France-Israel. Lobby or not lobby ? (5)

Rigged Match in the Media Ring

Investigation · Current events show it once again: caught between the bullying tactics of a handful of hyped-up Israel admirers and faint-hearted newsrooms, it takes iron willpower—or an independent news organ—to cover current events in Israel-Palestine. The violent attacks suffered by Charles Enderlin after the Mohamed Al-Dura case have left their mark.

Christophe Simon/Sébastien Bozon/AFP

Since the provocations of the Israeli far right in East Jerusalem have rekindled the clashes between the army and Hamas, we have once again seen the importance of independent views on the spot, often from press agency correspondents and the print media. Their dispatches and papers dismantle the lies of the government of Benyamin Netanyahu, widely relayed without nuance—especially in France by a part of the audiovisual media—by the supporters of Israel who form a vast political and media lobby. The match seems unequal, so massive is the propaganda steamroller. However, it is not lost.

Three journalists having covered Israel-Palestine for three different publications at three different periods have agreed, provided their names are not used, to tell of the meddlesome phone calls, the barely veiled threats, the hypocrisy of their editors-in-chief. The first of these, we shall call him “Étienne”, was Jerusalem correspondent for a national daily. The second, “Marc”, worked for an audiovisual media and the third, “Philippe” was regularly sent there as a special correspondent for a weekly.

Like most correspondents, permanent or occasional in Israel, they all sing the praises of the “fluidity” of the journalism in that country, where the press is varied, the sources are many and open, dealing with a vast array of subjects. Only news touching on issues of “national security” is submitted to a committee of military censorship, and is sometimes banned from publication, mostly to prevent the identification of individual soldiers on audiovisual media. But this primarily concerns an Israeli press which is often quite pugnacious and has remained so despite the elaborate strategies used by Benyamin Netanyahu and his billionaire friends the media owners to “normalise” it. The manipulation of the Israeli army aiming to give the impression, on Thursday 13 May, of a ground attack on Gaza is from this point of view a first, strongly condemned by the international press.

Many correspondents for Le Monde, Libération and other publications have written books on their return from Israel which are often as fascinating as they are critical of Israeli society1. The problem is therefore less in Israel. “It’s a good place to work, people are used to the press, we can go everywhere,”2

The destruction of the building housing the American news agency AP and the Qatari broadcasting network Al Jazeera is further proof of Israel’s desire to control information in the territory.]] says René Backmann, for example, a long-time correspondent for the Nouvel Observateur and today with Mediapart. “It’s in France they mess with us”3 More precisely, they mess with journalists and pay no attention to intellectuals critical of Israeli policies. Let us listen to what those three journalists have to say.

Etienne, former correspondent for a daily:

My first surprise, when I settled in Jerusalem: one of our editors-in-chief came out to see me and introduced me to one of his old ’friends,” a Mossad agent. He in turn put me in touch with a younger counter-espionage agent who said his name was Paul He was one of the officers in charge of foreign media and regularly handed me documents in plastic folders which I never used, either because I could not check them against a second source or because they contained insignificant data. However, on several occasions I found these “revelations” in the paper, signed by the aforementioned editor-in-chief, who had come to Israel without letting me know. He even went so far as to interview the Prime Minister without taking me along, contrary to the usual practice whereby the local correspondent always attends an interview in the country where he is stationed. I was informed by a phone call from the editor-in-chief: “He only wants me” and he turned me over to the… Mossad officer in charge of foreign journalists, who said”: I am sorry, it is true, etc.” And for good reason: his editorials were a faithful reflection of Israel’s positions at the time.

A few months later, I received an unusual assignment from the society page: an article on French Jews emigrating to Israel because of the rise of anti-Semitism in France. A rapid investigation showed that the reality was quite different. The number of immigrants from France was not increasing at that time, and all those I met told me they had not made their aliyah out of fear but out of Zionism, and that in any case “the country where Jews are really in danger is Israel.” A contact I had at the Jewish Agency provided me with recent statistics which revealed the very militant profile of immigrants: over 90% of them attended Jewish schools in France or belonged to Jewish associations. A large majority confirmed having come for ideological reasons. None of which satisfied the society page editor in charge of my article, of whom I was unaware that her sympathies lay with the Israeli right. The next day, my redacted article appeared in the paper, with all the embarrassing statistics erased. The same editor also published a very complaisant article under the heading “the French Jewish community angry with the press.”

