Ever since Israel ceased to be dominated by one political party, when Menachem Begin’s Likud finally won the 1977 national elections, there has been a striking and ever-increasing disconnect between the Israeli left and the Western, especially American, left. The Israeli leftist establishment was not innocent this disconnect; they in fact planted the seeds. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted in an article about Israel and American media bias, Israeli establishment figures like Abba Eban were very close with the New York Times and other American outlets, and after Begin’s victory they worked assiduously to sabotage Israeli relations with American media figures.
The American press bought it hook, line and sinker, and their coverage reflected it: the Likud was not to be taken seriously as an electoral force, for they would disappear soon, but they were to be taken seriously as a threat to the moral order, for they were dangerous warmongers who could not be trusted. Not much has changed in the way the Israeli right has been portrayed in the press, but this behavior has poisoned relations with Israel in part because the Israeli electorate has now overwhelmingly embraced Likudnik politics. So it is no longer just the Likud portrayed as racists and fascists; it is the Israeli Jewish population on the whole.
Of course, this caricature of the Likud in particular, and Israelis in general, is nothing more than a fantasy. But this fantasy world is the one inhabited by the Western press, and Israeli publications viewed with suspicion in Israel but eagerly absorbed in America and Europe, like Haaretz. And we see the effects of this delusion every day: Should Ehud Olmert, the failed ex-prime minister just convicted of breach of trust while premier, return to lead the Israeli opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu? Yes, say the fantasists. Are you crazy? say those with memories longer than a week or so.
And it was only a matter of time before the American media backers of Olmert were blindsided by reality, and the folly of their choices; as Sheldon Adelson wrote here on Friday, Olmert has now taken to spreading conspiracy theories of powerful Jews like Adelson manipulating world leaders to exert control in the name of right-wing Zionism. Olmert’s behavior is: 1.) Gobsmackingly offensive to both countries; 2.) The behavior of a man who should clearly not be in charge of the Jewish state; and 3.) Entirely predictable.
Do Olmert’s backers in Washington- and New York-based publications think it wise for an aspiring Israeli prime minister to target leading Jewish philanthropic actors for character assassination in the name of leftist party politics?
The conversation around Netanyahu is perhaps less reality-based than even the talk about Olmert. There is a visceral hatred of Netanyahu in the press that colors and distorts a very observable reality. In 2010, after Peter Beinart had written his New York Review of Books attack on the “American Jewish establishment,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pitched him a series of questions challenging some of Beinart’s assertions in the piece. The Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick wrote a blog post after reading the third round of the interview, during which Beinart flatly asserted that Netanyahu came to power in 1996 explicitly opposing the Oslo process, and this curious fact went unchallenged by Goldberg. Lozowick wondered what country the two could have been talking about, because it sure wasn’t Israel. He explained that, leading up the elections, Likud held a series of meetings about its approach to Oslo that culminated in Netanyahu offering “an unequivocal acceptance of the fundamental structure of the Oslo process,” in Lozowick’s formulation. He continued:
When we went to the polls in May 1996, there were parties that were campaigning on platforms of rejection of the Oslo process, but the Likud wasn’t one of them. Since Netanyahu won the elections by less than one percent of the vote, it’s safe to say that had he not repositioned his party, he’d have lost.
Once he won he never (never: not once) rejected the Oslo process. He slowed it down, he added conditions, he did all sorts of things. But the leader of Likud was elected in 1996 on a platform that explicitly accepted the principle of partition.
14 years later – that’s all – a noticeable voice in American Jewry can glibly invent a story about Israel that contradicts the facts, and no-one calls him out on it because no-one knows any better, or if they do they join him in preferring to imagine a fantasy world rather than face reality.
Lozowick added that he did not vote for Netanyahu in any elections preceding that blog post, so he was not speaking as Likud’s defender or a partisan voice. He just didn’t understand the utter lack of interest in the truth.
If you believe what Beinart said about Netanyahu in 1996, Netanyahu’s entire career has been misconstrued and misrepresented, nearly from the beginning. But it surely goes back further, as CJR notes—it goes back to Likud’s first victory. From the moment Likud became a player in world politics by winning in 1977, it has been falsely presented to readers of the American press. And in the media’s desperation to stop Netanyahu, they have now turned to whitewashing the career of Olmert—a plan that was ill conceived and is already backfiring. Reality can only be kept at bay for so long.