by Daniel Dor
The outbreak of the second Intifada in October 2000 marks one of the most dramatic changes that Israeli public opinion has gone through in the past 50 years. It did not simply move to the right. The very terms of public discourse have changed. The seven years that passed between the beginning of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the second Intifada were characterized by fierce political struggles between the supporters of the Oslo agreement and its opponents - struggles that reached their tragic peak in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The beginning of this Intifada saw the Israeli collective consciousness withdrawing once again into the defensive, enraged consensus of a society that saw its dream of peace vanish in a cloud of smoke. In this long period of violence, following what seemed to be the final failure of diplomatic negotiations, public discourse in Israel re-invented itself - basing itself on a new narrative, which was instantly subscribed to not only by the right, but also by the majority of the traditional left. In schematic form, this is what the new narrative states1:
1) Ehud Barak’s government did everything possible to achieve a final status agreement with the Palestinian Authority. At the Camp David summit, convened in July 2000, it presented the Palestinians with extremely generous offers for withdrawal from Palestinian Territories.
2) The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, refused the generous Israeli offers made at Camp David. Barak’s conciliatory position at Camp David was thus profoundly “useful”: It finally uncovered Arafat’s real intentions, and proved that his regime did not really seek peace.
3) Arafat then initiated a massive Palestinian uprising, the second Intifada, which quickly developed into an organized terror attack on Israel, with the purpose of creating international and internal Israeli pressure that would eventually lead to further Israeli concessions.
4) Faced with the severe violence of the Palestinian Intifada, Israel responded with restraint, doing everything in its power to protect its civilians, while refraining from the use of military resources against Palestinian civilians. This sharp contrast between Palestinian and Israeli conduct provided additional proof of the “inherent” differences between the two national cultures.
5) All the acts of violence committed by Palestinians since the beginning of the Intifada were directed by Arafat, who maintained full control of the field, at least until April 2002. Israel has passively awaited his decision to stop the violence, and is willing to return to the negotiating table the moment violence comes to an end.
The most important characteristic of this narrative is that it seems, on the face of it, to be absolutely non-ideological - a non-controversial factual story which allows for a simple, common-sense interpretation: The traditional ideological debate within Israeli society centered on whether or not Israel should withdraw from the territories in exchange for peace. Since October 2000 it “turned out” that the logical foundation of the debate was wrong: Barak’s government offered to withdraw and the Palestinians rejected the offer, which implies that peace does not depend on anything Israel can do. The Palestinians simply are not interested in peaceful solutions. In fact, polls consistently show that the majority of Jewish Israelis still accept the general framework of “territories for peace.” They just do not believe there is a partner on the other side for such a solution.
As I show in Dor (2001, 2003, in press), the Israeli media played a key role in the dissemination of this narrative within Israeli society, especially during Barak’s tenure.
The Israeli Media Under Barak
Since the beginning of the second Intifada, the Israeli media have provided their readers and viewers with a one-sided, partial, censored and biased picture of reality - a picture which seemingly supports the new hegemonic narrative. It sustained and exacerbated the readers’ sense of distress and anxiety, but hardly corresponded with events as they unfolded in reality. Much more importantly - and this is a point of special theoretical significance - there was a stark contrast between this picture and the factual reports sent in by the reporters, the patterns of deviation being first and foremost the result of editorial policy. The media systematically suppressed certain elements of reality, and emphasized and accentuated others, in a way that provided the “factual” platform for the hegemonic narrative that has become ingrained in the Israeli collective consciousness ever since.
An example may help here. One of the most important questions the media had to deal with in the beginning of the second Intifada was Arafat’s personal responsibility for its outbreak. Reporters received relevant information from about ten different sources on this question. As it turned out, nine out of the ten insisted that the riots were a spontaneous outburst of Palestinian anger and frustration - following the long stalemate in the negotiations and Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sahrif/Temple Mount. These sources included not just Palestinian and American officials, but also, importantly, senior sources in the Israeli Secret Service (Shin-Bet) and the Israeli Police. A single source explicitly declared that Arafat planned and initiated the Intifada - Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Crucially, Barak’s “factual” statement captured the main headlines, whereas the statements of the other sources were published in back pages, weekly supplements and so on, and never entered the public discourse.
The same pattern of suppression and accentuation applies to information pertaining to Barak’s role in the failure of the Camp David talks, the IDF’s conduct in the territories and the role it played in developing the Intifada into a full-scale war of attrition, and the events within the Green Line where Israeli police forces killed 13 Arab demonstrators. Note that no conspiracy theory is implied here. This behavioral pattern results from a complex combination of converging influences and dynamics: The surge of public fear and anger; undercurrents of racism; the almost exclusive reliance of the media on the flow of information from the Prime Minister’s entourage and from senior officials in the defense establishment; the automatic adherence of the media to the task of national unity vis-à-vis what appeared as the clear and imminent danger of a “general conflagration;” the systematic disregard of the fact that the Palestinians in the territories still live under almost complete Israeli occupation, even after the implementation of the first stages of the Oslo agreements; and, probably most importantly, the deep conviction that Barak did everything that could be done for peace, and therefore did not, and could not, have contributed to the deterioration of the situation.
