The New York Times’ Misleading ‘Analysis’ of Benjamin Netanyahu

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Reuters )
Is the U.S. election result really a “demotion” for Israel’s longtime prime minister?

‘News Analysis,” a creative euphemism for “Opinion,” is deployed by outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post with increasing frequency. One of the Times’ recent offerings in this genre comes from Jerusalem bureau chief David Halbfinger, who writes that “Biden’s Win Means a Demotion for Netanyahu and Less Focus on Israel.” It’s an odd formulation. Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister for over a decade, during presidencies of both parties. I suspect that the Times would consider treating other heads of state as inferior of the United States jingoistic in most other circumstances. But the opportunity to denigrate a conservative Israeli leader demands an exception.

Halbfinger’s column-in-disguise has more problems than its title. He asserts that “Mr. Netanyahu’s stature on the global stage” has been “diminished.” He also approvingly quotes the critical Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer, who holds that “he’s gone from Trump’s wingman to the guy who polishes the canopy of the F-16.” He offers no evidence for these claims. Instead, as proof that Netanyahu is “unusually flummoxed” by Biden’s victory, he cites the fact that it took Netanyahu twelve hours after CNN and Fox News projected that Biden would become the 46th president of the United States to offer his congratulations on Twitter and that when he did, he did not by name reference the office of the presidency. Perhaps Halbfinger’s conception of being “flummoxed” differs from that of the rest of us.

Halbfinger has a similarly unorthodox conception of what constitutes a “calming influence.” In his view, the agreements that the Trump administration has brokered between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, and Sudan are not signs of a more stable region. But he does believe that a Biden administration would somehow have a pacifying effect. Especially if it responded to other Arab states’ expressing an interest in formalizing relations with the world’s only Jewish state by urging them to ask for more concessions from Israel in the Palestinian conflict. His idea of a balanced approach, then, entails the United States urging one of two willing parties in question not to agree to a deal unless one of the two provides more benefits to an unwilling fourth party. Got that?

Later in the column, Halbfinger credulously entertains an unsubstantiated hypothetical scenario from Pfeffer in which Biden would invite “Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, to Washington for high-profile meetings while snubbing the prime minister.” Similarly, he quotes a former adviser to former prime minister Shimon Peres, who speculated that Biden might say, “The party’s over. I don’t want to fight with you, but I intend to stabilize the situation, and you’re going to help me. Forget about annexation. No surprises. No unilateral anything. And I need something constructive from you as well: Make it easier to shore up the Palestinian Authority before it collapses, and Gaza before it explodes. And I promise you I’ll bring you into the room when I’m discussing Iran.” Neither hypothetical is subject to qualification from Halfbinger. Bibi will just have to do as Uncle Joe tells him, of course — “the party’s over.

Most mainstream journalists tend to be sharply critical of Netanyahu, whom they characterize as fond of — as Halbfinger does in his piece — “divisive political tactics, denunciations of ‘fake news’ and playing to working-class voters’ resentments.” Netanyahu is a flawed man with no shortage of words and actions one can quibble with. But he has deftly guided Israel through every crisis it has faced during his tenure while — contrary to his political opponents’ portrayal of him — operating as a pragmatist rather than a winger. Netanyahu knows there will be no good-faith negotiation with the current crop of Palestinian leaders. But with Arab leaders spooked by the Obama administration’s absurd and illogical embrace of the Iranian regime, he saw an opportunity for rapprochement and took it.

The Left’s instinctive contempt for figures such as Netanyahu of course results in biased writing. But perhaps even worse is that it leads to inaccurate and unbalanced analysis. This is particularly true of columns labeled “News Analysis,” which are habitually shrill and lacking in insight. Unfortunately, a few hysterical quotes from the expert class, who tend to share the opinion of the author, can suffice to gain this designation and the patina of objectivity that comes with it. Netanyahu’s time as prime minister may well be coming to an end. He has, after all, held the position for nearly twelve years. But the idea that Donald Trump’s loss will bring it about is the stuff of the New York Times editorial board’s fantasies, not of sober analysis.


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