Israel’s Great Media Migration

Former journalists turned politicians (clockwise from top left) Nitzan Horowitz, Yair Lapid, Gideon Saar and Shelly Yachimovich

 

There is a new breed of Israeli politician. After generations of being disproportionately dominated by three broad types – “princes”, technocrats, and generals – Israeli politics has come to attract a growing number of journalists. 

The princes are the second-generation politicians, a category that included, among many others, the daughters of Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, both of whom became Knesset members, the sons of Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, who both served as cabinet ministers, the son of former president Chaim Herzog, Itzhak, who was elected chairman of the Labor Party, and the son of Knesset member Mordecai Olmert, Ehud, who went on to become prime minister. 

The technocrat is the career politician who worked from a young age alongside, and were mentored by, a major leader, the way that former prime minister Shimon Peres, former president Yitzhak Navon, and former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, all did alongside David Ben-Gurion. 

Most famously, Israeli politics has been swamped over recent decades by scores of retired generals, from prime ministers Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak, to three of the current leaders of the main Blue and White opposition party – Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, all of whom are former chiefs of staff of the IDF. 

Today the princes, technocrats and generals are being joined by media veterans – over the last decade, journalism has supplied Israel with 13 new lawmakers, three cabinet ministers, and three party leaders. 

The new breed of journalist-politician spans pretty much the entire political spectrum, from the ultra-secular to the ultra-Orthodox, and encompasses the political right, left, and centre. 

This trend started humbly enough in 2003 when Gideon Saar, a former correspondent for the muckraking newsweekly Ha’olam Hazeh (“This World”) and other media outlets, joined Likud’s backbenches, while ultra-Orthodox rabbi Yisrael Eichler, a panellist on the TV talk show “Populitika,” became a lawmaker for United Torah Judaism. 

What began humbly became more dramatic three years later, when radio compere Shelly Yachimovich announced she was leaving the media, joining Labor, and running for a Knesset seat. The difference was that, unlike Saar, she was a senior journalist, and unlike Eichler, she joined a major party. 

Having grilled politicians for years on one channel’s morning show called “All Talk,” and then for another five years on the competing channel’s “What’s Burning,” Yachimovich became well-known to millions who heard her in their cars daily during rush hour. 

Yachimovich made her decision after a particularly flattering interview with former union leader Amir Peretz upon his election as Labor leader (Peretz has just been elected to again serve as Labor leader). Having sided with him as he attacked Israel’s resurgent capitalism, she later said: “I felt inside that I had crossed the lines and could no longer sit there as an objective interviewer.”

The career change on which she consequently embarked bore fruit in 2011, when she was elected as Labor Party leader and became a candidate for prime minister. It ended this July, with her announcement that she is retiring. Now 60, the social crusader – who earned public respect by sponsoring laws capping the pay of senior bankers, forcing the IDF to buy locally made uniforms, and demanding supermarkets let cashiers work sitting down – said she was exhausted. 

Yachimovich’s exhaustion is not a result of the transition from journalism to politics, but of the crisis in Israeli Labor, as the party that once led the Jewish state shrank in April’s election to a mere six lawmakers. 

The migration from journalism to politics, however, continues in earnest. 

Meretz, the liberal party to Labor’s left, has just crowned as its leader Nitzan Horowitz, the former foreign editor for Channel 10’s nightly news. Horowitz first entered the Knesset three years after Yachimovich. 

In the centre, Blue and White’s number two Yair Lapid, a candidate for the premiership in rotation with party leader Benny Gantz, was a newspaper columnist, TV producer, and newscaster until shifting to politics six years ago, at age 50. 

Joining him back then was Ofer Shelah, at the time a columnist and military-affairs analyst for Army Radio and Maariv, a major newspaper. Last year the two were joined by Yoaz Hendel, until then a columnist for the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot. 

On the right, former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is Our Home”) party saw Anastasya Michaeli, previously a newscaster for Russian-language Channel 9 TV, and Sharon Gal, who had been police reporter for Channel 10 News, elected as lawmakers. 

The Russian-language press supplied a lawmaker to the left as well, Xenia Svetlova, previously an Arab affairs reporter on Channel 9 news. She served as a lawmaker for the Zionist Union/Labor in the Knesset that was dissolved last December – alongside Mickey Rosenthal, who entered the Knesset at age 58 after a career as a celebrated investigative reporter. 

Earlier this year the trend reached the English-language media, when Jerusalem Post conservative columnist Caroline Glick very publicly sought a Knesset seat with the New Right party. That party narrowly missed the electoral threshold in the election in April. 

In short, Israel’s journalists are entering politics in surprising numbers. The political system, for its part, happily embraces them, and in three years may very well see a former media celebrity, Yair Lapid, become prime minister. All of this raises the question of where this trend is coming from and what it might mean. 

 

One prosaic cause of the new migration may lie in the media’s global crisis. 

The international trend of the past decade, whereby newspapers and broadcast outlets shrink, merge, and vanish, firing thousands of journalists along the way, has hit the Israeli press no less than the rest of Western media. Established journalists thus have good reason to seek second careers. 

However, the better-known names among Israel’s journalists-turned-politicians, like Yachimovich, were driven by idealism, and a sense of frustration in the face of what they saw as the politicians’ ability to shape the reality that the press can only decry. 

This journalistic urge to have a direct impact emerged most tellingly, and improbably, in the religious niche of the Israeli media. 

Modern Orthodox columnist and radio talk-show host Uri Orbach last decade co-founded the Jewish Home party, and helped it to quadruple its following from three to 12 Knesset seats. 

Orbach, who later became a cabinet minister and died four years ago aged only 54, was not financially insecure and did not need a second career. What he wanted was to make his community more relevant, an extension of his effort to convince more religiously observant Israelis to join the media. 

This is even more true of Lapid, whose television success made him one of Israel’s richest politicians, with an estimated personal wealth of NIS 25 million (A$7.25 million), according to Forbes Israel. 

Another reason Israeli journalists are entering politics is that they are familiar with the issues the legislature routinely tackles, and always arrive with at least some policy areas in which they have developed an expertise. 

In addition, many journalists are also very eloquent, especially when compared with the average Israeli politician. On top of all these assets comes the publicity, colour, and, in some cases, celebrity, that journalists can bring to politics. Lapid’s success in winning 19 seats upon entering politics in 2013 obviously benefitted from his fame as a newscaster who entered millions of living rooms every Friday night. 

Yet beyond these factors, there may also be a context unique to Israel – namely the Zionist movement’s establishment by journalists. Theodore Herzl was a foreign correspondent for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse when he conceived the Zionist idea, arguably as a byproduct of his journalistic work. 

On the left, Berl Katzenelson, the spiritual founder of the Labor movement and David Ben-Gurion’s mentor, established the daily broadsheet Davar in 1925 and was its editor until his death in 1944. The next editor, Zalman Shazar, was Israel’s third president. 

On the right, the founder of the Revisionist Party, Menachem Begin’s mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky, was a lifelong columnist. And religious Zionist leader Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan established and edited the daily Hatzofeh (“The Observer”), whose current incarnation, Makor Rishon (“Primary Source”), is today an important weekend broadsheet. 

Having said this, considering that Britain is now being led by former journalist Boris Johnson, the Israeli phenomenon may be heralding a wider international trend.