OP-ED: When Bibi soft-pedaled my question

By ALAN SMASON, Editor 

The 2018 Jewish Media Summit in Israel, like its two previous iterations in 2014 and 2016, has now been relegated to history. While there were many similarities to the two previous summits, this year’s conference put on jointly by the Government Press Office and the Diaspora and Foreign Ministries reached out to a new group of Jewish journalists, bloggers and social media influencers rather than the more traditional group of newspaper and magazine writers. 

CCJN editor Alan Smason in Jerusalem at the Temple Mount.

Even the title of the summit “Israel and the Jewish World Relationship: It’s Complicated,” referred to a well-known Facebook status that was intended to engage those under 40. Not having been a member of that age bracket for some two decades, I felt challenged to take part in this year’s summit. 

But, apparently, after the initial foray into the 40 and younger group failed to garner a full complement of journalists, the GPO announced that the more traditional group of writers and editors like me would, indeed, be welcome to join them in Jerusalem for the three-day event.

Nothing like being made to feel welcome.

Anxiety aside, I registered alongside several of my colleagues from the American Jewish Press Association, each of whom, one by one, elected to drop out of participating. By the time the summit was six weeks away, I had resolved to make the most of it and see what would bear fruit in such a tightly controlled environment.

To be sure, as I learned first-hand at the Knesset, Israel is not like the United States of America. Yes, it has a parliamentary democracy like England and Canada, but there is no Constitution or Bill of Rights set firmly in place that guarantees freedom of the press as we enjoy. With no protection under the law, a journalist works in the light of day with an implied threat hanging over his head that he could be shut down or detained were the government to see fit to do so. Without the luxury of freedom of the press or a responsibility on the part of journalists to be ethical, there is an opportunity for the public trust to be abused too.

As a result, the trust factor for the government and the press are both fairly low and almost exact with the government holding a slight 34% to 33% over the press, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

On Monday night, a promised video welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to occur. The reason was an official state visit from the president of Chad, the first time the Muslim state had reached out to the Jewish State. The summit attendees understood his reasons so as to avert a diplomatic crisis.

But in his place, he sent Michael Oren, a fiery orator, who is a low-level deputy minister in the government and the former U.S. Ambassador. Oren was on the bill along with Avi Liberman, a stand-up comic, and a white-faced and white-clad a cappella group called Voca People. 

On Monday night, after a day-long conference at historic Mishkenot Sha’namanim on a range of issues confronting Israel, attendees were whisked to Beit Shmuel, the Shimshon Center. Again, Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, was another no-show. Talk about feeling like a red-headed step-child.

Tuesday was a busy day for four separate tracks intended to help journalists understand about religious differences, coexistence with the Palestinians, the vibrant arts scene in Jerusalem and Israel’s dominance as a Start-Up Nation and its leadership in the IT world. All of these tracks were engineered by the government to show as little negativity as possible. Even the discussion about the Palestinians featured Israeli Arabs, not Gazans. 

By the time Wednesday rolled around – the final day of the summit – I had expected the last day to be more fluff and stuff and no real substantive discussion of issues or answers to questions that begged to be asked.

After the first of three exhaustive security clearances, we made it to President Reuven Rivlin’s residence. My worst fears were confirmed when there were only two questioners allowed to speak following the president’s address. Of those, the first was a question that was not at all controversial. The second person was a blogger, who writes about kosher food. He used the opportunity to sing the praises of the government and the people for allowing him to attend the event and to write about food. Nowhere did he feel compelled to ask a question on behalf of the group about any of the bigger issues confronting Israel such as the influence of Iran, the situation in Syria, the dangerous possibility of an entanglement with the Russians, the lack of  progress in peace talks with the Palestinians or any fallout from the charges of corruption that have been leveled at the prime minister and his wife.

After the second of intense security searches at the Knesset that took almost 45 minutes, I was somewhat jaded. Sure we were slated to see Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opponent spokesperson Tzipi Livni, but neither of them was a top-level minister or  Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset. (Photo by Alan Smason)

We were ushered into a party conference room and placed around a circular table obviously used for the prime minister and his cabinet or party leaders and their members to discuss or vote on items out of the chambers of the Knesset. The GPO spokesman Nitzan Chen told us to be patient. He had a surprise. The prime minister was coming.

We waited for most of the next hour, expecting it to be at any moment. The talks with Edelstein and Livni were canceled due to the lateness of the day and the call for a vote on the floor of the Knesset.

And then in walked the prime minister, bearing a grin from ear to ear.

“So what do you want?” he asked, imploring for us to ask questions. Chen directed the first two or three questioners, but their questions were either self-serving about their home countries  or were just outright dumb. “Mr. Prime Minister, should Israel keep the Golan (Heights)?”

It was then I made eye contact with Bibi. I could tell he was going to allow me to ask a question. I girded myself and asked what I thought was a pointed question about Diaspora Jews and Israel.

“Mr. Prime Minister, there is a question about the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. The question I have and (also) a lot of people: Is there any kind of a disconnect or not? Or we all together? Is it Am Yisrael Chai, or what?”

Netanyahu did not address the question of a disconnect at all. “My view is we are all one people. Israel should be the home of every Jew who wants to have Israel as his home. It is, in fact. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences. There are disturbing demographic trends. We know that, especially with assimilation, which is chipping away at our numbers.”

It was there that the prime minister decided to answer a question not asked and he elected to move onto an area of population estimates and the numbers of Jews living inside of Israel and outside. While they were interesting, they were not an answer to my question about a schism that might exist between the Jewish State and the Jewish people.

According to the analysis by Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan, Netanyahu’s answer to my question and the others amounted to “a game of softball.” But it wasn’t for trying on my part. It’s just that Netanyahu, who is a student of television and a former NBC commentator, knows how to deliver sound bites, act charming and is skilled in the art of deflecting.

I will admit he even shook my hand as he was leaving. 

There is a reason Bibi has survived the crucible of Israeli politics and still remains at the top of the heap. He is charismatic and he knows what to say and exactly how to wrap it up. It was a fitting Chanukah gift, don’t you think?

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