As I travelled regularly to the West Bank and Gaza and I gave Palestinians an opportunity to speak their minds, the CRIF [Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions] lodged a protest with my superiors, but the only echo I heard was from the chairman of the CRIF himself. At the end of a conference in Jerusalem in which participated, he took me aside: “Did your editor give you a tinkle?” I asked him how the exchanges inside our paper could possibly concern him. “My editor never phones me, he has complete confidence in me,” and I ditched him then and there. I heard the bottom line on that story a bit later on my way through Paris. I ran into the editor-in-chief and he explained: “I was invited to Israel by the CRIF, and I went so they would leave me alone, but I did not want to tell you about it in order not to interfere with you or influence you, of course, and I did not write anything.” When that editor was replaced after a change of stockholders, I was already back in Paris. His successor boasted to all and sundry that he had turned the daily into a “pro-Israel paper.”

“Marc,” correspondent for an audiovisual media:

For years now, Israel has been trying to normalise its image on the international scene, but the problem is not so much Netanyahu as it is his liaisons in France. When we do any reporting in the West Bank, they go ape shit on the networks and their websites, accusing us of anti-Semitism, of spreading fake news, they just go raving mad. The problem we have in the audiovisual game is that contrary to the print media which is under no external surveillance we are monitored by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). It is made up of people who do not have a clue, who have no idea how we work but are convinced they have to make sure “the conflict is given a balanced treatment” and can therefore legitimately send us “warnings.” A sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

Thus, in July 2020, the CSA came down on Radio-France because France-Inter had broadcast a report on the destruction of an itinerant anti-Covid clinic by the Israeli army in the occupied territories. The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), the branch of the army in charge of administering the occupation, had refuted France Inter’s investigation, but they often spout nonsense, an army of occupation has no obligation to be accountable. The issue was referred to the CSA by Meyer Habib, who sees France Inter as a hotbed of “Islamo-leftist” hipsters. Obviously, all that creates a certain atmosphere, but we must not dramatize it either.

Nonetheless, I have to be careful, think twice before proposing a topic, I do not want to be bullied all the time, and my editor does not want to be iced out by the CSA.4

“Philippe,” special correspondent for a magazine:

I have often gone to Israel and Palestine even though it was not my essential brief. My first trip there was over twenty years ago, a “discovery voyage” organised by the American Jewish Committee in Paris (AJC). On the staff of my journal, I was neither the first nor the last to go on this type of trip, everything was taken care of, all expenses paid. The AJC invited all sorts of colleagues, not just foreign news reporters but also editorialists, editors-in-chief, columnists. In my group, there was a journalist specialising in transports and a woman who covered consumer habits and daily life for a TV channel. It was well oiled, no time was lost, they took us around the Negev in a helicopter, we met a few MPs and ministers, at the time there was even someone from the peace camp. As I remember, nobody wrote anything, and they did not ask us to. But needless to say, the fact that we were guests did not make us want to spit in the soup.

At first, I never had any trouble getting my articles into print, even though one of the editors-in-chief published editorials increasingly pro-Israeli, pretty much in contradiction with what I was writing… One of my articles drew a good many hostile letters from readers and I know the editor-in-chief wasn’t happy and there were probably phone calls from influential “friends” of the magazine. And so, little by little, and though nobody ever said anything to me, it became increasingly difficult to go there. “You are sure?” “Our readers are not really interested in that any more.” “It is pretty expensive, no?” Well, but that didn’t hold true for the editorials. Pro-Israel opinion had become quite unbridled in the magazine without ever being counterbalanced by more nuanced reporting.

