B’Ivrit | The Israeli Press Doesn’t Know What to Do About Biden

By | May 13, 2024
B'Ivrit, Featured, Israel, Latest
President Biden (a white man in a black suit jacket and a blue and red striped tie) holds a microphone. The background is dark blue with Hebrew newspapers overlaid.

Does the ongoing Gaza war and the broader conflict look different through the eyes of Israeli readers? How does Israeli media cover U.S. affairs? There’s a lot to learn about Israel by looking through Hebrew language newspapers, news websites and TV channels. Welcome to Moments new column, “B’Ivrit: Moment’s Hebrew Language Media Roundup,” a look at the news through the eyes of Israeli media consumers.

1. Escapism at its best

If you’d turned on the TV in Israel any time last week, or scrolled down your favorite Israeli news site, you might have forgotten for a moment that Israel is a nation engulfed in a prolonged and deadly war, that active fighting is going on in Gaza and in the north, that the country has just endured a massive missile and drone attack from Iran, that tens of thousands of Israelis have been displaced for more than seven months and that 132 people are still held captive by Hamas.

The news cycle up until Saturday was dominated by something completely different, and at the same time, not different at all: Eurovision.

This annual “Euro-trash” international song competition is a national obsession in Israel, but this year it was much more than a music contest. Israelis viewed Eurovision 2024, which took place in Malmo, Sweden, as nothing less than a battlefield. Another battlefield.

And on Saturday, when the contest was over, the Israeli press burst into celebrations. This battle had been won.

“Eden is amazing! She made it big time!” gushed the reporter dispatched to Malmo by Ynet, Israel’s most-read news website. “A great achievement against all odds,” he went on. “Eden, for us you’re number one.”

In fact, Eden Golan, the super-talented 20-year-old Russian-Israeli singer who represented Israel in the competition, didn’t win. But coming in 5th place (and winning the second-highest ranking in the popular votes cast by viewers across the world) is quite an impressive achievement.

Malmo, a city known for its significant Arab and Muslim populations, was described by Israeli media outlets as  hostile territory. Reporters sent to Malmo pointed to Palestinian flags hanging on apartment building windows, or tried to report from within the crowds of pro-Palestinians who were protesting in the city’s streets all through the week.

“The most dangerous city in Europe” was the headline at Mako, a website owned by Channel 12 TV. KAN-11, Israel’s public broadcaster, quoted the National Security Council warning Israelis not to travel to Malmo for the Eurovision contest, since it is “dangerous for Israelis.”

Once there, it was all about Eden Golan dealing with the booing from the crowd and from several rude participants.

And when Golan succeeded not only in overcoming the hostile-at-times audience but also in perfectly delivering her number and ending up among the top five, it was depicted by the Israeli press not as an entertainment feat, but as a national miracle.

“Eden Golan’s amazing record,” marveled the Israeli daily Maariv, noting the significant disparity between the low ranking she received from the professional juries judging the songs and her outstanding success when it came to viewers’ votes. “An entire nation,” the article went on, “stood behind Eden who got the 5th place despite all the antisemitism she had to face.”

And to top the celebrations, Ynet reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz is expected to ask the singer to serve as a special public diplomacy envoy on behalf of Israel. “Eden showed great patriotism and an ability to reach directly to people’s hearts, and this is exactly what Israel needs these days,” Katz said.

2. Israel’s frenemy

How do you solve a problem like Joe Biden?

Last Tuesday, Biden delivered a special address on Capitol Hill as part of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Days of Remembrance. The chyron on Channel-12’s evening news, Israel’s most-watched news broadcast, read “Biden’s Warm Speech.” Other outlets also reported at length on Biden’s speech, noting his clear message that while some in the world have already forgotten the terror unleashed by Hamas, “I have not forgotten, nor have you, and we will not forget.”

It was just the next day that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed on-record that the Biden administration had indeed put a hold on a shipment of bombs headed to Israel. By Thursday, Biden himself had said he would withhold military aid to Israel if it invaded Rafah, and the story instantly took over the Israeli news. Israeli media were perplexed: Is Biden Israel’s greatest ally or a Hamas apologist? And how can you fit this dichotomy in a three-word tabloid headline?

Israel Hayom, the nation’s right-leaning popular daily which is owned by Republican mega-donor Miriam Adelson, had this to say at the top of its front page: “Biden 1: People forget that Hamas is the one that attacked; Biden 2: Delaying weapon shipments.”

Yediot Aharonot, the popular centrist publication, chose to seek explanations with front-page analysis from its top columnists. “Rafah and its punishment,” was the headline given to Nahum Barnea’s column. Barnea, arguably one of Israel’s leading journalistic voices, wrote that “no military achievement gained by invading Rafah can equal the importance of maintaining Israel’s alliance with the U.S.”

At Haaretz, known for its liberal views, columnist Ravit Hecht shifted the blame from Biden to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, writing that only Netanyahu is at fault for this “disastrous outcome which is harming Israel’s interests.”

