Washington Jewish Week / September 16, 2009
By Larry Luxner
One of Israel's leading academics claims his country's government intentionally misled journalists into believing the Jewish state was under imminent threat of a Syrian attack following Israel's disastrous 2006 war in Lebanon.
"For the whole year after that war, the entire Israeli media kept saying repeatedly, in the newspapers, on the radio, on TV, that next summer there would be a war with Syria — not maybe, not a high probability, but a fact," said Dr. Yoram Peri, lecturing Friday at the University of Maryland in College Park. "Being modest, I was sure there would be no war. Any prime minister or president would have to be a lunatic to start a war with Israel. So why were the newspapers writing that for a whole year?"
The reasons, he told his audience, are complex and have to do with what Peri calls the "mediatization" of war — a term first used a decade ago by American researchers studying the role of the media in shaping national policy.
Peri, director of the university's Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute of Israel Studies, showed his audience slides of Hebrew newspaper articles underneath big black, dire headlines warning of war with Syria in the days and weeks ahead.
"It was in the military's interest to spread this rumor, thinking that if Israel's deterrence power was reduced, the Syrians would risk starting a war," he said. "That was the assessment of the Israeli intelligence community. From that slight probability to the position presented was a huge gap, so why did the military leak that story to journalists? Simple: Since Israel lost the war in 2006, they needed a huge budget. And how do you get a huge budget? Tell people there's going to be a war.
"More than that, the chief of staff wanted the military to be prepared after Lebanon. There's no better way than to tell your soldiers we're going to have a war tomorrow morning ... and the journalists bought it."
Political considerations also figured into the equation, he said. At the time, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a public approval rating of only 6%, so it was in the government's interest to create a climate of fear so that everybody would rally behind it.
"However, I wasn't yet satisfied with that explanation, because Israeli journalists, after all, are very cynical, much more than American journalists. They don't believe anything — and yet they bought that story," he said.
Peri said the real reason such disinformation made it into Israeli headlines — and continues to shape public opinion in the Jewish state — has to do with what he calls "peace journalism" rather than conventional journalism.
"Stories about conflict are more interesting than stories about peace. Events are more important than processes," he explained. "War-oriented journalism prefers to talk about conflicts between us and them, while peace-oriented journalism doesn't just show two parties but many parties and many aims."
He added: "I'm not advocating that Syria wanted peace and Israel did not. What I'm saying is that the media should look at the way it operates."
Peri, who has also lectured at Washington's American University, is the author of three books: "The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin" (2000), "Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel" (2004) and "Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy" (2006).
As part of his research into the phenomenon of "mediatization," the academic analyzed more than 300 news items that appeared in Israel's Hebrew-language press the year before, the year during and the year after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994.
"We expected that during the 'peace year,' media perception of Jordan in the Israeli media would be more positive," he said. Before the peace treaty, coverage of Jordan was 54% negative and 26% positive, and during the peace year, positive news stories went up to 55% and negative stories dropped to 23%. But one year after, the negative had gone up to 46% and the positive dropped to 16%.
"When I showed those numbers to the Israeli ambassador to Jordan, he said 'you don't know how much I suffered from that. Every week I had a wonderful story about Jordan, but nobody wrote about them.'"