We should start with the facts, as they were first reported by the JTA:
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office denied that Benjamin Netanyahu told the editor of The Jerusalem Post that Israel’s two greatest enemies are The New York Times and Haaretz. On Wednesday, the editor, Steve Linde, addressing a conference in Tel Aviv of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, said that Netanyahu had made the remark about the newspapers to him at a private meeting “a couple of weeks ago” at the prime minister’s office in Tel Aviv.
Now the consequent denials:
Netanyahu denies: “The prime minister did not make the remarks attributed to him,” his office said. “The prime minister today met with the Dutch Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and said at the start of the meeting, ‘I heard a claim that I said that “Haaretz” and “The New York Times” are Israel’s biggest enemies. That’s not true. Iran and its emissaries are the enemies of Israel’.”
But JPost editor Steve Linde doesn’t quite deny: “The PMO asked Linde to publish a clarification, which he did, stating that his remarks at the Tel Aviv conference were his own analysis of the conversation with the prime minister”.
I’m going to comment about this affair with some sense of unease: I worked for Haaretz for more than 13 years, and wrote for the JPost for about 3 years. But I think this is important so I’m going to write about it anyways.
So what do we have here?
1. An editor chatting his way through a conference by way of revealing the details of an off the record conversation he had with the Prime Minister. Not his finest hour, even though, as one can learn from his clarification, the words might not have been exact, but the meaning is still the same. Netanyahu did let Linde believe that he considers the NYT and Haaretz to be Israel’s enemies. I’m speculating here, but am doing it based on more than just a wild guess: Linde might be in real trouble.
2. We have a Prime Minister who doesn’t like the NYT and Haaretz. But he doesn’t think these newspapers are Israel’s greatest enemies, even if, by way of speaking in his own way during a conversation, he did make such an overstatement. That the two papers are very critical of Israel is no secret, and Netanyahu has the right to think that they treat Israel unfairly and damage its reputation. A Prime Minister should not be fighting newspapers, but is entitled to think that they pose a risk (as long as he doesn’t try to interfere with their right to report and comment).
3. Why Linde made this comment is beyond me: Does he thinks such comment serves the Jerusalem Post – that it would make people abandon Haaretz to read his paper? If that’s the idea, it was not very smart. Haaretz can only benefit from a brouhaha of this kind. The Jerusalem Post has lost credibility and also doesn’t look very good.
4. Why Netanyahu made these – or similar - comments is also beyond me, and I believe he did say something from which Linde extracted his “interpretation”. Netanyahu’s decision not to write for the Times was enough for people to understand what he thinks about this paper. As Prime Minister, he has many ways to demonstrate his unease with any paper, to deny interviews, to leak to the competition, to instruct his advisors to do the same. But picking such a fight in public forums makes the newspaper bigger and the PM smaller.
5. On the other hand, Netanyahu probably didn’t realize that he was picking a public fight – he thought this was an off the record conversation.
6. Now the 64 million dollar question: Is Haaretz an enemy of Israel? On the one hand, Haaretz is very critical of Israel’s policies, and often spreads a one-sided version of certain events, and is definitely a propaganda tool at the hands of many of Israel’s enemies (something that it can’t control). It is no secret: While I like many people who write and edit for Haaretz, and while I respect many of its columnists, I don’t much like the way Haaretz covers Israel and would advise anyone to not to rely solely on this source as one wants to really understand Israel.
7. On the other hand: Haaretz is to me an ultimate proof that Israel was and still is a free country with a free press and almost unlimited right to free speech. That Israel has Haaretz is a constant nuisance, especially for the government, but one that we all should learn to live with whether we like the way it interprets current events or not.