Guillaume Gendron was correspondent for Libération in Israel-Palestine between 2017 and 2020 and has written many papers in recent days in his newspaper, in line with this initial observation published by the daily on 16 December 2020, which describes the rise of the far right in Israeli society:

Today, Israel and Palestine are more deeply entwined than ever, two realities not side by side but on top of one another, two destinies chained together. While the colonists take root, so that the West Bank looks more and more like a kosher Texas, an ersatz Trumpland where cowboys with wool yarmulkes play Wild West with pick-up trucks and M16 rifles opposite Indians of Araby, a bricklayer from Jenin makes his living on building sites in Tel-Aviv, having crossed the wall with or without a pass. In the meantime, Palestinian youths, the generation “khalas” (that is enough) have no future and dream only of the sea.

A few weeks later, hosted by Dominique Vidal at the Institut de Recherche et d’Etudes Méditerrannée, Moyen-Orient (Iremmo)5 to tell of his three-year professional experience, Gendron deplored, like all the French journalists covering current events in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramallah, the constant badgering of a handful of zealots devoted to the defence of Israel … in France.”They have a very organised way of managing their offensives, there are people who do that all day long on the social networks”, dissecting the reports of correspondents in search of so-called disinformation. “At first, I used to argue back, Gendron said, "but dealing with people of such bad faith, always prepared to distort what you say, you reach a point where you do not want to get involved in the debate because it is not a debate at all.“”

What with the broadcast gaps and memory failures, it is no easy matter to apprise the media’s handling of France-Israel relations. It may be a “non-issue” as I have been repeatedly told in various ways over the last few months, the fact remains that various well-established watchdogs are in charge of dealing with reporters who fail in their duty of informing the public: the journalist Clément Weill-Raynal with his website InfoEquitable, the attorney Gilles William Goldnagel to be heard on the many right-wing audiovisual sets, and the inevitable MP, Meyer Habib, so often on deck to bully journalists and who is a regular on 124News. They are almost systematically echoed by the CRIF along with personalities like Alain Finkelkraut, Jacques Tarnero, Schmuel Trigano and many cybernauts and little-known Franco-Israeli websites like JJS News and of course on the social networks.

For these people, against all reason and simple sense of observation, the demonisation of Israel in French media is nothing less than terrifying. They demand “balanced” news reporting, as if this term had any meaning. “They have a false notion of ’balanced’ information which in their view should be systematically favourable to Israel,” a colleague stationed in Jerusalem explains. Several journalists remind us of the celebrated definition of TV objectivity, attributed to Jean-Luc Godard: “Five minutes for the Jews, five minutes for Hitler”. One of them told me that Meyer Habib had grossly transformed it when criticising his coverage of Palestine into “Five minutes for the Jews, five minutes for Israel.” Yet those people who Piotr Smolar, former Jerusalem correspondent for Le Monde calls “hateful aunts” do “end up imposing an omerta. I have heard it time and time again from buddies,” René Backmann tells me ; ”they find it harder and harder to work at all. They are told: ’Do you really think Palestine is worth the trouble? That is over and done with, they have had it.’

The Mohamed Al-Dura case has left its mark. Following his feature on that Palestinian 12-year-old killed by Israeli snipers in Gaza in 2000, Charles Enderlin, veteran correspondent for France 2 was the target of a long-drawn-out campaign of guerrilla warfare, in the media and in the courts. He provides a detailed account of the accusations of mendacity in Un enfant est mort (Don Quichotte, 2010) and in his recent professional memoirs, De notre correspondant à Jérusalem (Seuil, 2021). It took thirteen years of legal proceedings before Enderlin was completely vindicated by the French courts and his principal accuser, Philippe Karsenty, non-suited and ordered to pay costs.

But the wound went deep and the rumour persisted. To be called a liar and manipulator, to hear shouts of “Death to Enderlin” at public meetings was a terrible experience for the reporter. And while his employer backed him up throughout the whole procedure as did almost all his fellow journalists who signed a petition launched by their union, the SNJ. “Charles was quickly side-lined and had a difficult life”, Dominique Pradié, General Secretary of the SNJ and one of his former colleagues at France 2 tells me. “His reporting was no longer accepted and Pujadas, anchorman for the 8 ’clock news, had blacklisted him.”

