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Analysis

The row over Netanyahu’s media czar: When gross negligence becomes deliberate harm

By declining to quickly cancel the appointment of a man who called Obama anti-Semitic, Netanyahu risks signaling that he doesn’t care to heal ties with this US administration

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

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The last thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed four days before flying to Washington to see the American president — a sit-down of central importance to Israel’s national security — was a scandal involving one of his most senior officials insulting the president and the secretary of state.

It is therefore safe to assume that Netanyahu would not have appointed Dr. Ran Baratz as his new communications chief, or at least not made that appointment public before his November 9 meeting with President Barack Obama, had he known that Baratz was a Facebook loose cannon prone to posting sneeringly insulting attacks on leading Israeli and American politicians.

A former philosophy professor and the founder of the Conservative Hebrew website Mida, Baratz, it turns out, has not only made scathing remarks about President Reuven Rivlin, deemed President Barack Obama a modern anti-Semite and compared Secretary of State John Kerry’s mental age to that of a 12-year-old, but has also criticized Netanyahu himself.

That fact that Netanyahu appointed someone with such views, and with the indiscretion to publish them, to a post whose main responsibility is fashioning the government’s communications strategy can thus be seen as a case of gross negligence rather than an act of deliberate provocation. Had the prime minister known, he presumably would not have given Baratz a job that carries far more weight than that of a spokesman; the official title is media advisor and head of the public diplomacy and media.

Netanyahu is not fond of new media. He doesn’t use cell phones. He probably doesn’t spend much time on Facebook. None of which, however, is any excuse for failing to have his advisors run the most rudimentary background checks on so sensitive an appointee.

Ran Baratz (screen capture: YouTube)
Ran Baratz (screen capture: YouTube)

So inappropriate and incendiary an appointment was bound to cause damage and offense — to the Israelis insulted by Baratz and, more troublingly, to the US leadership with whom Netanyahu’s relationship is already dire. Yet as the crisis has escalated since Wednesday, Netanyahu has done the absolute opposite of minimizing the harm and negative fallout.

After Baratz’s Facebook musings about Obama and Kerry were first revealed, it was widely assumed in Israeli political circles that the prime minister would swiftly withdraw the appointment. Commentators suggested he would. Opposition leaders urged him to. Even fellow Likud ministers piled in.

There was no way, it was believed, that Netanyahu could contemplate arriving at the White House for his first meeting with the president in over a year — a year arguably overflowing with more bad blood between the Israeli government and the US administration than the previous seven years combined — while still entertaining the idea of employing someone who had publicly termed Obama anti-Semitic.

Monday’s meeting is not merely a photo-op to demonstrate the unbreakable and unshakable ties between Israel and America. Its purpose is to bury the hatchet over the Iran nuclear deal and to move on to discussing ways in which the US can help Israel defend itself against intensifying threats on and around its borders. In the most concrete terms, Netanyahu is hoping to see US military assistance for Israel upgraded from about $3 per annum to $5 billion.

True, Baratz profusely apologized for his incendiary comments, Netanyahu disavowed them, and White House spokesperson Josh Earnest assured reporters that they were “completely immaterial to the importance” of the US-Israel relationship.

The president still has 440 more days in office. In the unstable Middle East, that’s an eternity, a vast period of innumerable potential crises in which Israel may need the shoulder-to-shoulder support of its superpower ally

The Obama administration is unlikely to sanction Israel over the hire. US military assistance to Israel will likely be increased, as planned. But the choice of chief communications director has been very sourly noted at the White House and the State Department, and an already toxic relationship between the two leadership poisoned a little further.

Obviously, Earnest said, it is up to Netanyahu to decide who will “represent him and his country.” But Baratz’s apology was certainly “warranted.” In other words: We won’t interfere in the Israeli government’s choice of chief spokesman. But make no mistake: We hold you accountable for his views. What he thinks is evidently what you think.

Had Netanyahu accompanied his declaration that Baratz’s comments were “totally unacceptable” with the simple withdrawal of the appointment, the healing could have begun.

Instead, however, he chose to do the reverse: He did not cancel the hire. Indeed, he personally corrected the State Department spokesman’s public assertion that he had told Kerry by phone that he would review it. On Twitter, he clarified that he had only told Kerry he would “deal with the issue” on his return from the US to Israel.

This clarification was patently intended in part for domestic audiences. Netanyahu doesn’t like to appear as someone who easily folds. Hawkish colleague-rival Naftali Bennett’s statement Thursday that “only Israel itself” decides who serves in what position hinted at what the rapid firing of Baratz could have done to the prime minister’s image on the political right.

And so it is that the Israeli prime minister is coming to Washington for crucial talks while still entertaining the idea of employing as a senior aide someone who has said he thinks the president is anti-Semitic and “threw Israel under the wheels of the bus” with the Iran deal, as Baratz opined on Facebook.

Obama may be nearing the end of his term. He may have given up on brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The Iran deal may be done. But the president still has 440 more days in office. In the unstable, unpredictable Middle East, that’s an eternity, a vast period of innumerable potential crises in which Israel may need the shoulder-to-shoulder support of its superpower ally.

Netanyahu may yet withdraw the appointment. He may be planning to gauge the mood in Washington first. It won’t be pleasant.

If it was clearly a mistake to hire a media czar without properly checking his background, it would seem a far graver mistake not to have canceled that appointment as soon as the problematics became clear.

Mistakes happen. But if you refuse or even hesitate to correct them, people will conclude that you don’t really think they’re mistakes at all.

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