On Building a Coalition in Israel: News Not Fit To Print?

Since Israelis went to the polls to elect a new government in late January of this year, the front pages of their newspapers have been filled with all the intrigues and arm-twisting we have come to associate with coalition negotiations in Israel.

The stunning rebuke by voters of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bloc, along with the remarkable rise of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett’s new parties, created a scenario that hasn’t been seen in Israel in many years- the possibility of a governing coalition without the Haredim, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties. Though a prospect very much not to the Prime Minister’s liking, neither Lapid nor Bennett was interested in being in a coalition with Shas or its Ashkenazi counterpart, and absent those seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu was left with very limited options.

As of this writing, it appears that the coalition agreement has been reached, and there will be a new Israeli government– without Haredim–in place, and in time for President Obama’s visit this coming week. That is an unqualified good thing, because the President’s trip would have been cancelled were there not an agreement. That would have been singularly unfortunate. These negotiations were held under intense pressures of time and personalities, and for those who care about things like this, it was fascinating to watch. Israel’s political reality is changing in front of our eyes. This new government will be very different from the one that preceded it in far-reaching and significant ways, and it could have all resolved in ways far less productive than it did.

What fascinates me is that in my hometown newspaper of record, The New York Times, had not a word to say about this whole process. The Times, as all supporters of Israel surely know, is a paper that just can’t stop reporting on Israel when it detects a problem or flaw. It has driven many of us to the point of distraction through the years, and more than once there have been campaigns to encourage Israel’s supporters to cancel their subscriptions. And yet…there has been virtually nothing in the Times’ international section on Israel throughout these weeks since the election. It almost seems like there was an internal, editorial decision to impose a blackout on news from there. Virtually no news stories, no op-eds, nothing.

Actually, I did see a news piece the other day, buried somewhere deep in the A section, about how an iconic picture from the recent Gaza war, showing a BBC reporter carrying his dead son who had allegedly been killed by an Israeli drone plane, was actually focusing on a fatality caused by a misfired rocket from Gaza. Shocking, I say– shocking! Imagine that; a casualty of war attributed to Israel that actually wasn’t her fault. But again, this was all I could find in recent weeks.

So I sat down to consider how many different stories, not only of interest and relevance, but also reflective of Israel’s changing reality, could have been in the Times these past weeks.

I would have loved to have read an op-ed by Tom Friedman, who loves to administer tough love to Israel, contrasting how Egypt and Syria go about changing their governments, and how Israel does.

I would have loved to have read a piece by Gail Collins or Maureen Dowd, contrasting the fact that a woman is not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and must cover herself up in public, with Ruth Calderon’s stunningly beautiful and evocative opening speech in the Knesset. Or maybe a piece by Nicholas Kristof celebrating the vitality of debate in Israel over the role of religion in the public arena, (and where the public essentially voted the most extreme elements out of office), as opposed to so many of the Arab countries, where a radical Islamic agenda is pursued as state policy, and those who might dare to challenge it risk their lives.

Yes, those would have been great op-ed pieces– had they been written. But they would have been great news stories as well, very much “fit to print,” had someone cared to. I guess it’s just not news when Israel essentially changes the course of its social contract, and stands poised to redefine– for the first time in its history– the relationship between religious and secular in Israeli society.

I think it’s news, and Israelis certainly think it’s news. But the New York Times doesn’t.

We have a new Pope; that’s news, and it should be. To be sure, there are a lot more Catholics than Jews in the world, right? And the Catholic Church is facing such significant and pervasive problems– whom the cardinals would choose, and the choice that they ultimately made, monopolized the main news pages of the Times, and every major print and electronic media outlet. I get it. That’s a big decision.

But almost every day, those same media outlets relentlessly remind us of how a stubborn Israel, an intransigent Israel, is the cause of all that’s wrong in the Middle East. And when Israel goes and changes course in such a dramatic way, with such potentially huge implications for the peace process and domestic policy, not to mention relations with the United States, my paper of record can’t seem to find its voice.

Just when I think I can’t be any more disappointed with the Times, I discover how very wrong I am…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.