suicide of Israel’s “Prisoner X” with some confusion. As more information about the former Australian turned alleged Mossad agent who was imprisoned for some still unclear security violation has come out some of the focus of the controversy — especially outside of Israel — has been about the fact that the case was kept secret by Israel’s system of military censorship. This has led to charges that the censors subvert Israel’s democracy or that press freedom is not existent in the Jewish state.
But the problem with these sorts of accusations is that unlike many of the country’s foreign critics most Israelis — including the press and many on the left who have no love for its current government — understand that the security threats to Israel are real not imagined. The fact that a lively and often obstreperous free press exists in Israel even though it is a nation that remains at war is a testament to the strength of its democratic foundation. Backing this up is Israeli journalist Ben Caspit who writes in Al Monitor to makes an excellent case for the nation’s military censorship system that, he notes, generally does a good job of protecting legitimate secrets while not depriving citizens of their right to know vital facts about the military and the government.
But Caspit does succumb to his own political prejudices when he claims that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and a newspaper owned by one of his supporters of the media is destroying democracy. This slam against Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is absurd but it is particularly egregious considering that the history of Israeli government interference with the press is not a function of right-wing censorship but the legacy of the left.
On the question of censorship, Caspit puts Israel’s security dilemma in perspective:
Israel is dealing with Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear capabilities, with powerful terror bases armed with thousands of missiles and rockets on its southern border fence and its northern fence, surrounded by a burning Middle East. Therefore, premature leakage of a sensitive, operational security secret could result in unbearable results for Israel. Twelve years ago the United States was rocked, and the whole world was shocked, by the terror attack on the Twin Towers and other additional sites in the country, an attack in which more than 3,000 Americans were murdered. At the exact same time, a similar wave of terror landed on Israel, resulting in the deaths of some 1,000 Israelis. Compared to the size of the population, 1,000 dead Israelis are equivalent to 30,000 Americans, ten times the number killed on Sept. 11. And in other words: such attacks endanger the very existence of the Jewish state and could undermine the prospects of its survival in its wild and hostile habitat. The United States and Europe have not come face-to-face with such a threat for many decades.
There are those who question the validity of Israel’s censorship laws in an era when the Internet renders local regulations irrelevant in many cases. It is also true that some of Israel’s blabbermouth politicians (including some who should know better) also undo security regulations. But as he rightly points out:
The eyes of Israel’s enemies are directed toward the Israeli media. This and more: Most censorship deletions are meant to protect fighters, agents, real-time operations which if exposed could cause immediate and lethal damage.
But Caspit’s subsequent rant about Netanyahu and Adelson merely illustrates his own political bias. He complains that Israel’s right has aggressively pushed back against the publicly financed Israeli media and notes that Adelson’s paper has become the most read paper in the country. But this comes after decades of left-wing domination of the Israeli media that makes the liberal grip on American broadcast networks and leading dailies look like a nonpartisan trust.
That left-wing dominance was for decades reinforced by strict controls over the government funded radio and television stations that were for a time a virtual monopoly by the country’s Labor Party political establishment. The same was largely true in much of the print meida as well. If some balance has been restored decades after Israel stopped being a country dominated by one left-wing party of government, it was long overdue.
As for Israel Hayom’s success, Caspit calls it “brainwashing” of the Israeli public (though the failure of Netanyahu to get more than a quarter of the vote in last month’s election shows that the job wasn’t well done) but it must be put down to the same factor that enabled Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes to transform American cable television with Fox News. As was the case with Fox News in America, Adelson has discovered a niche market that makes up approximately half of the Israeli people.
Like the complaints about censorship in a nation that remains locked in a deadly war for survival, the carping about Adelson tells us nothing about the state of press freedom. The injection of some ideological diversity into the Israeli media is deeply resented by the left but it is a sign of the strength of Israeli democracy, not its weakness.