Israeli Politics Enter Grubby Realm of Reality TV

Netanyahu demands a TV showdown with his corruption accusers and Roseanne Barr prepares to address the Knesset. The poverty of public discourse has never been more apparent, writes Jonathan Cook.

By Jonathan Cook

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, Netanyahu has forced the attorney-general, Avichai Mendelblit, onto unfamiliar— and constitutionally tricky— terrain.

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

Netanyahu: Mounting TV charm offensive. (Hudson Institute)

Netanyahu: Image master.  (Hudson Institute)

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

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.

Demanding Showdown 

Claiming that he had been stripped of his legal rights, 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, 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 Netanyahu excels.

Netanyahu’s move was intended to reinforce his claim that the “system”—one that has kept him and the ultra-nationalist right in uninterrupted 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, 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 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 favors—in one case captured on tape—to Israeli media moguls in return for better coverage in their publications.

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

Roseanne Barr: Next stop Knesset. (Wikimedia)

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 voters by claiming that Israel’s Palestinian citizens—a fifth of the population—were turning out in “droves” at polling booths. Only a vote for 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.

Leftist Slur

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

Perhaps not surprisingly, 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 U.S. 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 in the international boycott movement who stand in solidarity with Palestinians. 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 Netanyahu’s demagoguery, they still overlook 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 center of its platform. The vast majority of Israeli politicians want to entrench the occupation, not end it.

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

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

But Netanyahu is far from the gravest threat to Israel’s “democracy.” The most dangerous thing of all is the widespread refusal in Israel to recognize that the Palestinians are human beings too—and that they should be able to determine their own fate, just like Israelis.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. He blogs at

17 comments for “Israeli Politics Enter Grubby Realm of Reality TV

  1. January 17, 2019 at 22:16

    The duplicity of the governments of Israel and the U.S. as well as American mainstream media is perhaps nowhere so blatantly on display when it comes to the Palestinian right of return to their homes. That right is secured by, inter alia, the 4th Geneva Convention, Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.

    The right of return “as soon as possible after the close of hostilities” is secured by Articles 133 and 134. While Israel maintains that the Palestinian Authority can negotiate away that right, the Convention makes plain that it cannot. E.g., Article 8 provides that “Protected persons may in no circumstances renounce in part or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention, and by the special agreements referred to in the foregoing Article [ Link ] , if such there be.”

    And Article 47 makes plain that this is a right that cannot be negotiated away by the PA and Israel:

    “Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.”

    In other words, the right of return is inviolable and non-voidable. Yet without challenge by the media, the U.S. and Israel continue to claim that there is no right of return, that the Jewish “purity” of Israel can be lawfully maintained in a two-state solution by denying the Palestinian right of return.

  2. Jeff Harrison
    January 16, 2019 at 16:51

    I have said for a long time that the Israelis are like the crusaders. They don’t belong there and, like the crusaders, they will ultimately be driven out. Jews have lived in Palestine for time out of mind but after the Romans conquered Judea and the Jews were free to cruise the empire, they did. Not all went cruising but most did. Most of the Israelis in Israel are really Russians, Poles, Germans, French, English, and a welter of Eastern (or, as my wife would have it, Central) European nations. These European Jews don’t like non-European Jews and they won’t graft into the Levant any better than the crusaders did.

    • Seattle Stu
      January 17, 2019 at 04:55

      Your comment comes across as anti Semitic and uninformed, although that may not have been your intention. You want all the Israelis to just pack up and move to Europe? Or, should they just be pushed into the sea?

      Realize that they are already there and are not going anywhere. The point is that they must find a way to get along with their neighbors and vice versa.

      • rosemerry
        January 17, 2019 at 16:19

        They do not have the slightest desire to “get along- just the opposite as shown in Jonathan’s latest post.
        The consistent excessive favoritism given to Israel by the USA, even at the expense of any care for the people in the USA who vote and live in the USA makes matters much worse, as it encourages the insularity and violence of the Israeli State to its neighbors and its Palestinian population. Stopping US citizens in the USA from non-violently using BDS to protest against Israel’s illegal occupation is a very big issue.

      • Litchfield
        January 17, 2019 at 17:53

        No, the comment is not antisemitic. It is factual.
        It does not matter how it “comes across.” Waht matters is what was actually said.
        This kind of reactive “my feelings, or someone’s feelings, have been or could be hurt by what you said, so you are in the wrong to have said it.”
        Bollucks. It would be a good idea if the colonial settlers now squatting in Palestine traded places with the real natives of place, and went to live on small enclosed reservations with no food, clearn water, or other basic modern infrastructure. Then they might indeed be motivated to return to their own native lands in Europe and Asia.

      • January 17, 2019 at 21:16

        @ Seattle Stu:

        I call foul. Charging a speaker or writer with anti-semitism, an ad hominem counter-attack, is usually nothing more than a blatant attempt to change the subject to the writer or speaker’s character, rather than address the substance of what the speaker or writer said.

        I generally view such attacks as an admission that the attacker has nothing better to offer the discussion than a proposed change of subject. You could have made your other points without leading with a personal attack.

