Leading Radio Broadcaster Says Bibi Is Unjustly Persecuted by the Media

Razi Barkai, voice of morning radio and the last journalist to interview Rabin, was squad commander of the young soldier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

So, how are you?

Great.

Always?

Basically everything is fine. There are ups, there are downs, there’s aggravations. But I can’t say I’m a depressive person, or that I’m disgustingly happy.

It is truly disgusting to be truly happy.

For a long period of time, yes. There is something repulsive about it. People who are always happy seem kind of foolish.

What do you like to do?

I used to love playing bridge. But, unfortunately, since I get up very early and bridge get-togethers are always in the evenings, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to play.

Bridge really interests you? How much? I mean, do you read the bridge challenges in the newspaper?

Yes.

That’s you?

Yep, that’s me. I read and solve them.

To me it always sounds like some secret code from World War II. A pretty exotic quirk you’ve got.

It’s part of my weakness for mathematics in general, which is one of my great regrets. I feel that if I had another chance, and if I didn’t just get caught up in things, then I would choose to study mathematics.

A lot of people feel like that: they would make other choices if they were able to choose and didn’t just fall into things.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent years, about how much we really choose since most of the big decisions in life you make, say, when you’re in your twenties.

When you’re still so dumb that you don’t really have the ability to properly make decisions.

Yes, you’re still very much a child. At least, I was. And you make the two most significant choices in your life [then]: the choice of a spouse and the choice of a career. And to what extent it was actually a choice, and to what extent it just happened to me ... I don’t mean to say that anything was forced upon me. I don’t feel like a victim. But I find myself quite intrigued by the question of to what extent things just happened to me.

Or maybe somebody who decided at age 15 that he’s going to be a mathematician and now he’s the president of the Technion. Maybe he says to himself at some point: Why? Why was I so single-minded about this since I was 15? Why didn’t I go do something nicer, like be a radio broadcaster, for example?

True, yes. I’ll tell you something. My older brother, Tzahi, was killed in the army. That’s something that’s always with me, without me even being aware of it, without being able to understand myself or analyze it. On the 40th anniversary of his death, we went to his grave. I have two twin sisters who are a little younger than me, and they asked: “What do you think he would have become, had he lived?” And I said: “You know, I have no idea.” And then his girlfriend, who was at the memorial service, said: “Are you kidding me? You didn’t know that Tzahi wanted to be a radio broadcaster?”

No way.

It was the first time in my life I’d ever been told that.

Wow, it must have been quite a shock.

Yes. On the one hand it was very chilling, and on the other, there was this feeling that, wow, I really didn’t choose anything in my life.

How old were you when he was killed?

I was 17. He was two years older than me. When I turned 60 three years ago, I wrote that I look in the mirror and I see my brother, his red beret hanging over me. He’s 19, I’m 60, and he’ll always be two years older than me.

That sounds very tough. Because of the closeness in age, too.

At that age, then, I experienced the pain only through my parents’ eyes. You’re 17, full of hormones, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, and so on. Of course, later, when you have kids of your own ... Enough, I don’t want this to turn into a whole discussion of bereavement.

Have you known Bibi Netanyahu a long time?

Yes.

You’ve been following his career for many years.

He was my soldier. Hey, didn’t you prepare for this interview?

I did actually. I read about it in some comment on an article about you. But I thought I’d try to work it in more elegantly than that.

Our ties go back 45 years, believe it or not. We were both kids of 18 then, and I’d just graduated from the military boarding school in Haifa and enlisted in the Paratroops – because, like we were talking about before, I had to be where my brother had been. And Bibi showed up as a young soldier, because the guys who were headed for Sayeret Matkal [the elite special-ops unit] did basic training with the Paratroops. I was their squad commander, and after three or four months we parted ways. But since then, every once in a while...

What was he like?

He was an excellent soldier.

That sounds like a dubious compliment. What does that mean: an excellent soldier? Someone who is excellent at following orders?

Would it sound better to say that someone went to the army and was crap at it? When I say that he was a good soldier, it means that he wanted to prove his worth, and that he cared about being good at it and doing things right.

Okay. Do you love him?

No. But I can’t say that I don’t have any feeling for him. Love is a strong word. There’s no politician in Israel that I love.

