What is behind Israel’s attempt to ban Al Jazeera?

Does Netanyahu need a smoke screen for his corruption scandal or is there a more sinister reason for banning Al Jazeera?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to an advisor at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to an adviser at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem onAugust 6 [Reuters/Gali Tibbonl]

The present attempt by the government of Israel to close down Al Jazeera’s offices in Jerusalem reflects a potentially far-reaching shift in the perceived power and role of critical media, not just in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but across the Arab world and larger Middle East and North Africa.

The move is particularly odd since Al Jazeera and Israel have long had a symbiotic, if often adversarial, relationship. Despite long-standing and often harsh criticism of the Israeli occupation and its policies, Israel has afforded the channel relatively wide latitude in its coverage. There have been repeated grumblings over the years, and threats to close down its bureaus, but it hasn’t prevented coverage and commentary by Al Jazeera’s staff and contributing writers. 

Al Jazeera’s offices – like other media organisations – have been located for years in the same complex as the Government Press Office. Showing up for press credentials from the network has never caused any more trouble than I’ve experienced when I requested credentials for US news organisations, for example. In fact, it often felt like the relationship with Al Jazeera was a source of pride for Israeli media and press officials, one that reflected the unique set of circumstances that served each side well. 

For Israel, Al Jazeera, particularly the original Arab network, provided the government unprecedented opportunities to speak to Arab citizens across the region, beginning in the 1990s – at the height of the Olso peace process. The fact that Al Jazeera allowed Israeli officials and, through its reports, ordinary citizens to speak unfiltered was an unprecedented opening for Israel to the outside world, an opening worth what it perceived as negative coverage.

On the other hand, Al Jazeera’s access to Israeli officials and commentators gave the network a chance to expand on the usual narrow set of viewpoints presented in other Arab networks and to challenge – on the air – the official Israeli narrative. 

So why, after allowing Al Jazeera to operate during some of the most intense violence of the occupation (including the sieges of Nablus and Jenin and the various and increasingly deadly attacks on Gaza), would the Israeli government suddenly feel it’s so important to terminate Al Jazeera’s presence in Jerusalem? 

Is it to push attention away from the two corruption investigations of Benjamin Netanyahu – a scandal that some media have called “the most serious political crisis” for the Israeli PM? Perhaps Al Jazeera is a convenient scapegoat for Netanyahu’s failures and his increasing lack of popularity at home. 

READ MORE: Al Jazeera statement on Israel’s plan to ban network

Or perhaps Israel is jumping on the bandwagon of the campaign against Al Jazeera launched by Saudi Arabia and the UAE? 

It could be that Israeli media experts sense that the attacks on Qatar and Al Jazeera by so many other Arab governments are beginning to gain steam in the Arab public sphere, and thus Israel is trying, in its own twisted way, to support them, as a way of gaining favourable coverage in their official media. 

Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara has tried to justify the move by accusing Al Jazeera of causing Israel “to lose the lives of the best of our sons”, adding “when we see that all these countries have determined as fact that Al Jazeera is a tool of the Islamic State [group], Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, and we are the only one who have not determined that, then something ludicrous is happening here.” The ludicrousness of the charge that Al Jazeera is enabling the killing of Israeli soldiers is not relevant here; what matters is how Israel is trying to position itself as part of a larger, Arab-led, coalition against terrorism. 

It also could be that the Israeli government has developed such good, and more or less open, relationships with Arab governments across the region that it no longer needs access to Al Jazeera’s viewers. Perhaps the Israeli government has decided that it simply can do without communicating with Arab people directly, since both the rise of intense illiberalism, censorship and sectarianism have rendered such policies superfluous, and the changing mood in the Arab and official public spheres mean that many Arabs no longer even care about Israel or the occupation have equally rendered the exposure Al Jazeera afforded Israelis no longer important. 

There is one other possibility, however: That Al Jazeera has become more dangerous than ever. The rise of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to global prominence as a mechanism of worldwide resistance to the occupation has occurred, in good measure, because of the constant negative media coverage of Israel’s intensifying grip on Palestine. 

Among mainstream or major media outlets, few have been as successful and focused on placing the realities of the occupation before the court of world opinion as Al Jazeera and The Guardian. Thus, the attempt to shut it down now could be the result of a determination that its coverage is, in fact, seriously harming Israel’s standing internationally, and, perhaps even more worryingly, that the government plans on engaging in actions in the near future – from another all-out assault on Gaza to the de facto or de jure annexation of significant territory in the West Bank – that it cannot afford to have covered in the critical manner that Al Jazeera would provide. 

Whatever the reasons for the change in policy, the decision to force Al Jazeera from Jerusalem hints at a shift in Israeli strategic calculations that should worry anyone who cares not just about freedom of the press, but about the explosion of yet another Israeli-Palestinian war.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at Lund University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.