Who's behind the smear campaign against Sharon's right-wing opponents?
Friday's headlines screamed that Netanyahu had been attacked by a handful of "right-wing extremists" while attending a wedding in Kfar Chabad. They had shouted at him and thrown plates at him. His bodyguards rushed him back to his car via a side entrance, only to discover that all his tires had been slashed.
Gradually, it has become clear that this story is fiction. First, somehow no one at the scene was arrested, or even brought in for questioning about the incident, except for one hapless 17-year-old whose only crime appears to be that he attended the wedding. He's currently being held under house arrest under suspicion of "verbal assault".
Then, Sunday's papers reported that Netanyahu's tires hadn't been slashed either. Rather, he had a flat in one tire. His driver had remained with the car, and there was no indication that anyone had tampered with it. The flat was just a flat. This, of course, was buried on page 6.
Today, it is reported that Netanyahu hadn't even realized anything out of the ordinary had happened. He hadn't been rushed away from the wedding; he left early via a side entrance as originally planned. Nothing was thrown at him, and none of his group heard curses or shouts. He was unaware of any attack, and was stunned by the next morning's headlines.
So what gives? If anything happened at all, Netanyahu was at most confronted by noisy protestors. Far from an assault, that is legitimate democratic action. So where did the stories come from? Who reported this alleged assault - of which the alleged victim was unaware? The original news reports all quote anonymous "eyewitnesses".
It feels like 1995 again
Yes, as the Israeli papers have been claiming incessantly this week, it does feel like 1995 again - but not the way they intend it. Again, incidents of questionable veracity are being exploited to whip up fear and anger against the opponents of the prime minister's controversial diplomatic program. Again, legitimate protest is being portrayed as anti-democratic and a threat to public safety.
A priceless quotation from Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who reports receiving threatening letters: "The letters, even if they are fictitious, one mustn't dismiss them. Rabin shut me up. I tell you, they'll try to kill the prime minister."
"Even if they are fictitious"? What if they are utter fabrications? What if they are a deliberate attempt to besmirch the prime minister's opponents? Why not find out what they are before hurling baseless accusations around? Or is that the whole point of the exercise?
The height of journalistic irresponsibility: Maariv, which ran side-by-side photographs yesterday of Rabin portrayed in SS uniform at a 1995 demonstration against the Oslo accords, and Sharon portrayed in Soviet uniform in recent anti-disengagement posters. The message: History is repeating itself. Have we not learned our lessons?
Only Maariv neglected to mention who distributed the Rabin-SS poster in 1995: Avishai Raviv, an agent provocateur reporting to Israel's security services. The poster was never displayed by other demonstrators, nor were they even aware of its presence. It was handed directly by Raviv to Israel Television reporter Nitzan Chen, who broadcast it and passed it to the newspapers. In fact, many of the violent incidents attributed to right-wing extremists in the 1993-5 protests against Oslo were actually perpetrated by none other than Raviv himself.
Is the Prime Minister's Office - which runs and supervises the state security services - using the same tactics now as it did then? How many of the recent threats and verbal assaults against government officials have been invented by overzealous security agents or left-wing smear artists? Has Maariv even tried to find out who's behind the Sharon-Stalin poster? Perhaps they're afraid of what they'll discover?
Yes, it feels like 1995 again. The prime minister, with a bare majority in the Knesset, is forcing through a program opposite to the one he was elected on. He tramples democratic procedure, cynically manipulating it for his own ends without regard to the long-term damage. He derides and dismisses his opponents, accusing them of violence and denying the legitimacy of democratic protest. Is Sharon (or his underlings), like Rabin, also running agents to infiltrate his opponents and undermine their campaign from within?
Israeli society is fragile in the best of times. But Sharon seems determined to shatter it.
No, the lessons of 1995 have apparently not been learned.
[Update: Aaron Lerner of IMRA quotes Israeli reporter Amnon Abromovich that the Netanyahu incident was staged for the press. Hat tip: Tzemach Atlas.]