Do you admire him?

Look, I’m not comfortable giving out grades. There are things about him that I admire, and there are things I don’t admire so much. I think that with his power as prime minister, he could have done much greater things here. He’s focused on Iran, perhaps rightly. But he’s focused only on Iran, perhaps not rightly. On the Palestinian issue, much more should have been done. And he could have done it if he’d wanted to. But yes, I am fond of him.

What do you think motivates him?

Aside from what motivates all of us? I think he believes he has a historic feeling that he is going to save us.

This is how he saves us?!

Look, first off, look at the home he grew up in, okay? With that father ... All of Jewish history is on his shoulders. Second, for objective reasons, I’m telling you again that I think that, as far as the Iranian issue is concerned, in terms of Iran’s destructive potential, he is right. And I want to say something else about Bibi: Some of the treatment he gets in the press is inappropriate.

You feel that he’s being unjustly persecuted?

Yes.

You don’t think he earned this kind of treatment? That he isn’t helping to paint this caricature of himself on a daily basis?

I think there is justification for criticism of him. But sometimes the criticism just comes from disdain and chutzpah. Look, he’s the prime minister of Israel, let’s not forget. Not that he should be treated with some sort of awe, but he was elected, and I don’t think he’s an empty-headed person.

Whom don’t you like to interview?

You want a name and I’m not going to give you a name. But I will say this: I don’t like interviewing people who just bullshit you – and there are bullshitters.

Okay, if we were to switch roles and you were interviewing me for the program, would you be satisfied with that answer?

No.

You would roast me over the coals until I confessed.

But you wouldn’t confess.

But you never let people evade your questions. And you’re evading me.

I, too, sometimes say: Okay, I tried, I went at it from this direction and that direction. Ehud Barak always says to me and he’s a real slippery one “Razi, come at me from above, come at me from below, come at me from the front, come at me from behind, it won’t do you any good. I won’t answer that question.” So I give up. What else can I do?

Your bullshit detector is very sensitive.

Yes, I have a tough time with it, and that has something to do with that growing list of people that ... I don’t want to say people I don’t like to interview, but people who are hard to interview, because they’re chronic bullshitters. But I have learned to restrain myself from correcting their Hebrew. I used to correct them. Not about everything, but still it’s not good. It doesn’t work. Like, after an interview I can’t call up Bibi and say: You know, that’s not the right way to pronounce that word, that’s not proper Hebrew. Once I called him and told him...

Bibi makes mistakes in Hebrew? Really?

Only with the hitpa’el conjugation.

And here I was thinking that he was perfect. Are there ever questions you’re afraid to ask? That are hard to ask directly, and so you have to lead up to them indirectly and then strike at the moment of truth?

Come on, you know the method.

What do you mean?

By using “They say that,” it’s not me asking anymore, it’s “them.” Now, it’s obvious that this is what you were thinking at that moment, but you didn’t have the guts to say “I think that...” So you say, “They say that...” or “Doesn’t it make you mad that...”

Right, and they just keep falling for it. What other tactics do you have?

The “associates” tactic.

As in: “We spoke with an associate who says...”?

Yes. An associate who... Or, once, I would say to an interviewee: “Listen, I read this morning that...” And he could say: “Where did you read it? In Davar, in Haaretz, in Maariv, in Yedioth?” Today some idiot posts a comment online and I’m quoting it and demanding a response from the interviewee. And instead of saying, “Go interview the guy who posted the comment. What do you want from me?”, they fall for it.

Do you enjoy sticking pins in balloons?

Yes I do. Very much.

Well, it works quite well. I’m wondering if it’s something that fades after all these years that tension of waiting until you get the answer you’re after, or is it still there? Does there come a point when you become so skilled at it that you’re no longer sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to drop the bomb; that you just do it nonchalantly?

That’s a tricky question you’re asking. I’ll tell you what I do still have: I still have that hunger to extract the information that will become the top item in the next news broadcast. That is, I’m constantly thinking about the next Army Radio newscast, that we should scoop Israel Radio. This hunger is still very strong. But am I wilier now with my questions? Is that what you’re asking?

I mean, do you still get emotionally involved? Can you just do it efficiently without being nervous or afraid?

