Victory for Netanyahu Is a Defeat for The New York Times
The victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s election is a defeat for the New York Times.
The Times threw everything it had against Netanyahu.
The Times’ tone was set in a March 1 column by Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer prize-winning former editor of The Jerusalem Post whose hiring by the Times in April 2017 was interpreted as an attempt by the Times to bolster its faltering credibility among pro-Israel readers. “Time for Netanyahu To Go” was the headline over the Stephens column, describing Netanyahu as “toxically flawed.”
The same column described Netanyahu as “a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.” Stephens wrote, “To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable.”
Somehow more than a million Israeli voters disagreed.
Stephens doubled down with an April 5 column whose sub-headline was “Why Netanyahu’s challenger deserves to win.” It was based on an interview with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party.
Nor was Stephens the only Times columnist openly campaigning against Netanyahu. Bari Weiss, who, like Stephens, joined the Times from the Wall Street Journal editorial page and was well known as a Zionist voice, weighed in with a March 19 dispatch from Tel Aviv. It was sub-headlined, “Yair Lapid, Israel’s consummate centrist, explains why his party can unseat Israel’s prime minister.” Weiss wrote, “Over a week, I met many voters who say they will cast their ballot on April 9 for the centrists. Why? To a person, the answer boiled down to two words: Not Bibi.”
“To a person”! Good for Weiss for getting over to Israel and interviewing “many voters,” but either they were misleading her, or she somehow chose an unrepresentative sample. Her column went on to complain about Bibi and gush about Lapid:
While Mr. Netanyahu’s message is one of division, Blue and White speaks about unity. And while Bibi has forged an alliance with the explicitly anti-Arab party Otzma Yehudit, Mr. Lapid said that a “racist” party “cannot be a part of a government in this country.” … It is when Mr. Lapid talks about Jewish values and Jewish history that he is the most compelling.
Not “compelling” enough, though, to win the election.
As if Israeli voters hadn’t gotten the message from the two Stephens columns and from Weiss, Times columnist Roger Cohen piled on with his own Blue and White endorsement column, sub-headlined, “Prolonging the Netanyahu era would undermine Israeli democracy and bury any last hope of a two-state peace. It’s time for Benny Gantz.” It called Gantz “an Israeli hero straight out of Central Casting … son of a Holocaust survivor, born and raised in an agricultural cooperative, paratrooper, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, with his candid blue-eyed gaze.”
And that’s just the editorial and opinion pages. It doesn’t even get into the news columns, which likewise have been cheerleading for Gantz. One Times news profile described him as “a strong, silent type, someone whose hooded eyes themselves convey war-weary experience, whose entire career has been spent not in partisan backstabbing but in Israel’s most unifying institution: the army.” Another Times news article gushed that Gantz “has a reputation as uncorrupt and refined.”
In an appearance at the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year, the editor of the Times editorial page, James Bennet, said that after the 2016 US presidential election, he “felt some personal sense of failure,” because it would have been possible to have read the Times op-ed page during the campaign without having understood why anyone would have voted for Donald Trump. “We probably weren’t doing our job properly,” he added.
Now the Times has gone and repeated the same error it committed with Trump in 2016, this time with Netanyahu in 2019. It’s scrambling after the fact to publish columns telling readers why Netanyahu won. It was a close election, and if it had gone the other way, as it might have, the Times might have looked prophetic. The Times columns were all entertainingly written, energetically argued, and enterprisingly reported. They just were wrong in conveying an understanding of what was actually going to happen. Israeli voters were not convinced by them. As things turned out, readers might have gotten a clearer idea of what was happening beforehand by reading other columnists writing in other places.
As one such columnist put it, in a piece that in retrospect holds up pretty well (if I do say so myself), “If Mr. Netanyahu wins — or if Mr. Trump does — one reason will be a kind of anti-elitist backlash. The intensity of the opposition to Messrs. Netanyahu and Trump from entrenched establishment types and their friends in the press seems only to fuel support for both of them, along the lines of the campaign bumper sticker that said ‘Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.’”
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.