Quality Time With King Bibi

TIME magazine's cover story about Netanyahu would never be published by the Israeli media, because only U.S. journalists get to spend real quality time with the PM.

Barak Ravid
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Barak Ravid

A week after the American magazine TIME published a front-page article with a photograph of a young woman breast-feeding her five-year-old son, the new edition of TIME magazine has come out with a cover that is no less provocative: “King Bibi,” written by managing editor Richard Stengel.

A highly flattering portrait of the Israeli prime minister is spread out over six pages and a few thousand words. Stengel did not scrimp on the compliments, praising Netanyahu’s eloquence, his popularity, his power in U.S. politics, and his unchallenged control of Israeli politics. At a certain point, when Stengel compared Netanyahu to Moses and the children of Israel who argued with God himself, it looked as if the editor of TIME forgot that he was talking about a human being.

An article such as this would never be published by the Israeli media. Not because Netanyahu is not a talented and powerful politician, and not because of the hostility that Netanyahu has for the Israeli press. The main reason is far more trivial – for the past three years, no Israeli journalist has been granted the kind of access to Netanyahu that the editor of TIME was granted – it is mainly only American journalists who get this level of quality time with the prime minister. We can probably safely assume that the situation will not change any time over the next three years.

Netanyahu rarely has in-depth conversations with Israeli reporters, and makes do with short telephone conversations in which he passes messages on issues that are of priority to him, or speaks in order to minimize damage. In interviews he has given to the Israeli press, Netanyahu sticks to his notes, and recently the only time a reporter was able to have a direct and open conversation with him was at his father’s shiva.

The Prime Minister’s Office certainly invested in the TIME profile of Netanyahu. Stengel came to Israel over the Passover holiday period, and spent a few hours with Netanyahu and his advisors. His chief guide was Netanyahu’s policy advisor, Ron Dermer, who coordinates Netanyahu’s contacts with U.S. Congress, U.S. Jewish organizations and, in some issues, with the White House.

But Dermer has also got another mission, which is no less important –and is sometimes even more important –maintaining contact with senior reporters and analysts in the U.S. media. When Ambassador Michael Oren in Washington is interviewed on television and in the newspapers, Dermer acts behind the scenes and briefs reporters and analysts in off-the-record conversations.

In preparations for the article, the editor of TIME accompanied Netanyahu for a few hours to the Mimouna celebration he attended in Or Akiva, and after that to an after-party in the house of businessman Leon Edri in Caesarea. The interview with Netanyahu continued a day later at a two-and-a-half hour meeting at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

The Prime Minister’s Office was very satisfied with the final article. Netanyahu’s advisors promoted it in the Israeli media, and sent reporters the full version of the article. Since the establishment of the unity government with Kadima, the Prime Minister’s Office has been briefing the Israeli media almost daily on articles published in the U.S. media that are supportive of Netanyahu.

Those close to Netanyahu said yesterday that because Strengel is a very senior journalist, an effort was made to let him get to know the Prime Minister as much as possible. According to Netanyahu’s advisors, the Israeli media does not spend less time with Netanyahu than Strengel did.

The prime minister himself referred to the TIME article at a press conference with the Czech Prime Minister in Prague yesterday, and defined it as part of his hasbara activities in the international arena. “We are [engaging] in a hasbara effort and every opportunity to explain Israel’s position is something that I welcome,” he said.

The TIME headline must have caused Netanyahu great satisfaction, but, in public at least, he has tried to put on a poker face. “Israel is a democracy and not a monarchy, and I do not forget that for even one moment,” he said.