Maariv, a center-right daily, chose to highlight Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, who sent a critical letter to Biden following the president’s threat. Saban, a major Democratic donor, wrote that his decision serves as “a terrible message to our allies in the region and beyond.”

The evening news shows on all Israeli channels spoke about “unprecedented tension” between Biden and Netanyahu and the “new low” in their relationship. For most, the commentary accompanying reports about Biden’s move was an interesting mix of criticizing Netanyahu for the falling out, while at the same time questioning Biden’s move and siding with the government’s drive to invade Rafah.

3. But wait, it gets worse

For many Israelis, mainstream media is all but irrelevant.

The far right and the ultra-Orthodox communities get most of their news from their own niche publications. And in this branch of the Israeli media, editors and writers pulled no punches when describing Biden’s threat to freeze some of America’s military assistance to Israel.

Israel Hayom, mentioned above, featured an interview with GOP Senator Lindsey Graham on its front page in which he said: “Israel should tell Biden: Don’t!” Nadav Haetzni, one of the paper’s leading columnists, wrote that Biden’s actions regarding Israel carry a “whiff of betrayal.”

Besheva, a publication serving the settler community, called for expanding Israel’s military incursion in Rafah, stating that this move will serve as “an important message to the U.S. administration and the international community on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day” that “no amount of international pressure will prevent Israel from defeating Hamas.”

Makor Rishon, a highbrow settler publication, chose to focus on the internal American political scene, arguing that many Biden voters are dismayed by his treatment of Israel and are now considering voting for Trump. The image accompanying the story was of the New York Post’s front page crying: “Betrayed.”

Yated Neeman, a Haredi publication, wrote about a “dangerous and concerning crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.” The cover story of its weekly magazine was titled “Embargo” and explained that “this is what happens when you’re no more than a vassal state, the 51st star on the American flag.”

Biden may be right about Netanyahu being unpopular in Israel, but judging from the Israeli press coverage of the president’s threat, he might have miscalculated the Israeli public’s mood regarding the Gaza war. Israelis dislike Bibi, but they also are opposed to America telling them how to run their war.

4. The forgotten front

More than 60,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes along Israel’s northern border since October 7 in order to protect them from a potential full-scale attack from Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Although the Iran-backed terror organization has not launched a major attack, it has continued to fire rockets on an almost daily basis at Israeli military installations and at homes in the northern front.

For the evacuees, life has been immensely challenging. Cramped into hotel rooms or resettled far away from their homes, they live in a constant state of uncertainty. While Israelis evacuated from the Gaza border, who suffered some of the worst attacks Israel has ever known, can look to the future with hope that once the war ends they’ll be able to return to their homes, those displaced from the north have no idea what the future holds.

In the past few weeks, as frustration grew and as Hezbollah intensified its attacks, the story of the forgotten front has begun to gain traction in the Israeli press. Thanks to local reporters, many of whom are displaced too, the media has been bringing the stories and images of Israel’s abandoned northern border: the empty towns and villages, more and more homes and businesses destroyed, the farmers sticking to their land despite the daily danger, and the families of Israelis who had chosen to build their lives in the country’s most dangerous region and now feel abandoned by a government that has yet to decide whether to open another military front or to seek a diplomatic compromise.

The stories are chilling. A reporter with KAN news went back to his parents’ home in Kiryat Shmona. They had had only minutes to evacuate, and the sight of the abandoned home was eerie: The fridge was full of rotting food, dinner dishes were still in the sink, and at the front of the house stood the sukkah, a reminder that the family left at the end of Sukkot, while now the Hebrew calendar is nearing Shavuot.

Another story, published in the online news site Zman Israel, described the life of David Azoulay, head of the Metula municipality whose residents were evacuated on the first day of the war. Azoulay has remained alone in his abandoned border town, trying to keep on eye on things until life returns to normal. “Every morning, after my daily patrol in town, when no one can see, I sit in my jeep and cry,” he told the reporter accompanying him. “I drive past the kindergarten that used to have 40 children and is now empty, there’s only a mouse running across the yard. It really breaks my heart,” he said.

5. Days of Remembrance

At 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, Israel shut down for the minute-long siren marking the beginning of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, which transitions into Yom Haatzmaut—Independence Day—on Tuesday.

The Israeli press plays its role in marking these days with a mix of somber remembrance of fallen soldiers that, a day later, is replaced with a full-fledged patriotic celebration. And this year, these sentiments are felt more powerfully than ever.

The front page of Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot was filled with names, white font against a black background, with a small headline reading: “More than 1,500 people joined the list of fallen Israelis since October 7, here are their names.” Maariv’s front page displayed a photo of families visiting the graves of their loved ones in one of Israel’s military cemeteries.

All TV channels showed a live broadcast of the main memorial ceremony held at the Western Wall. It felt like a relic of different times, when the press played a role as the national convener responsible for amplifying the national narrative of patriotism, sacrifice, independence and national pride. And it was.

Yet in Israel, these days are still special. And for most Israelis, particularly this year when the nation is at war, perfectly normal.

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