I’m not nervous. I’m not under professional pressure. I am emotionally involved.

Let’s say that now you’ve got five minutes to interview Bibi and you want to extract a statement from him about attacking Iran. Are you relaxed while you’re interviewing him, really listening to what he’s saying, or is the question that you’re about to drop on him constantly running through your head?

A wonderful question, really. I think that I am less impatient than I used to be. I used to be more impatient and more aggressive. I can sit back and let the person talk, but at some stage I go back to being the restless Razi. Yes, I have more patience now, but the wildness still comes out.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about life in the past decade?

Aside from the clichés, like that I’ve had three grandchildren born in the past decade which is really nice, right? I’d say it would be that I don’t go to Paris often enough.

That’s true for just about everybody.

It is really tough, I’m telling you. So I would like to go to Paris more. And more seriously, I’m more accepting now. I’m less restless. I think more. I’m less quick to criticize.

I’ve heard that you volunteer in the Tel Hashomer emergency room.

I’ve been a volunteer there for the past few years. A few weeks ago, this guy – a patient I went to do an ECG on – says to me, “Ah, you’re doing community service, right?” Now he didn’t say it as a joke, he meant it seriously. That’s the presumption – that if it’s somebody famous, it must be community service. That he obviously must have committed sexual harassment or something.

As someone who’s constantly been in contact with the hard news for so many years, who really knows the ins and outs of the system, what do you think about the point in time that we’re at? Do you share my feeling that it’s the end?

I share your feeling that we’re starting the countdown, yes. Look, bad things are happening here. Bad things some are [because of] us and some are [because of] what’s around us. We live in a pretty shitty neighborhood, after all, let’s start with that. We’re not being paranoid about the Arab thing. The Arab neighborhood is a shitty neighborhood for us. So that’s what’s happening outside. And inside, things are falling apart. The enjoyment is disappearing.

Yes. Maybe it’s already gone.

No, I think there are still pockets of enjoyment here and there. There’s the enjoyment of friends, of family. And there’s something else that gives me pleasure: the Hebrew language. I think, what would I do without the language? Okay, maybe the dream is slipping away from us. But then what will I do? What will I do without the language? What will I do? We may be fading away and all that, but the language is still a fantastic thing.

And if one of your children told you he wanted to leave Israel?

I’ve thought about that a lot. It would be hard for me, but not as hard as it would have been 20 years ago.

Do you think something can change in Israeli politics? That all the so-called “new politicians” represent some sort of hope?

I find that an empty phrase, “new politicians.” Every old politician was new once, and then he became old. So what?

What do you think of Yair Lapid?

I do admire him. But we’ve never had a single thing in common.

Do you think he has a chance?

Maybe yes, maybe no. I think there are some kind of peacock fights going on over whether there will be three or four centrist parties. I mean, come on, we’re talking about a bloc of some 30 Knesset seats that you all want to plunder? So these are just peacock fights. But I admire what he has done, just as I admire what Shelly Yacimovich did. I think that it takes a very strong ego, which they both have, and it also takes guts.

Do they signify some kind of hope?

Is there any more hope here than there was in the student, the Rim furniture salesman in America called Benjamin Netanyahu? He, too, was the new hope. What’s the difference between the Bibi who went into politics and the Shelly who went into politics?

There isn’t. What would you say was the point of no return? Where do you think we hit the point where things really began to go downhill?

The Yom Kippur War. 1973. That was also more or less the time I began working at Israel Radio, as a young reporter. After that there were still a few decent flickers, but then came the first Lebanon war, another punch to the face. And if I’m being honest with myself, then I also have the feeling that I’m losing it, since the part of the population I come from is no longer the epitome of Israeliness. It used to be called the Labor movement, Mapai. Today it’s dwindled to the small bunch of Haaretz readers, and it’s a vanishing world. The talk is of the ultra-Orthodox, of the national-religious and the settlers. And why should we complain? I have two children. The ultra-Orthodox have seven or eight kids per family, so naturally they’re taking their rightful place in the stream of things.

Are you sad this is how things are?

Yes, I am sad.

Barkai.Credit: Gili Eitan
Barkai.Credit: Gili Eitan

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