The last component had an especially paralyzing effect on the political left in Israel. Intimately connected to the political parties of Labor and Meretz, the traditional moderate peace movements, such as Peace Now, kept completely silent throughout Barak’s term. This, of course, made it even easier for the media to suppress oppositionist perspectives. As is the case in other Western democracies, the option of critical coverage depends on the explication of critical perspectives by public figures. In fact, the only critical perspectives voiced by the media were those of the extreme right, which were represented by Knesset members from far-right parties.
The Israeli Media Under Sharon
It may be argued that Sharon’s landslide victory in the last two elections was a direct result of this change in public opinion in Israel. If it is true that “there is no partner for peace on the other side,” then Sharon is the right man for the job. This ideological climate also allowed the Labor Party to join in on the National Unity government after Sharon’s first victory, a fact that further paralyzed the media in terms of critical coverage.
Two additional factors made things worse during this period. First, the wave of suicide-bombings brought about a real sense of public fear, which the media reflected and exacerbated. Second, the events following the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, and the ensuing American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a sense of ideological confidence in the Israeli public, both in terms of the global “fight against terror” and the “patriotic” press coverage. The Middle East policy of the Bush administration thus provided the Sharon government with the ideal pretext for the continuation of its own policy. If Arafat is the local Bin Laden, then Sharon does on the local level what Bush does on the global one. Generally speaking, this comparison is more or less accepted by the Israeli media.
Nevertheless, especially since the Defensive Shield operation, in April 2002, the major media in Israel seem to have been diverging in interesting ways. As I show in Dor (2003), some of the mainstream media - Channel 2 and Ma’ariv, for example - kept their “patriotic” line, and provided Sharon with supportive and uncritical coverage. Channel 1 and Yediot Ahronot, on the other hand, tried to project a combination of general patriotism (mainly sweeping support for the IDF) with a surprisingly deep criticism of Sharon himself. In doing this, they follow the general line of built-in suspicion on the part of the media establishment of right-wing governments, and open the door to non-consensual perspectives. Yediot Ahronot’s policy is especially significant. Some of the most impressive pieces of critical journalism appeared in this paper, which for the longest time built a reputation for itself as a jingoistic newspaper. To be sure, Yediot Ahronot’s status as the Israeli paper makes this shift especially significant.
Haaretz, of course, remains the most liberal and critical newspaper in Israel, but it has nevertheless been taking substantial steps in the last two years to change its image and appear more consensual. Unlike the two tabloids, it routinely provided its readers with considerable amounts of information about the Palestinian perspective. But it also consistently published this information on back pages, making it clear - in main headlines and editorials - that this is indeed no more than the Palestinian perspective, and that it accepts the reports from the Israeli side as factually accurate. This duality makes it impossible to provide a clear-cut evaluation of Haaretz’ conduct in terms of the traditional, liberal concept of the role of the press in democratic societies. It does, however, tell a much more revealing story about what Israeli society, and especially the moderate left, went through during this critical period.
The different media take different stands with respect to Sharon, but at a deeper level, they still share the same hegemonic perspective. They characterize the conflict in intractable terms (Bar-Tal 1998), and blame Arafat, and Arafat alone, for the collapse of the diplomatic process and the continuation of the armed struggle.
Within this framework, Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot regularly criticize Sharon for “not having a serious plan,” for “using excessive force,” or for refusing, to build a fence along certain parts of the Green Line, a fence which experts claimed could reduce the number of terror attacks in Israeli cities. They have not, however, criticized Sharon for refusing to try to get back to diplomatic negotiations, or for declaring that he would not be willing to evacuate settlements. Such criticism would, at least by implication, indicate that they assume there might be a partner for peace on the other side. In a real sense, then, Barak’s perspective remained at the very foundation of the Israeli media’s perception of the second Intifada long after Barak himself lost the elections and left the political arena.
Bar-Tal, Daniel (1998). Societal beliefs in times of intractable conflict: The Israeli case. International Journal of Conflict Management
, 9, 22-50.
Dor, Daniel (2001). Newspapers Under the Influence
. Babel Publishers. (Hebrew)
——————— (2003). Behind Defensive Shield.
Babel Publishers. (Hebrew)
——————— (to appear). Intifada Hits the Headlines
. Indiana University Press.
1 For the relevant public opinion data, see the peace index, a project of the Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, at: www.tau.ac.il/peace/Peace_Index/p_index.html.)