Another petition in support of Enderlin, initiated by René Backmann, had collected hundreds of signatures, including many from Le Canard enchaîné, Le Nouvel Observateur, Agence France-Presse and the audiovisual media. But no media tycoon, with the exception of Didier Pillet, owner of La Provence and Claude Perdriel (and his then second-in-command at the Observateur, Denis Olivennes) had signed the text. “Les chefferies [the chieftancies]” to use Dominique Pradié’s word displayed not the slightest solidarity with Charles Enderlin. When what was at stake was the duty to inform the public, not only about Palestine but about other subjects as well. Yet Denis Jambar, director of L’Express, was one of his main accusers, and other right-wing journals like Le Figaro took up at various times the arguments brandished by Karsenty and his accomplices, like Elisabeth Lévy of Causeur or the late Luc Rosenzweig. Not to mention less well-known websites, which turn out so much misinformation it is almost to keep up with them and which persist in denouncing Enderlin. A sign of the changing times? France 2 took more than two weeks in May 021 to send a special envoy...

Moreover, other lawsuits brought by pro-Israelis, particularly against Edgar Morin, Danielle Sallenave and Samir Nair for a 2002 op-ed in Le Monde, all ended in acquittals by the Cour de cassation, France’s highest judiciary echelon, or against Daniel Mermet when he had a programme on France Inter (who was also acquitted). So, it all came to nothing, yet in the end editors- in-chief became persuaded they had best keep a low profile. Everybody won against the pro-Israelis and yet, by a bitter twist of fate, the latter came out victorious of the putrid polemics they had initiated. So after all was not much ado about nothing, alas.

And so henceforth, it is no talking in the ranks! We have said so before, an omerta has emerged, many news items simply do not get through. For example, where have we read in France that Israeli “security” backrooms made abusive use of the identity of French journalists to mount secret operations for their Abu Dhabi “clients?” The US website The Daily Beast broke the news, and it was widely picked up in the USA, the UK … and Israel. But not in France, where the audiovisual media seem even more faint-hearted when it comes to Israel than the printed press. Is it because their editors are more timorous—or more pro-Israel indeed— most of the critics of Israel are rarely invited on their sets? Rony Brauman, a Franco-Israeli like Charles Enderlin, attests like so many other personalities, “that with the exception of France 24 I am persona non grata in the media. Once I was invited to speak on a programme by “Complément d’enquête” on “The Jews and Israel”. My participation was cancelled the day before and I was replaced by Bernard-Henri Lévy6. It seems the producer saw me as ’a guy who stirred up controversy.’“It is permissible to criticise Israel in France, you do not go to jail for it. But if you do criticise Israel, you are going to have the friends of Israel on your back, and there are lots of those Israeli supporters," a retired French ambassador explains. ” I am not dramatizing, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but in our country there are laws against anti-Semitism, so you might think the debate could be out in the open, but this is no longer really the case.”

“The political offensive aimed at making anti-Zionism a new form of anti-Semitism has made it possible for them to chalk up some points in public opinion,” says Frédérique Schillo. She is another Franco-Israeli, and an academic. “It is a little biased, but they brought it off alright and it is doubly beneficial for Israel: they can claim that today anti-Semitism has various disguises…"

Fear of being accused of anti-Semitism has many colleagues paralysed. And the adoption by many public bodies—since the beginning of 2021, Paris, Mulhouse, the general Council of the Alpes-Maritimes—of the definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) equating criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism, has not made things easier, notably for journalists. The political spectrum rallying to the blissful defence of Israel, from Manuel Valls to Gérard Darmanin, from Anne Hidalgo to Emmanuel Macron, is not without influence in the media sphere.

As for the defence of Palestinians and their rights, “It isn’t a very popular subject,” says Bruno Joncour, an MP from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany with the Mouvement démocrate (Modem).” So many people just don’t want to commit themselves, which is not very brave or glorious of them.” “In France there is still a deep-rooted attachment to the Palestinian cause. There is a movement of solidarity promoted by the different associations, but it has no media coverage, nobody says a word about it. The lid is on very tight, a regular lead weight of silence,” Jacques Fath observes. He used to be in charge of international affairs for the French CP. The ravages caused by Islamist terrorism have played a major role in this conspiracy of silence. Today, supporting the Palestinians is tantamount to backing Hamas and therefore terrorism, the pro-Israel propagandists hammer out incessantly. However fallacious, the argument has been effective.