        • January 18, 2019 at 11:33

          Please do search: former israeli politician calls anti-semitism a “trick”

          Access to the site has been scrubbed, so I can’t post a url. Amy Goodman interview in 2002, 1 min. 22 seconds, that should be shouted from the rooftops. Maybe a more tech saavy reader can post the actual link.

        • OlyaPola
          January 18, 2019 at 13:15

          “You could have made your other points without leading….”

          Words are vessels that others can fill with their contents and connotations in the attempt to render them catalysts.

          Why make “points”?

          Why not ask for a definition of “Anti-Semitism” since there in not one but many, thereby facilitating useful foolery that can be played like a violin?

  3. OlyaPola
    January 16, 2019 at 14:44

    “and that they should be able to determine their own fate, just like Israelis.”

    Sole agency is always an illusion facilitating continuing lateral muti-agency.

    Perhaps an illusion facilitated by walled in thinking?

  4. Clint Moose
    January 16, 2019 at 12:01

    Thank you Jonathan Cook. I agree with most of your points and you are absolutely right about the Palestianian rights and occupation being the number one misaddressed issue.

    Indeed, we are heading for really disgusting times. i already quit twitter a couple days ago as i can’t stand the ugliness of the public discourse there anymore, which is driven by the usual calls of treachery from the nationalist racist right.

    Regarding “In fact, not one of the Israeli Jewish-majority parties is highlighting Palestinian rights or putting the occupation at the center of its platform” you are wrong. Meretz puts both as the central topic in their official agenda and Livni (which i detest) always does it with the occupation part, too, and both even in the face of elimination due to the minimum entry percentage, on multiple elections. They represent a minority but painting a uniform picture of all Jewish parties as you have is plain wrong. add to that a similary sized Arab-majority party, and you already have a quarter of the Knesset.

    Furthermore, your concluding remark is mixing a couple of things which should not be confused: the official stance of the parties vs. what Jewish voters actually say when they are polled on specific questions. Consistently, Jews who don’t believe in Palestinians deserving human rights are an absolute and small minority while Jews who are asked about their preferred future regarding the occupation (including the continuation of the preset state of affairs) are also consistently in favor of a two-state solution, the consequence of is known to everyone to be a retreat around the 1967 line and the establishment of a Palestinian state. They almost always are an absolute majority, and in all cases they are a relative majority. this is a consistent pattern that has not changed since 2005.
    So please, don’t fall for the political Zeitgeist which is directed from the right with a big help from the cowardly “center” (center-right) and the “moderate left” (also center-right actually). The partial refusal to acknowledge palestinians as humans and deserving their country is in parliament, and not widespread through the people.

    The question remains, though, why a large part of these voters eventually vote for parties who ignore or hide from this subject. There are multiple answers of course, but this is a global phenomena not unique to Israelis.

    • vinnieoh
      January 17, 2019 at 08:26

      Clint: Thanks for this perspective. Like many who identify as progressive I’ve been harshly critical of the actions of the Israeli government, trying to keep in mind that there, like here (US) the government does not represent the majority opinion of its citizens. As to your closing question, I’m sure you know the answer as well as I and others: because those are the only candidates acceptable to the status quo.

  5. JC
    January 16, 2019 at 09:56

    remember the FIRST order of business of the US senate was S1, which was entirely about special protection for israel at the cost of unconstitutional laws….

  6. Sally Snyder
    January 16, 2019 at 09:03

    Here is an article that looks at how Israel has broken international human rights conventions that protect youngn Palestinians:

    The world should never forget that this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s legacy.

  7. mike k
    January 16, 2019 at 07:42

    The evil farce of Israeli politics is too absurd for even TV soap opera.

  8. jeff montanye
    January 16, 2019 at 01:08

    that wall could never have been described as israeli type even were we in the 1850’s because the mexicans conquered in the war of the late 1840’s were immediately offered voting u.s. citizenship as one of their options. fifty years later the palestinians have yet to be offered any route to voting israeli citizenship.

  9. January 16, 2019 at 00:39

    The contents of this article stimulated my creative juices and gave me an idea for a brand new “reality TV” show, especially appropriate given how much this cast of characters loves the limelight. Here’s the pitch: “We strand Netanyahu, Trump and Roseanne on remote desert island together with no means of communication with the outside world, armed only with those large soft foam whiffle ball bats for protection from each other, and each with a “Go Pro” camera mounted on top of their heads. . . and then, uhh, like, errrr, we don’t ever freaking come back – never – ever – and I mean never!!!” We don’t even put batteries in the cameras. See, we don’t really care what they think or do on the island, but given their malignant narcissism they’re convinced we do which is why they agree to be on the show.

    Hey, if this gets the kind of ratings I think it will we could even do a second installment. For the second episode we could put cordless microphones on Bolton, Macron and Hillary and listen in as we use a large drone to simultaneously slowly lower them by ropes into a semi-dormant volcano somewhere in remote Micronesia. I think it is safe to say we could expect some lively banter between that trio during their descent to be sure!

    Sorry, but the absolutely surreal idiocy of our current political landscape in the West sometimes reduces me to escapist fantasies. Attempting to fight absurdity with absurdity I guess. My sincere apologies.

    • jeff montanye
      January 16, 2019 at 01:18

      so bust 9-11 and change the world. or was that the good old days?

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