Journalists pile on PM for calling top reporter ‘left-wing extremist’

Netanyahu accused of intimidation after slamming Ilana Dayan for TV exposé on his inner circle, wife Sara’s influence

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ilana Dayan, host of the investigative TV program 'Uvda' (screen capture: YouTube)
Ilana Dayan, host of the investigative TV program 'Uvda' (screen capture: YouTube)

Israel’s leading diplomatic reporters joined the chorus of criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his tirade against veteran journalist Ilana Dayan, arguing that his personal attack against her was an illicit form of intimidation unfitting for a democracy.

The Prime Minister’s Office had responded to Dayan’s damning TV investigative report on the prime minister’s inner circle, aired Monday evening, with a scathing personal attack against Dayan, in which he called her “a left-wing extremist” bent on bringing down his government.

“The Diplomatic Correspondents Association strongly protests the prime minister’s unbridled personal attacks against the television program ‘Uvda’ and its host Ilana Dayan, one of the most senior journalists in Israel,” the journalists’ group said in a statement released Tuesday.

“Of course the prime minister has a right to respond, but the Diplomatic Correspondents Association regrets that the response given did not at all deal with the findings of the investigation but consisted merely of a letter lashing out at Ilana Dayan. In a democracy, the government cannot intimidate journalists.”

Monday evening’s season opener of “Uvda” included exclusive interviews with various officials who were in Netanyahu’s inner circle, and inside information on the internal operation of his office.

The report depicted a shrewd and calculating politician who appears to be chiefly concerned with safeguarding his own rule, often valuing personal loyalty in his appointments above all other traits.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, board their airplane to Africa for an official state visit in the continent on July 4, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, board their airplane to Africa for an official state visit in the continent on July 4, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

It also portrayed Netanyahu’s wife Sara as a problematic presence in the prime minister’s decision-making process, a power broker who is intimately involved in her husband’s work and decisions and who often has final say on government appointments.

“At least twice,” Netanyahu’s former national security adviser said in the show, furthermore, the prime minister went into meetings with US President Barack Obama “without having spent so much as a second” reading the vital briefing materials prepared for him because his wife, accompanying him on his trips, had taken up all his time.

However, it was not the “Uvda” investigation itself that aroused the most intense criticism, but rather the prime minister’s response to the program: a three-page, 680-word tirade read out by Dayan in full, in a 6-minute segment toward the end of the program.

In it, the Prime Minister’s Office assailed Dayan’s character, calling her “a left-wing extremist” who “does not have an iota of professional integrity” and who is “one of the ring-leaders of the orchestrated attacks on…Netanyahu, which seek to bring down the right-wing government.”

The PMO claimed Dayan systematically went after the right while ignoring transgressions by the left, and called Monday’s report “a political propaganda broadcast against the prime minister and his wife, entirely comprised of recycled slanderous rumors and vile lies.”

It also accused her of fawning over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a recent interview she conducted with him, making donations to “radical left-wing” charities, and hounding IDF soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on board a tour bus carrying foreign journalists after his address to the press in Eilat, Monday, March 3, 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

It went on to accuse the program of “stooping to the lowest of the lows” in its coverage of Sara Netanyahu and asserted that it was “a prime example of why the media market must be reformed…to allow a range and plethora of opinions” to be brought forth.”

Netanyahu, who also holds the post of communications minister in the current coalition, is a frequent critic of parts of Israel’s diverse print and electronic media, and has been deeply involved in ongoing controversial efforts to reform Israel’s state broadcasting authority.

In their Tuesday statement, the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association (in which this reporter is a member) lamented that the prime minister consistently refuses to answer reporters’ legitimate questions, instead besmirching them and their media outlets and snooping through their resumes trying to question their impartiality. This behavior “undermines the principle of freedom of expression,” the group said.

Netanyahu’s scathing attack on Dayan, considered one the nation’s top investigative reporters, was quickly met with outrage by politicians, including a senior minister in his own government. Hebrew media quoted the unnamed minister as saying “the usual trick by Netanyahu to shout ‘leftist’ at anyone who argues with him has stopped working.”

Supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party are no longer buying the attempts to make out all political opponents to be leftists just because “they don’t agree with his whims,” the minister said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, confers with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu between 2009-2013, wrote on Facebook: “He’s completely lost it,” hinting that his former boss suffers from paranoia.

The opposition’s Zionist Union said the premier’s statement was “incitement, pure and simple” which could “fall on attentive ears and lead to harm to a journalist doing her work.” It accused Netanyahu of turning Israel into “a KGB state in which the regime seeks to hinder the work of the guardians (of democracy) in the media and the justice system.”

The party on Tuesday asked Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate the findings of the television investigation and Netanyahu’s missive to Dayan.

“The response by the prime minister incites against the Israeli media,” wrote in a letter to Mandelblit. Netanyahu’s response “is serious and damaging incitement, to the point of being a real threat against the independent media, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in Israel.”

The Movement for the Quality of Government sent Mandelblit a similar letter.

Yesh Atid party chief Yair Lapid said Netanyahu’s response was beneath the stature of his post. A prime minister’s obligation, he said, was “to show a statesman’s restraint” and his response to criticism “should befit his status, his position and the respect we hold for the state.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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