December 17, 2018

Nachman Shai: Criticism of internal Israeli affairs by US officials is legitimate

Kadima MK Nachman Shai, 65, began his career in the media when he joined the IDF in 1964. Shai served in the editorial offices of the Nahal Brigade magazine. He was a radio and TV reporter in the 1970s, covering Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the IDF and the Knesset.

From 1979 to 1981 he was the press secretary of the Israeli mission to the UN and later the press officer of the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC.

He became a national celebrity of sorts during the First Gulf War, when his position as IDF spokesperson earned him the nickname of “national soother”.

Shai entered Kadima as an MK in 2008. Among his Knesset positions he was chairman of several caucuses.

Shai is also an academic, holding a PhD from Bar Ilan University, and was a senior lecturer in the Shalom Rosenfeld Journalism School at Tel Aviv University.

Shai lives near Jerusalem with his wife. He has three children.

MK Shai agreed to answer several questions on the recent criticism of Israeli civil society voiced by Secretary of State Clinton as well as on several bills pushed by junior Likud MKs which are perceived by Israeli media and opposition politicians as encroaching on Israel’s democratic nature. 

Do you agree with Secretary Clinton: is Israel’s democracy in danger?

Up to certain extent, Israel is a democracy in danger. Based on the record of the present coalition and specifically some of its members, there is momentum to curtail the freedom of expression, to limit the power of the Supreme Court, and to delegitimize the rising power of civil society. We may not be there yet, but this is the general direction.

Is it even appropriate for the State Secretary to make comments related to internal Israeli proceedings and legislation – can Israelis criticize American legislation as well?

Taking into consideration the special relations between the USA and Israel, such criticism, which was manifested by Secretary Clinton, is acceptable. We take pride in our democracy and thus should be tuned in to outside friendly voices like Secretary Clinton and many others. Can we criticize the American legislation and legislators? The answer is obvious – yes.

Why is it not ok for Knesset members to want to change the way Supreme Court judges are elected?

It is legitimate to try and change the election procedure for Supreme Court judges, but it should be given much more time and consideration, and should exclude the proposed changes from the present Selection Committee. One cannot change the ground rules during the game.

Proponents of the proposed libel law claim that Israeli journalists are sloppy and biased and that there’s a need to somehow make them be more careful – do you agree with the analysis but not the measure, the measure but not the analysis, both measure and analysis?

Israeli media has undergone some significant changes which, inter alia, deteriorated its standards and ethics. In this respect, we need to bring it back on track, if possible, although I’m doubtful considering old media’s enemy – the internet. Just by punishing failing journalists or news organizations, we would not achieve that goal. We shouldn’t spill the water along with the baby. Let’s try first and help the media to recover from the present economic crisis, and then deal with the content.

Why should anyone oppose a law that makes it harder for foreign governments to assist ngo’s with clear political goals?

We need to have full transparency. All NGOs, all donations, and all contributors should be reported and open to the general public, no exception. Differentiating between donation sources, different types of NGOs, or other definitions, expose the hidden agenda of the bill initiators – to block Israeli civil society.

Lastly, why can’t Israel run any campaign in the US without angering the American Jewish community – do we not have any brains?

This is an example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Helping Israeli “Yordim” (emigrants) come back is a dear goal. But hurting American Jews and interfering abruptly with their lives is a huge mistake. We should have been tuned in to the variance in American Jewish life, before bombarding them with flat and unsophisticated campaign messages.