How to shoot yourself in the foot in one easy step

Israel’s clueless government shuts down Al Jazeera in the country, accomplishing nothing and giving its haters more ammunition.

Like so much of what Israel’s far-right government does – from its authoritarian overhaul effort to rejecting regional peace frameworks – Sunday’s shutdown of Al Jazeera in the country might sound good to some but is upon reflection so foolish that it looks like a conspiracy concocted by its enemies.

Hours after a government decision to proceed with the move, law enforcement officials showed up at Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem offices to seize equipment – and the main cable and satellite operators took the channel off the air. This action was enabled by recent law (passed appropriately enough on April Fool’s Day) which allows such action against foreign media deemed harmful to “national security.”

To be clear: the Qatar-based news station offers undeniably unsympathetic coverage of the Gaza War. It is the usual rogues gallery of bad and biased journalism. They rush to report news that casts Israel in a poor light, and do not rush to correct things when they get it wrong. The language used on-air betrays that they really do think there is a genocide going on in Gaza (there isn’t) and they rarely air criticism of Hamas (which actually committed genocide on Oct. 7).

None of this is my cup of tea. Hamas is the criminal aggressor in the current war, which is started an unprovoked invasion and a brutal massacre the likes of which have not been experienced by a Western country since World War II – and I agree Al Jazeera causes Israel some harm by promoting a narrative to the contrary (the Arabic station more so than the softer English-language version).

But it is also not quite the two-headed monster some might think. Earlier this year, Israel was accused by the Committee to Protect Journalists of killing more journalists in 2023 (mostly in Gaza) than any country has ever done; I defended Israel against that very charge on Al Jazeera (yes, I have appeared numerous times on this channel, as on others of all political stripe).

I am invited with the clear understanding that I do not share the station’s perspective, and I was allowed to speak live. The interviewers are often somewhat combative, but not unprofessionally so, and I get my points across. Regarding the journalists, these involved the observations that there is a broadening definition of who is a journalist these days, war reporting is dangerous, there is particular density and difficulty in Gaza, and the fact that in my experience the IDF does not, in fact, target journalists (though rogue actions can occur, and of course, more can be done to protect them).

Is Al Jazeera balanced enough to be considered a proper journalistic organization? I don’t know where exactly to draw the line, but one thing is clear: It is more so than Israel’s right-wing Channel 14, where you will not hear opposition voices, and more than US right-wing talk radio as well.

What’s the upside for Israel of the move? Let’s take a look:

  • Most of the negative coverage of the war on Al Jazeera comes from the studio in Doha – from discussions with experts and activists, with video from the news agencies and from Al Jazeera itself serving as the backdrop to the discussion and too-often tendentious on-screen text overlays. This will continue, obviously.
  • Al Jazeera will continue to operate in the Palestinian areas, which includes Gaza, in theory. The original reporting and videos from there will continue – but now the material will not be routed through the office in Jerusalem, whose producers and editors may not be huge fans of Israel, but are at least exposed to the Israeli perspective on things. I know some of them, and they are reasonable people.
  • There will be no more hope of reporting from Israel, which does occur at present, and does bring across the Israeli view, even if deemphasized.
  • Al Jazeera will continue to spread all its supposed venom to the Arab world and the entire planet; and even if the website is blocked by geolocation anyone in Israel who wants to reach it will probably be able to do so via workarounds like a VPN (which encrypt a user’s internet connection and reroutes it through a server in another country).
  • Al Jazeera will presumably still be able to interview people in Israel by video, because … technology. The government could try to forbid this too by law, which would probably be struck down by the courts (since they have not yet been Putinized despite the government’s pre-Oct. 7 efforts); that too would cause more damage.

Israel’s medieval Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi accused the station of pro-Hamas incitement and exposing Israeli troops to ambushes, without offering proof. In any case this would not necessarily be affected by the move, as we have seen.

So, not a massive upside. Let us turn to the downside.

The first is on messaging. If the government actually blocks even interviews, the effect would be to deny Israel’s perspective a chance to reach the huge and rather important Arab audience.

The second is reputational. Many will start to notice that the law allows the government to shut down any foreign media on “national security” grounds (as long as a judge approves – and remember, the government’s reforms aim to appoint puppet judges). It is easy for Israelis to stomach the shuttering of Al Jazeera. How will they feel if their country uses this law to shut down CNN or the Associated Press? Or the BBC, which has often been accused, not unjustly, of anti-Israel bias?

Democracies are not supposed to shut down foreign media (or NGOs). That is the type of thing police states mess around with; about a decade ago Egypt shut down Al Jazeera because it correctly deemed it supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood which had just been overthrown. There is no free press in North Korea, Belarus, or Eritrea. Russia shuts down media, as does China. Not the best of company.

Israel is thus badly undermining its standing as a democracy precisely at the moment when that standing is under blistering attack; already, the White House has expressed concern, citing the freedom of the press. The move (indeed the very existence of the new law) will probably cause Israel’s ranking to tumble in the myriad lists of transparency, freedom, respect for journalists, and so on; just weeks ago the respected Swedish think tank V-Dem denied Israel the top category of “liberal democracy” for the first time because of the attempt, now on pause, to eviscerate the judiciary.

Such reputational damage could beget further punishment from the global credit ratings agencies, world markets, and foreign investors. So the third cost may be financial.

Defenders will argue that European Union countries blocked the Kremlin mouthpiece RTV from broadcasting after the invasion of Ukraine. That’s true, and it was controversial – but it was also part of a massive and punitive regime of sanctions against the criminal regime of Vladimir Putin. Israel has no similar position vis-à-vis Qatar: for all its flaws the Gulf state is a valuable interlocutor in negotiating with Hamas, and Israel wants certain things from it (mainly to apply financial and other pressure on the terrorist group). So the fourth cost is undermining key diplomacy.

Bad-faith players can twist the national security argument any which way to suit their purpose; so it has been, and so it will always be. National security canards are a very slippery slope that serves dictatorships. Dictatorships do not generally prosper, even if some dictators do. Israelis like their prosperity, and it is linked to their democracy. Let’s hope for their sake they don’t discover how powerfully this is so.

The way to fix this is to not renew the measure in 45 days, as the law requires be done. Another possible avenue is the legal action Al Jazeera says it plans – which is an interesting and justified show of faith in the Israeli legal system, as it still is today.

Democracy is tested precisely in tolerating voices you do not want to hear. I don’t expect the current Israeli government or its supporters to care about that. But perhaps they will care about looking like idiots for a boneheaded move that is all pain and no gain. If Israel’s leaders were secretly agents of Russia or Qatar, then this action, which adds to the considerable reputational damage Israel is already suffering, would make perfect sense. But I am inclined to think that that’s not the case.

So how can one explain the taking of repeated actions that are idiotic? The answer might be found in Occam’s Razor – the philosophical maxim that argues that the simplest answer to a mystery is usually the correct one.

Attackers jump on Gaza aid point

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