Netanyahu’s Selective Vow of Silence: A Roaring Success

Israel’s journalists dared Netanyahu to speak to them. But like Yoda, Bibi can talk a lot and say nothing.

“Silence," Lao Tzu famously wrote, “is a source of great strength." More than 2,000 years later, Leonardo Da Vinci proclaimed that “nothing strengthens authority so much as silence." And 400 hundred years after that, Muhammad Ali said “Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer."

Now let’s think which of these three maxims fits Benjamin Netanyahu the best.

Up until a week ago, Israel’s prime minister was like a monk besieged. More than a year had passed since Netanyahu spoke, on record, with the Israeli press. He gave no interviews in Israel save for a few off-the-record talks with selected members of the press.

While subordinates such as Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of Economy Naftali Bennet sweated tough questions about housing prices and the soaring cost of living, Netanyahu enjoyed the luxury of never meeting with hostile reporters. As Confucius said, “Silence is a true friend who never betrays."

It’s not like Netanyahu didn’t give interviews to foreign media outlets. He just didn’t want to give any at home.

As a wise man once should have said: “don’t mess with the egos of journalists. They’re quite sensitive."

So they started to ambush him. Political blogger Tal Schneider lead the charge and started an online stopwatch on her blog, counting the time that passed since Netanyahu gave his last interview for an Israeli outlet. Even international media outlets started to wonder whether a prime minister has a responsibility - nay, an obligation - to answer the questions of his citizens. Even the most powerful man in the free world makes time to appear on a fringe web show like Between Two Ferns in order to communicate.

“Silence is argument carried out by other means," Che Guevara once said.

It’s not hard to figure out why Netanyahu prefers to ignore the Israeli media. What with housing prices incessantly rising, taxes rising, the economy slowing, a crime wave bringing back car bombing by mobsters to the streets of Israel’s cities and his government treading shaky slightly anti-democratic ground, Netanyahu's strategy of staying above the fray has proved itself. While Lapid and Bennet took the brunt of criticism for the government’s missteps, Netanyahu’s popularity remained practically undiminished. Like a supreme leader that cannot be touched by the criticism of mere mortals or, well, a king.

“Silence is sexy," Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld sang back in 2000.

Bibi breaks the ice

But all things, as they say, must end. So as raised eyebrows escalated to scandal, Netanyahu broke silence. After 411 days of domestic speechlessness, Netanyahu gave interviews to a slew of Israeli media: all three major TV channels, a couple of radio stations, his home-base newspaper Israel Hayom and a few other foreign outlets. More, rumors claim, are to come.

The problem? That even when he speaks, Netanyahu has perfected the art of saying nothing. In an interview with Channel 1 he spoke about Iran’s nuclear program, the dangers of “Hamastan” and the waywardness of Palestinian leaders. With Channel 2 he repeated the same: Israel is against freezing construction in the settlements, Iran is two-faced and dangerous, Israel will allow Jerusalem to be divided.

Tired cliches, none of which applies to the things most Israelis worry about in their everyday lives. Channel 2 did manage to obtain a rare promise from him regarding housing and the high cost of living: "I’ll have to get personally involved, because without strong direction apparently nothing will be resolved," said Netanyahu, sounding more like Yoda than like a leader with strong stances on any subject in this world.

As it turns out, the same Israeli press that hounded Netanyahu for interviews didn’t know how do anything meaningful when given the opportunity. If anything, Netanyahu proved - once more - that he knows how to play the media: If before his tactic was radio silence, now it seems his strategy is to talk - and talk a lot - without saying anything of substance.

But as any political strategist knows, repeat a cliche long enough, it will sound profound. Worst case scenario, at least it gets that pesky online stopwatch off your back.

So far, at least, Netanyahu’s strategy is working. The prime minister looks like a snobbish monk no more. Instead, he touts communicativeness, looks approachable and fearless against questions about Iran. Yet relinquishing his silence, Netanyahu manages to remain as silent as ever. But one has to wonder how long this can go on. As William Shakespeare wrote in Henry V: "Empty vessels make the loudest sound."

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Olivier Fitoussi