Everyone’s talking about the Override Clause as if Israeli democracy’s survival or collapse depends on it. But the truth is that with regard to the current debate, and despite the huge variety of sources of information and of voices that are taking part in the discussion, no one seems able to provide a coherent account of its implications for Netanyahu’s immunity from prosecution.
Why? Because the most important revolution that has impacted the institutions of Israeli democracy over the last generation is not the constitutional or judicial revolution led by Aharon Barak, nor the governance revolution. It was the information revolution. See, information has always been the mortar holding together the bricks in the wall of democracy. The flow of information about government actions, and the mediation of the public’s positions to decision-makers, is the essential foundation of a functioning democracy. Much has been said about the fairness and professionalism of this interface, with mountains of verbiage written about it, from “the medium is the message” to the question of whether there is even such an entity as objective media.
The recent elections are a significant milestone in the Israeli information revolution because for the first time traditional media became irrelevant, but on the other hand, what replaced it was scattered, polarized, unprofessional spots within a communication vacuum. We should take a look at this from a historical perspective.
In 1996, Netanyahu understood that he had won the election despite harsh attacks by the media, and realized that he might never be able to beat the media in a head-on confrontation. The Israeli media were too strongly fixated against him, and a rapid and radical makeover of its personnel was something that could not be achieved quickly. Reading the map, Netanyahu embarked on a smart, multipronged maneuver: he set up his own powerful media outlets, while at the same time setting in motion a fundamental process that swept away the idea of the Israeli media as objective, unbiased, and without an agenda. In terms of market power, the free daily newspaper, Israel Today, grew to pose a real threat to its competitors. Channel 14 (originally Channel 20 and sometimes compared to Fox News) took to the airwaves and its viewership surpassed the public broadcasting channel on election night. The digital assets of Netanyahu’s well-greased machine left rivals in the dust.
Regarding the more fundamental process, the Israeli media was forced out of the closet. Tell me who you are, and I’ll tell you how you frame the story and what your preconceptions are. The rise of the social networks hugely contributed to this revolution because we have all turned into media critics who tell our friends why what they read in the newspaper is meant to manipulate their minds, and how the journalist we see on television is just a mouthpiece.
Netanyahu invested his political life in achieving his long-term plan – but it could also lead to his political demise.
Caught up in his own hubris, Netanyahu has taken many steps in an attempt to remake the media. He tried to control the communications ministry and through it shape the television market. He tried to strengthen Israel Today and barter arrangements with Walla, just to name a few, and these very actions are what have led to much of his current legal troubles.
In this last election campaign the next, and perhaps final, stage of the process has been revealed. If the various media are agents of hate, as well as liars and manipulators of minds, then we can do away with them. Nightly news programs are redundant if you can meet the leader directly on a variety of his or her social media platforms. From the king of TV ratings, Netanyahu has turned into an algorithm-savvy politician who knows what will go viral on social networks. There’s no need for interviews by journalists on the main channels; you can win elections without them. There’s no need for journalistic investigations because they have no impact on the public’s ideas; bloggers sitting at home in their underwear who circulate their views on all the platforms and WhatsApp groups can do the job all by themselves. Bottom line: Traditional media is not a relevant player, and it has been replaced with information chaos.
After the elections, Israeli democracy finds itself unable to reach consensus on the ground without a neutral tribal campfire or a toolkit that can be used for objective debates, and certainly- without the ability to speak truth to power. The story of the Override Clause is only the tip of the iceberg. The real question is how Israeli democracy will manage to restore the mortar holding it together, because, without it, the wall will come tumbling down.
This analysis will be presented by the author at American University at the conference, “How Many Elections Can Israel Handle? Challenges Facing Israel’s Democracy”