- Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel
After being neglected for several decades, the central role played by news media in various aspects of Israeli social and political life has enjoyed some scholarly attention in recent years. The works of Caspi & Limor (1999), Wolfsfeld (2004), and others are now rounded out by yet another exploration, focusing on the contribution of the privatized and Americanized television system to Israeli politics during the 1990s. Yoram Peri's Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel will undoubtedly become an indispensable text for scholars and students of Israeli media and politics. Brilliantly written and jam-packed with anecdotes and examples, Peri's book provides an almost encyclopedic description of the development of Israeli mainstream and alternative news media, and of the various intersections between media and politics in Israel. Peri does more [End Page 201] than merely describe Israeli media and their political significance, however. He reviews a vast array of concepts and theories of media and politics, examines their validity in the Israeli context, and contemplates whether and how the Israeli case can contribute to general theorization and conceptualization concerning the relationship between media and politics.
The book contains three main parts: The first reviews the development of what Peri calls Mediapolitik in Israel. He argues that Israeli politics have become totally dominated by media logic, at the expense of the old political structures that were guided by political institutions such as parties. In the third part of the book, Peri describes the fragmentation of Israeli society, consisting today of six tribes (immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Israeli Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, national religious Jews, the "northerners," and the "southerners"). He contemplates whether this segmentation process was driven by the flourishing of alternative media, owned and operated by members of the various minority groups and constantly challenging mainstream news. Contrary to Katz (1996), Peri argues that the multi-channel media ecology, with an ample niche for minority media, does not endanger the cohesiveness and integration of Israeli society, but rather creates a new kind of social cohesiveness and integration.
The second part of the book contains the book's main thesis and provides, in my opinion, its most innovative and important contribution. Here, Peri focuses on intersections between media and politics during the 1990s, with a substantial emphasis on the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, a case that despite its fascinating qualities has not yet benefited from scholarly attention. Peri argues that Netanyahu's term as prime minister (1996–1999) can be classified as neo-populism, given that the characteristics of populism—discontent from mediating institutions such as bureaucracy and the parliament, a charismatic leader, an anti-intellectual and anti-elite protest orientation, and an ultra-national platform—were all present in Netanyahu's campaigning, and subsequently in his term as prime minister. Netanyahu attempted to bypass the old political institutions and build his "coalition of the deprived" by addressing the people directly, through television.
Netanyahu emerges from the book as a politician placing an unprecedented stress on media considerations. He was the first Israeli politician to travel everywhere with a makeup kit (in case he happened to find himself in the vicinity of a television camera); he was the first to plan events according to TV programming schedules, and he was the first to expose his private life (including his extramarital affair) in public, on TV. Netanyahu imported constant campaigning to Israel, and with it introduced extreme negative political advertising, using repetitive messages delivered in short sound bytes. Netanyahu [End Page 202] began his workday as prime minister with a detailed, lengthy discussion with his close circle of media consultants. For Netanyahu, unlike former prime ministers, the basic conception was that "statesmanship—namely steering the affairs of state—means foremost setting the public agenda, and this is done through the media" (p. 203).
The book offers a brilliant analysis—the first of its kind—of the messages entailed in Netanyahu as a symbol. The product "Bibi Netanyahu," Peri argues, is an attempt to present, in aggregate, the defining traits of "Israeliness." Its salient characteristic...