Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always claimed proudly that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. On Thursday, he decided to educate diplomats, academics and journalists about the limits of freedom of speech in his “democratic” country. However, he failed miserably — without a hint of irony — when his flawed democratic credentials led him to ban Al-Jazeera’s Jerusalem correspondent, Walid Al-Omari, from the “freedom of speech” event.
“The prime minister instructed that legal steps be taken to deny press passes to all Al-Jazeera journalists working in Israel and to close their offices in Israel,” Netanyahu’s Government Press Office (GPO) said in a statement. This was a strange decision if Netanyahu really wanted to teach people about Israel’s freedoms. Apart from anything else, it diverted media attention from what the Israeli leader had to say.
Instead, the mass media reported the GPO statement about Al-Omari’s exclusion from the programme, and reported the responses of various local and international bodies. I could not find any Israeli news coverage of the prime minister’s words.
Netanyahu’s failed “freedom of speech” lesson provoked a backlash highlighting the racist nature of the banning order. There was widespread criticism, not least from the Israeli Foreign Press Association (FPA), which said that it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision. “This raises serious questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of the press,” the FPA explained. “[Such a measure is] part of a disturbing and growing trend of incitement against the media by the prime minister.” The ban, noted the FPA, is the sort of thing associated with dictatorships, not a democracy. The association called on Netanyahu to stop calling himself a protector of freedom. “We urge the government to uphold the ideals that he [Netanyahu] so proudly embraces.”
In the wake of the decision, a senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry warned that the prime minister’s measures against the press, mainly Al-Jazeera, would damage Israel’s reputation as a democracy. He said that such a crackdown on the media lumps Israel with countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Turkey, reported Haaretz.
The point of Netanyahu’s lecture on freedom of speech was that there are limits to what this entails. His session was titled, “Limits of free expression: the dilemma between national security and freedom of the press — Al Jazeera as a case study.” He wanted to point out that the Israeli occupation and violations against the Palestinians do not contradict with cracking down on the freedom of the press.
In fact, he was simply following in the footsteps of former US President George W Bush by targeting media institutions which have a record of exposing his human rights violations. In 2004, Bush met with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and suggested bombing Al-Jazeera headquarters after it had been involved in exposing US violations in Afghanistan. The Americans had already attacked the network’s office in Kabul in 2001, and in 2003 bombed Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Baghdad, killing journalist Tareq Ayyoub.
Netanyahu beefed up the campaign against Al-Jazeera after its full coverage spoiled his attempt to impose full Israeli control and sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem in July. His cabinet ordered electronic metal detectors to be installed at the gates of the Noble Sanctuary to identify and limit the number of people entering and leaving the holy site.
Al-Jazeera’s comprehensive coverage of the ensuing stand-off between Palestinians — Christians as well as Muslims — and Israeli security forces internationalised the issue, leading to pressure being put on Israel. The gates were eventually removed and the pre-July status quo returned.
It is well-known that Netanyahu considers any attempt to resist Israel’s military occupation of Palestine to be “terrorism”, and support for the Palestinians is seen as “anti-Semitism”. In 2016, the GPO revoked the press credentials of Al-Jazeera reporter Elias Karram for expressing support for Palestinian resistance in an interview.
Thus, Israel under Netanyahu has form in this sort of crackdown; anyone and anything supporting the Palestinians is a legitimate target in the Israeli leader’s eyes. He really shouldn’t claim that he leads a democratic government, though, because he has lost the freedom of speech game.