Listeners to the later edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday’ on April 9th heard a five-minute item replete with factual errors and misleading claims.
The item was introduced (from 04:23 here) by a presenter who managed not only to pronounce the Israeli prime minister’s first name in three different ways in 44 seconds but also inaccurately described him as Israel’s “longest-serving prime minister”. In fact, only if Netanyahu is still prime minister on July 17th 2019 will he overtake David Ben Gurion – currently Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The presenter also failed to note that whether or not what she described as “imminent criminal indictments” against Netanyahu will be filed depends upon hearings to be held in the coming months. [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Presenter: “Let’s take you to Israel now…eh…Israelis are going to the polls today as the country’s longest-serving prime minister Benyamin [sic] Netanyahu faces his toughest challenge yet. Plagued with controversies and under the shadow of imminent criminal indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, many are still tipping him to win. Let’s speak now to our Jerusalem correspondent Tom Bateman. Tom, it’s been described as almost a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule but now he has a real contender and a challenger…eh…in the former…general – or retired general – Benny Gantz. Let’s talk about Benny Gantz for a minute. What’s he promising and why has he proven such a strong challenger to Binyamin Netanyahu?”
Bateman: “Well Benny Gantz was a chief of the Israeli army. He was actually in position under Mr Netanyahu’s leadership when he was prime minister in this last term.”
Netanyahu’s latest term in office began in May 2015 following elections in March of that year. Benny Gantz retired from army service in February 2015 and so – while Gantz was chief of staff during parts of two of Netanyahu’s earlier terms in office, Bateman’s claim that he was “in position” during “this last term” of Netanyahu’s office is clearly inaccurate.
Bateman went on to promote false equivalence while describing a Hamas rocket attack on a moshav in central Israel last month.
Bateman: “He oversaw the military operation – the all-out conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Israel – in 2014 so he is an experienced general. He entered the race after…they have to have a three year…ah…period of rest away from the military or politics because former generals in Israel are usually pretty hot stuff when it comes to Israeli politics and they can be very popular. He entered this race and he has put up a very serious challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu who, remember, likes to portray himself as the guarantor of Israel’s security. That has been his number one pitching point to the Israeli public and so to have this former chief of staff to come in and who has said that in his view Mr Netanyahu has not been effective on the security front. There has been a military flare-up again between Hamas and Israel during the election campaign and Mr Netanyahu’s rivals, including Mr Gantz, were quick to jump on that and say that he should have been tougher.”
Presenter: “And Mr Netanyahu has been appealing to the Right-wing voter base. How and…and…will that make a difference in the way that people vote given how close the challenge is?”
Once again avoiding the topic of the effects of Palestinian terrorism on Israeli public opinion and the tricky question of how a two-state solution could come about under Palestinian leadership split between Fatah and Hamas, Bateman promoted PLO messaging on the topic of ‘settlements’.
Bateman: “Well the Israeli public has shifted to the Right over the decades, particularly since the Left in Israel saw its last high-water mark in the 1990s in the Oslo peace accords – the peace process with the Palestinians – which has very much been frozen and in many ways begun to fall apart since then. Particularly the Israeli youth are…many of them vehement supporters of the Right wing and Mr Netanyahu. And I think even during this campaign we have seen him tack further to the Right and in the closing days of the campaign he said that he would phase the annexation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, so extending Israeli sovereignty formally over those settlements which have grown in number since he was last elected into office. They’re illegal under international law although Israel disputes this but fundamentally they are seen by the Palestinians as the single biggest obstacle to them establishing a future state. And so what we have seen in this election, I think, with that further appeal to the Right wing is the prospect of the internationally held formula – a two-state solution with Israel and the Palestinians – really moved even further to the margins.”
In addition to Bateman’s promotion of the BBC’s standard partial mantra on ‘international law’ we see that he also promotes the inaccurate claim that the number of what the BBC chooses to call ‘settlements’ has “grown” since Netanyahu was “last elected into office” – i.e. since the previous election in March 2015.
In June 2017 the BBC itself reported that work had begun on what it described as “the first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank for more than 20 years”. That community – Amichai – will house former residents of Amona which was evacuated in February 2017. No additional new communities have been built by the Israeli government in the past four years and proposals to legalise outposts built without government consent have not progressed. It is therefore unclear on what evidence Bateman bases his assertion that “settlements…have grown in number” since March 2015.
The item continued:
Presenter: “And I mean we…we talk about Mr Netanyahu of course facing a tough challenge but he’s also, you know, facing…ehm…he’s…he could be removed from office under criminal indictments. Mr Netanyahu still faces charges of corruption. How is that affecting, you know, his campaign and how’s that affecting the support for him?”
Bateman: “Well among his most loyal supporters, I mean they’re…they’re…they’re fiercely loyal of [sic] him. They know about the allegations – some might even believe them – but they really don’t care.”
Only at that point in the item did listeners hear an accurate portrayal of “what will happen next” in relation to the repeatedly referenced legal cases involving Netanyahu but no information was provided concerning Israeli law in such a situation.
Bateman: “I think it possibly has had some effect and it has allowed Benny Gantz to pick up some votes from the Right wing although most of the votes he has taken seem to be coming from the Left. As for what will happen next, well we’re due at some point later this year – the Israeli attorney general – to give Mr Netanyahu a hearing and then those charges could be formally laid against him so you will then have a sitting prime minister with a formal indictment against him which would be a rare or unprecedented situation in Israeli politics and what may happen over the coming days, if he wins the election he has to put together a coalition government. Perhaps there will be a price to membership of the coalition in that parties and their leaders will have to say that they would support him through that process and not resign from government which would then precipitate a collapse of the government and then potentially another general election.”
Once again we see that the profuse amount of BBC coverage of Israeli affairs and the permanent presence of BBC staff in Jerusalem does not preclude shoddy and inaccurate reporting which misleads audiences around the world.