Guy Rolnik is a very strange mainstream journalist. There is no equivalent I can think of in the anglophone media – certainly no one comparable at the Guardian or Independent, let alone the New York Times.
Rolnik began as a correspondent for the Israeli army, and then joined Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper, rapidly rising through the ranks to become, at age 24, editor of the paper’s finance section. Shortly afterwards, he became the paper’s youngest ever board member. He went on to found the Marker, a finance paper that was later bought by Haaretz. He is currently the paper’s deputy publisher.
So he is journalistic aristocracy. He should be an Israeli version of Andrew Marr or Will Hutton: liberal, self-satisfied and eager to keep his access with the rich and powerful. In other words, his journalism should be utterly predictable and relatively uninformative. And yet he is one of the most unusual and insightful journalists around.
I’ve had an inkling why for a while but his latest article finally confirms my suspicions: he is one of the very few mainstream journalists who has read, or admits to reading, one of the seminal texts on the media: Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. And even more extraordinary, he seems to be a fan of Chomsky’s work more generally.
Most British and American journalists run a mile from any mention of Chomsky’s name – unless they are asked to write a review of his latest book, in which case they dismiss it with withering contempt.
It is doubtless Rolnik’s interest in Chomsky’s work that makes him willing to tackle some of the most cherished pieties of the Middle East conflict. His latest article, for example, asks pertinently: Who’s benefiting from a never-ending Mideast peace ‘process?’
And his answer goes well beyond what you would hear from other Israeli journalists. It is worth quoting him at length:
These two dominant narratives ignore what others find obvious: that every status quo, every large system, always has beneficiaries who have no real desire for change. The more time that passes, the more layers of vested interests that are added – in the government, the army, the diplomatic corps and the industry of peace NGOs that benefit from the existing situation, make a living from it and acquire their prestige from it.
Forty-seven years after the Six-Day War and 20 years after the Oslo Accords, the number of interest groups that benefit from the occupation, the conflict and the “process” is growing by the year. In Israel, the numbers have begun to enter the public discourse over the past year: the vast size of the army, the staggering waste, the frightening actuarial commitment to noncontributory pensions.
Every so often, a few retired generals suddenly leap up and espouse a “dovish” stance, as former Shin Bet security service and Mossad chiefs did in recent years. But this is of dubious authenticity. They always recall that “the occupation corrupts” and that we must strive for peace – but only after they are removed from positions of power. One always suspects that their new opposition or peacenik approach is a way to grab headlines or to enter politics….
Every change in relations between Israel and the Palestinians will have far-reaching consequences in the Arab world, and for the Palestinian state and its economic relations with the West. In Israel, it’s a prodigious security budget of $20 billion that is and will be the focus of discussion; for the Palestinians, it’s a vast industry of donations totaling billions of dollars, which has only grown in the past decade.
Is it really the case that the entire Palestinian leadership, all the Palestinian businessmen with close ties to the government and all the dozens and hundreds of NGOs that are funded by the European Union and the United States are longing for an end to the conflict? Or is any such hope also tinged with apprehension that this change would also threaten the existing political and economic order to which they have become accustomed?
This is an analysis that addresses the real problem of the “peace process”. Israel and the US have spent decades creating a wealth of institutions and structures – in Israel, the US, Europe and the occupied territories – that benefit economically and politically more from the continuation of the process than the actual realisation of peace. Peace is always put off in favour of more process. In short, as long as there is a peace process, there can be no hope of peace.
Regarding Rolnik himself, we need to consider how he has managed such success, given his support for heterodox journalistic views. He champions Chomsky, and yet Chomsky’s media critique implies, paradoxically, that someone like Rolnik should never have made it to such an elevated position in the media. He should have been weeded out along the way.
It could be that the existence of a Rolnik proves Herman and Chomsky wrong, though I very much doubt that. Rolnik is exceptional and I think we need to search for an exceptional explanation. I’m not sure I have one, though I think there are some factors that may be relevant.
The first is the much smaller, more intimate scale of the Israeli media, in which outposts of the old proprietor system survive to a degree and resist a wholesale takeover by media corporations of the kind that occurred in countries like the UK and US. Proprietors are media dictators, and like their political equivalents they come in all guises, including the odd relatively benevolent one. Haaretz, owned by the eccentric, liberal Shocken family, gives house room to dissidents like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, writers who have almost no constituency among the wider population. Clearly Rolnik has benefited from the Shocken family’s patronage too.
The second is the tense relationship in Israel between some of the financial elites and the political-security elites. As Rolnik observes, Israel’s military-industrial complex largely benefits from a peace that never arrives. But some business leaders have a vested economic interest in peace, which they believe would open up massive new markets in the Arab world. This view is very much accommodated by Haaretz and Shocken. It may have helped Rolnik that he has largely kept his heterodox opinions within the confines of the finance pages.
Differences between Israeli financial elites and US-UK ones may also explain Rolnik’s strange aside: “Even right-wing, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist economists quote Chomsky’s analysis of the way the press works.” Maybe in Israel, but not so in the English-speaking world.
A final factor may relate to the timing of Rolnik’s conversion to a Chomskian worldview. Did he start down the Chomsky path after reaching a very senior position at the indulgent, family-owned Haaretz? In other words, did he have the media equivalent of tenure before he started to go public with his views? That would certainly have made the weeding out process much harder.