Spin Control: Netanyahu Hits at Media

Israeli leader now turns on his 'tormentors' in an effort to shift the blame

The prime minister is exonerated, the predictions of his demise turn out to have been premature, and the big, bad news media have a lot of answering to do for their role in the whole ordeal.

That was the outcome that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted from the start of the scandal that was exposed three months ago by a reporter at Israel Television's Channel 1.

The actual finale does not leave the premier looking nearly so absolved of guilt nor so secure in his seat of power, but it does leave him room to spin the scandal by blaming the media he has long accused of being liberal in general and biased against him in particular.

Despite last week's recommendation by national police investigators to indict Mr. Netanyahu on charges of fraud and breach of trust, the premier will almost definitely not be prosecuted. The attorney general ruled that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against Netanyahu for an influence-peddling scheme that allegedly would have allowed a key government player to extricate himself from unrelated fraud charges in return for a crucial vote in Netanyahu's favor.

Netanyahu has maintained his innocence from the start. And as the investigation wore on, he expressed increasing confidence that police had not turned up any evidence to indict him.

The attorney-general also said Channel 1 ought to be commended for its work because there was a factual basis to its reports. But that has not kept Netanyahu from trying to shift the center of attention and blame the messenger.

In a speech after Sunday's announcement that he would not be prosecuted, Netanyahu admitted mistakes, but slammed the media and his political rivals for blowing those missteps out of proportion.

"Some media people identified with the left were happy to adopt every malicious accusation, as imaginary as it may be or as groundless, as long as I was at its center," Netanyahu said.

"Some people, especially Channel 1, are still not ready to accept the voters' decision and almost every evening they attempt to undermine the government's legitimacy...."

The perception that Netanyahu has resorted to media-bashing as spin control was summarized by a political cartoon in Wednesday's Jerusalem Post, which pictured Netanyahu kicking around a television set with the caption "Back to Routine."

The sense that a climate of hostility to the media has developed since Netanyahu's election almost a year ago runs deep. The Israeli Journalists Association maintained at a recent press conference that the premier has fostered an environment of hate against the media that might easily escalate into violence.

At a Likud Party convention earlier this year, Netanyahu supporters rallying around their leader shouted: "Death to the media." Netanyahu, journalists complained, seemed amused by the refrain and did little to stop it. It is now sometimes heard at other right-wing gatherings.

Orthodox Israelis who were rallying this week in support of Aryeh Deri - the politician who played a central role in the affair and is evidently the only one who will be charged - attacked the van of a Channel 1 television crew. The driver was hit in the head with a rock and sent to the hospital.

Almost from the day a young reporter dropped her bombshell story on the evening news, Israelis have been making comparisons to America's Watergate scandal, the bane of President Nixon's administration. Though involving different circumstances and (so far) outcomes, the two affairs do evince interesting parallels, Israeli commentators say.

Netanyahu, says Israeli political scientist Sam Lehman-Wilzig, distrusts the press as much as did the Nixon administration, which lashed out at the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

"Nixon was also paranoid about the media, and he was correct, the media just didn't like him," says Dr. Lehman-Wilzig, a Bar-Illan University professor. "The media are not crazy about Bibi either," he says, using Netanyahu's nickname. The paradox of the prime minister seen as the "first mediagenic" leader in Israel is that the media see him as "all fluff and style and no substance. They see he has no clear vision on the peace process ... realizing the media are against him, he's trying to delegitimize them."

"It's quite obvious to the public at large, or at least the public that wants to keep its eyes open, that the media did its job and brought out some festering problems," Lehman-Wilzig says. But the Israeli electorate seems as split as ever, with about half of those polled saying they think Netanyahu is guilty - the same half that voted against him last May.

Though Israel has long had a lively, free press, in decades past journalists were much more likely to avoid reporting explosive scandals. The "Bar-On for Hebron" affair - so named for the underqualified attorney general who was allegedly appointed on the promise that he would provide a plea bargain for Mr. Deri, who would in turn vote for Netanyahu's Hebron accord with the Palestinians - has reaffirmed the media's role as a watchdog.

To be sure, Israelis don't seem much more impressed with their media than Americans are of theirs. But few if any Israeli leaders have found themselves embroiled in this kind of battle with the press. During a recent interview, Netanyahu chided foreign reporters on their coverage, then excused himself, saying: "Forgive me. I don't always have a chance to torment my tormentors.

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