Since assuming office, President Reuven Rivlin has been called everything from “traitor” to “Nazi,” and threats on his life and personal attacks have become so common that they rarely make headlines anymore.

That is, until this week, when a small television channel, the Heritage Channel, censured the president for attending Haaretz’s conference in New York at which members of Breaking the Silence — a group that publishes allegations of Israeli soldiers’ transgressions against Palestinians in the West Bank — also appeared.

Channel 20, which is state-owned, accused the president of “spitting in the faces of IDF soldiers.” The comment drew a torrent of condemnation from politicians and journalists that led many to ask where to draw the line between free speech and defamation, legitimate criticism and incitement.

(It was the second time the issue made headlines this week, following a debate over Breaking the Silence and a bill under consideration in the Knesset tackling foreign governmental funding for left-wing NGOs.)

Haunted by the Rabin assassination

But with Rivlin, the debate took on a new twist: several journalists and outspoken advocates of free speech emphatically accused the TV station of incitement to violence, citing the 1995 assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and linking it to the broader campaign of threats against the president.

President Reuven Rivlin commemorates the 20-year anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a ceremony in his official Jerusalem residence, October 25, 2015. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin commemorates the 20-year anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a ceremony in his official Jerusalem residence, October 25, 2015. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

Haunted by the assassination of Rabin 20 years ago, champions of free speech are increasingly drawing the incitement card when it comes to Israel’s much-beloved and much-loathed president. But in the process, they may be silencing all criticism, whatever it may be, against the president.

Addressing Rivlin’s appearance at the New York confab earlier this week, at which the president defended the Israeli army, Channel 20 wrote on its official Facebook page: “The time has come to say: the president has lost all shame.” Rivlin “is busy representing himself, and not the people of Israel,” it charged.

“The people of Israel believe in the IDF, believe that they are risking their lives for us night and day, and believe the president’s job is to support them. The presence of President Rivlin today at the conference, along with the despicable organization Breaking the Silence crosses the red line, and disgraces the presidency. Rivlin has the right to do whatever he pleases as a private citizen, but as the president of the country he cannot spit in the faces of IDF soldiers. It’s shameful. It’s sad.” The TV station also dedicated some of its programming to content critical of the president.

Among journalists, some of the fiercest criticism of Channel 20 came from journalist Eldad Yaniv, who wrote on Facebook: “Will you not rest until Ruby Rivlin is murdered? You’ve lost your minds. You’ve simply lost your minds.”

“Gone are the days where you bully and incite against the symbol of the nation until it ends in murder,” he wrote.

With tape plastered over his mouth, a Channel 20 reporter later mockingly responded, recalling a December 2014 post by Yaniv that urged “an intifada for democracy” against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Is there any issue more important than freedom of speech, for which we need to break all the rules?” Yaniv wrote at the time.

Arab Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish (YouTube screenshot)

Arab Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish (YouTube screenshot)

Israeli Arab TV presenter Lucy Aharish also condemned the “incitement campaign” against the president, noting that it came 20 years after the assassination of Rabin.

“The leaders of this country need to jump up, bang on the table, and say ‘enough!’” she wrote on Facebook. “And if in Channel 20 there are people who call themselves journalists, forgive me but I will never share this field with them.”

Meanwhile, a protest against the TV station was scheduled for Wednesday and several online petitions (none of which garnered more than 600 signatures) urged the revocation of its license. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog urged Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett to condemn the “serious and dangerous incitement campaign” against Rivlin.

Free speech for journalists

The Channel 20 uproar has a special resonance for some in the wake of last September’s controversy over a last-minute clause added to a Knesset bill that banned reporters from expressing their political views on air. The clause, since removed, was widely denounced, but the public debate surrounding it by journalists and media figures also pointed to a philosophy — perhaps a distinctly Israeli one – that reporters’ right to express their political opinions on the job is incontrovertible.

Channel 10’s Akiva Novick linked the two incidents on Monday, writing on Twitter: “Real journalism would have long ago organized a protest by journalists [defending] the right of the Channel 20 journalists to express their opinions.”

‘The inciters know that out there somewhere, there are more Yigal Amirs’

The same line was adopted by the TV station itself, which said it reserved the right to an editorial stance. The head of the channel, Moti Sklar, told Army Radio on Tuesday that the formulation of the post may have been problematic, but the principle stands.

Both Yaniv and later Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich also implied that Channel 20’s comments constituted incitement because of the make-up of its readership and followers on Facebook.

The post “is an invitation for [talkback] comments by hundreds of viewers and followers that ‘Ruby must be murdered. Rivlin must be taken down. The time has come. Let the dog die,’” wrote Yaniv. “So they tell us, what do you want? It’s not the channel speaking, it’s the commenter,” he added, likening it to “the atmosphere created by politicians” ahead of the Rabin assassination.

Yachimovich said the campaign against the president, which she said was being led by Channel 20, borders on incitement to murder. “Yes, incitement to murder. Because even the inciters know that out there somewhere, there are more Yigal Amirs [Rabin’s assassin] that are hearing these opinions, that this rhetoric suits them exactly, that they are considering or acting in one way or another to carry it out.”