A people that yells alone
Hebrew media review

A people that yells alone

Spurned opposition help to push along the peace process combines with claims that a university ethics code is meant to silence dissent from the left — creating the idea that only one side of the spectrum can speak up

This photo from the Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University on May 15, 2016, shows a 15-foot tall Pinocchio erected by members of the right-wing Im Tirtzu  organization. (Credit: Or Buchbut)
This photo from the Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University on May 15, 2016, shows a 15-foot tall Pinocchio erected by members of the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization. (Credit: Or Buchbut)

Much as the biblical description of the people of Israel as a “nation that dwells alone” can be taken as a compliment or curse, the question of whether Israel’s right-wing government can rule alone, without input or criticism from the other side, is the thread that runs through the Hebrew-language press Monday morning, stitching together into a quilt of strife the stories adorning the front pages of Israel’s major daily papers.

In just a year, the hopefulness that an opposition figure could rescue the peace process — as detailed on Haaretz’s front page — has been transformed into an American official saying the mere suggestion of an opposition figure’s involvement could torpedo talks, courtesy of Israel Hayom. And with politicians and academics squabbling over a document that could force professors to quit criticizing the right-wing government in class, papers seemingly try to show that they at least can be a commons of ideas, showcasing opinions on both sides of the debate.

While Haaretz’s report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition head Isaac Herzog held unity talks last year as a precursor to a possible regional peace deal is no blockbuster, what is new in the broadsheet’s expose is the level of Egyptian involvement — including President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and how Herzog was left exposed and unable to defend himself when things went awry.

“Netanyahu, advisers, Herzog and a security team flew directly to Cairo at night, from an airfield in central Israel, in a private plane, and were brought to the presidential palace. Sissi pressured them to take the measures needed to advance the process forward. They returned to Israel, arriving before dawn,” the paper reports on the secret April 2016 rendezvous.

Once Netanyahu dropped the Labor chief like a bad habit and picked up Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman instead, “Herzog was roundly mocked by his party and the media over his negotiations with Netanyahu,” the paper adds. “It was said that Netanyahu had misled Herzog and turned his back on him at the moment of truth. No one believed Herzog’s explanations about the historic regional move that was behind his talks with the prime minister. Herzog could not provide details because he promised to keep the developments a secret.”

It turns out what was needed wasn’t Herzog but one Donald J. Trump, but even so, efforts to broker a deal are apparently so shaky that even the suggestion of an opposition figure — in this case Herzog No. 2 and former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni — getting involved has the ability to sink things.

The paper, the closest thing Israel has to a government organ, quotes an American official saying reports from Israel and the Palestinians that Livni is maintaining a diplomatic channel with US negotiator Jason Greenblatt are both false and dangerous.

“Both on the Israeli side and Palestinians side there are those who are trying to hurt the possibility of peace and derail efforts,” the paper quotes the source saying. “They are creating a false narrative in the press and social media, in order to present a fake picture of the government’s efforts. When you read reports about the peace process, it’s important to remember attempts to create this narrative.”

Columnist Nadav Eyal tackles another “false story” for the paper, saying that top Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub’s statement that the Western Wall can remain under Israeli control was just him speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

“Now it’s become clear that this was typical Palestinian deception and doublespeak: a smokescreen in Hebrew, to naive Israelis, and for Palestinians, putting things in exact words in Arabic. Trump, who visited the Western Wall and described the Jewish connection it it, ‘dragged’ Rajoub to making the statements,” he writes, adding that Muslims still consider the holy site to be part of the Al-Aqsa compound.

There isn’t much about the peace process in Yedioth Ahronoth (though the paper does run a story about a naked lady at the Western Wall), but rather continued coverage of ills and spills in the school system. While the paper’s front page previews an investigation into schools allowing just about anyone to be a substitute teacher (in the wake of a case in which a second grade sub was found to have been convicted of touching kids), its real top story continues to look at the kerfuffle surrounding the so-called Education Ministry ethics code that seeks to clamp down on political speech by university lecturers.

The paper makes clear where it stands on the issue with a “Broken code” headline atop its news story on the issue, which quotes code author Asa Kasher and Education Minister Naftali Bennett defending the document and other politicians coming out against, but it also leaves room for dissenting opinions, with a pair of dueling commentaries.

In one, Tel Aviv University head Joseph Klafter, who already wrote an impassioned protest against the code on behalf of other school chiefs, warns that the document would turn universities into “hostages of those who will try to paint with a political brush even those things which are free of any agenda, all in order to advance their own interests.”

Opposite him, though, former Bar-Ilan University professor Elisha Hass joins Kasher and Bennett in accusing critics of not actually reading the document, before going on to defend what it tries to do.

“This is a document that strikes a balance between academic freedom, which it protects, and freedom for students and the institution’s identity, which it protects,” he writes. ‘The document deals with issues that arise from guarding academia. Political activity is not defined as expressing opinions but rather support for politicians active in the Knesset.”

Haaretz reports on its front page that students are threatening to strike over the code.

On its op-ed page, meanwhile, the paper also features a sort of dialectic, with Prof. Asher Maoz opining that the problem isn’t with the code but rather the overly politicized professors who necessitate it, and former MK Tzvia Greenfeld damning the code as another attempt by the right-wing government to exercise control over any institutions it does not have under its thumb, after targeting the media, the Supreme Court and cultural figures.

“Now it’s academia’s turn. The right wing government is determined to prevent criticism and dissent against its actions and plans, and universities are a center of free thinking,” she writes. “It’s true that there’s a real problem with whole university departments and many professors, who push their radical leftist criticism and silence the thoughts of others. But even this tough, justified argument needs to take place only in a place with freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Total freedom.”

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