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Behind Netanyahu's Belligerent Response to Israeli Journalist

PM's response to TV journalist Ilana Dayan's critical report on workings of his bureau, and interference by his wife Sara, was disproportionate, his associates say.

Barak Ravid
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Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan reads out the response to her show outside the Prime Minister's Office.
Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan reads out the response to her show outside the Prime Minister's Office.Credit: Channel 2 screenshot
Barak Ravid

The scathing attack on journalist Ilana Dayan that the Prime Minister’s Office submitted as a response to her investigative report on Monday’s “Uvda” program is indicative of its new determination to respond aggressively to critical reports, but even Netanyahu associates agree that this was disproportionate.

The report was an exposé of the inner workings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that portrayed him as being primarily concerned with remaining in power, and also depicted his wife, Sara, as wielding undue influence on the prime minister’s work. At the end of the report, Dayan read out the office’s entire response, which took six minutes.

Last week the Prime Minister’s Office responded with equal vehemence to a report by Gidi Weitz and Nati Tucker in Haaretz on Netanyahu’s efforts to exert control over the media. In its response Netanyahu’s office went so far as to accuse Haaretz of disseminating Nazi propaganda. On Tuesday, following extensive criticism of Netanyahu’s response to Dayan, Netanyahu’s spokesmen issued a statement in the name of the Likud party suggesting that these stinging responses are part of a new policy.

“It’s about time that media people in Israel understand that just as they have the freedom to criticize the prime minister, the prime minister has the right to criticize them,” the statement said. “For some reason when journalists unrestrainedly attack the prime minister and his family it is never presented as incitement, but when the prime minister presents facts about the political tendentiousness of those same media personalities it is always described as incitement. Most of the public understood long ago that there’s a double standard and a lot of hypocrisy here.”

But despite Netanyahu’s effort to justify the response to “Uvda,” several sources involved in the process of preparing the response to the investigative report said the harsh text submitted was the result of a miscalculation. Netanyahu and his associates mistakenly assessed the expected content of the report and the result was a disproportionate response that boomeranged.

The Prime Minister’s Office had known about the investigative report that Dayan was working on with researchers Revital Hovel and Daniel Dolev for several weeks. Dayan and “Uvda” editors Eyal Gonen and Shahar Alterman contacted the Prime Minister’s Office during the report’s preparation and asked that it supply people to be interviewed on Netanyahu’s behalf who could fill out the picture and present his side of the story.

In the middle of last week, the Prime Minister’s Office received a list of 30 questions from “Uvda” relating to the probe with a request for Netanyahu’s response. Netanyahu associates say that the content of some of the questions and the decision to open “Uvda’s” new season with this particular report led Netanyahu to believe that the report would not address substantive issues but instead be a personal attack on him.

Haaretz has learned that last Wednesday, Netanyahu instructed his communications chief, Ran Baratz, to formulate a response to Dayan’s questions. Netanyahu told him not to respond to the substance of the questions, but to prepare a personal attack that would undermine the credibility of Dayan, one of the most admired journalists in Israel.

The prime minister’s decision to formulate a militant, personal response to Dayan is an example of a trend that has been evident since his victory in last year’s elections. The policy of reacting sharply to critical reports has intensified in the last three months, since he began a round of meetings with journalists from various media outlets and launched his move to close the nascent public broadcasting corporation.

“As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the part of the message that he really believes is that the media has been conducting a campaign against him and his wife for years to undermine him politically,” an associate of the prime minister said. “He wants to show that he’s counterattacking, but he went to extremes in his responses to the Haaretz and ‘Uvda’ reports.”

For three days the Prime Minister’s Office collected material against Dayan. Interviews she had done and public statements she had made were reviewed, along with reports on her journalistic and public activities. In effect, a type of counter-investigation was conducted whose purpose was to portray Dayan as someone whose work is motivated by political hostility toward Netanyahu. On Saturday Netanyahu received a draft of the response, which included half-truths, highly tendentious interpretations, and personal attacks on Dayan.

During consultations Netanyahu held with his associates, some people had reservations about the sharp wording and personal slant of the text. But Netanyahu rejected the moderates’ view and approved the extreme version. Although the response had been written in the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu decided to submit it to “Uvda” though an outside, unofficial party. The task was assigned to the Netanyahu family’s personal spokesman Nir Hefetz, who sent the text to “Uvda” editor Gonen.

On Monday evening, when Netanyahu and his associates watched the “Uvda” report, they were surprised to see that the findings of the investigative report were less severe than they’d expected. When Dayan spent six minutes reading Netanyahu’s lengthy response at the end of the program, staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office realized that it was disproportionate in relation to what was broadcast.

Netanyahu’s people were busy yesterday with damage control, taking some solace in the fact that at least they had succeeded somewhat in altering the discussion about the “Uvda” report. Instead of talking about the findings, like the way the Mossad head had been chosen or the way the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women was humiliated by Netanyahu’s wife, the media and social networks were busy dealing with a subject much more comfortable for the Netanyahus – the poisonous relationship between him and the media.

“In the end we didn’t gain anything, but we didn’t suffer any damage, either,” a Netanyahu associate said. “Those attacking us now weren’t our fans in any case, and the American elections will shove this story to the sidelines.”

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