The media no longer commit themselves. Since the failure of the Oslo process, the topic has become a minor one and the threats and bullying of the fiercest pro-Israelis relayed by the CRIF persuade editors to keep a low profile and make sure their journalists follow suit. Self-censorship? Cowardice? Laziness? Desire to please? “A little of each”, Alain Gresh, director of Orient XXI, says with a sigh. He has been covering the region for years and, like Brauman, has sometimes had invitations cancelled at the last minute, and was never invited again.

If we wanted to carry further the animal metaphor of “hateful ants” we could speak of their cronies: the lazy lizards and the near-sighted moles. It is mostly the many bosses and deputy bosses in a profession which is fairly hierarchical who claim that public opinion is no longer interested in the issue, which is a way to avoid dealing with it, at the same time opening their columns and their air time to the many pro-Israeli propagandists. We have to admit that Frédéric Encel, a notorious pro-Israel pundit, is right. In a lecture he gave in Strasburg in 2013, made public by Pascal Boniface, he strutted rather triumphantly dealing with Israel and the media: “On the whole, the situation is (I was about to say ‘under control’) but rather favourable. We really find media favourable to Israel, balanced, honest, everywhere, absolutely everywhere; it is true of the printed press, true of radio, true of television.” In Rony Brauman’s view, “Encel was speaking objectively of a lobby which objectively exists. It is an acknowledged fact, averred quite openly.” At the time, indeed, Frédéric Encel was at the height of his media glory because he ensured the summer interim of the geopolitical chronicle on France Inter, a position he owed to Philippe Val, another pro-Israeli and Islamophobic figure who was head of the channel at the time.

“The same people who demand of journalists an impossible ’objectivity’ when dealing with Israel are generally the most intolerant,” Piotr Smolar writes. As a former correspondent for Le Monde, he has lost count of the insults and defamatory messages he received after some of his articles. This is a very French situation, because Israeli media, like those in the US or the UK are much freer in tone and choice of subjects than the French.7

Even if there are fewer of them—TF1 has closed its office in Jerusalem and the permanent correspondent of Libération has so far been replaced by quality freelancers —many French colleagues, many of them freelance, are still present in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah, and offer comprehensive and varied coverage of the situation on the ground. They are obliged to do a balancing act between the cowardice of their Parisian superiors and the digital invective of right-wing Israeli lobbyists, not to mention their own economic insecurity. Their reporting is all the more precious, even if the media prepared to make room for them are increasingly rare. Their ultimate silence would be the bitterest defeat of all. It has not yet come about.

1Among the books by former correspondents for Le Monde: Michel Bole Richard, Israël, le nouvel apartheid (Les liens qui libèrent, 2013), Piotr Smolar, Mauvais Juif (éditions de l’équateur, 2019) ou de Libération, Alexandra Schwartzbrod, Jérusalem (Tertium, 2008) Jean-Luc Allouche, Les jours redoutables. Israël-Palestine, la paix dans mille ans (Denoël, 2010), Charles Enderlin, De notre correspondant à Jérusalem, le journalisme comme identité (Le Seuil, 2021).

2Except in Gaza, access to the territory is subject to Israeli authorisation, which is currently denied to journalists. The destruction of the building housing the American news agency AP and the Qatari broadcast network Al Jazeera is further proof of Israel’s desire to control news in the territory.

3Backmann has written a book about the separation wall (Un mur en Palestine, 2006, Fayard) and confirms having had many exchanges on that occasion with military sources. When I wrote Mirage gay à Tel-Aviv (Libertalia, 2017) I had talks with officials in the Ministry of Tourism, others at Tel-Aviv City Hall, etc.

4The task of the CSA is “to ensure the ethics of the news and the programs” on audiovisual media in accordance with article 3-1 of the law of 30 September dealing with freedom if communication. The National Journalists’ Union (SNJ) has always been opposed to this text, since the CSA is a political institution, whose directors are appointed by the Presidents of the Republic, the Senate and the National Assembly.

6NDT. A noted Israeli apologist.

7Nor do I wish to idealise the US press. Some publications, as was shown in the documentary on the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, have no scruples about publishing turnkey “reportages”, furnished free of charge by Israeli sources and evidently approving their policies.