Analysis

Criminal or Not, Netanyahu's Obsession With the Media Is Pathetic

Israel’s most powerful politician spends his time fighting off demons that he invents. What a pity, what an utter waste.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset.
Emil Salman

While the rest of humanity is anxiously waiting for the era of Donald Trump, Israel is possessed by the ongoing revelations about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meetings with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth.

Partial leaks from two recorded conversations indicate that Netanyahu and Mozes were negotiating a sordid deal in which Mozes would make sure Yedioth gave Netanyahu positive coverage while Netanyahu would endeavor to curtail the expansion of Sheldon Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom, which not only supports Netanyahu but was hemorrhaging reader circulation and advertising revenue away from Yedioth.

The combination of corruption at the top, the potential for Netanyahu’s political demise and the exposure of the media’s own dark underbelly has entranced Israeli media, at the expense of almost anything else.

Netanyahu has rejected allegations of wrongdoing and has dismissed the possibility that he will be indicted: “There won’t be anything because there wasn’t anything,” he likes to quip. Some Justice Ministry sources have told the press that while there is no doubt that the negotiations between Netanyahu and Mozes stink to high heaven, the case is too murky and ambiguous to yield a criminal indictment.

Some of my colleagues, on the other hand, are convinced that Netanyahu will soon be facing charges, either on his talks with Mozes or on the separate investigation of lavish gifts he allegedly received from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and others.

In the most recent revelations from their recorded talks, Netanyahu demands that the level of Yedioth hostility toward him be brought down from 9.5 to 7.5. After assuring Netanyahu that the goal is that he remain prime minister, Mozes offers to immediately install a pro-Netanyahu columnist even before their deal is done, as a gesture of goodwill. Netanyahu then starts throwing out names of potential candidates for recruitment to Yedioth while pressing Mozes to moderate the criticism of its most prominent writers. Mozes answers that while he can change the course of the entire newspaper, something he describes as “an earthquake,” he won’t be able to influence his senior writers: that is a job that Netanyahu will have to handle himself.

The detailed give and take between Netanyahu and Mozes has shocked many journalists: it comes across as horse-trading. The journalistic profession, already at a low point, is debased even further. In a room full of smoke from the expensive cigars that Netanyahu claims to have received as a gift from Milchan, two of the most powerful men in the country are scheming to manipulate press coverage in exchange for legislative machinations that will yield substantial monetary favors for Yedioth. If it wasn’t anti-Semitic, the meetings could serve as a poster for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Mozes’ defenders are trying to portray him as desperate to save his family’s newspaper and even as a crusader for Israel’s free press and democracy. Netanyahu’s advocates claim that he had no intention of going through with any deal with Mozes and was actually engaged in a sting operation to expose the publisher’s attempts at extortion. Public opinion, I assume, is saying a pox on both your houses and viewing Netanyahu and Mozes as powerful puppeteers, cynical manipulators and masters of deceit.

In Netanyahu’s case, however, there is also something profoundly pathetic. In 2014, when these talks were being held, Netanyahu was in this third round as prime minister, and in his fifth consecutive year in office. He was at his third decade in politics and a towering figure. You would have thought that after all these years at the pinnacle of power, with all of his knowledge and experience, with all the major challenges facing the country he leads, Netanyahu would have stopped quaking in his boots, would have ceased obsessing about each and every critical article that is being written about him, would no longer be devoting so much time and effort to underhanded schemes meant to subjugate the media and bend it to his will.

Netanyahu’s talks with Mozes have captured public attention because of the recordings made of them, which have yet to be published in full, and because while he was wheeling and dealing with him behind the scenes, Netanyahu was publicly blasting Mozes as the anti-Christ and root of all evil. Otherwise, the talks really shouldn’t come as a surprise: efforts to control the media and to stamp out the last pockets of resistance to his rule have become a hallmark of Netanyahu’s recent years in power.

From blatantly politicized regulation of Israel’s communications and television industry, to setting up a new public broadcasting authority and then trying to shut it down because it didn’t seem obsequious enough, to spending scores of hours in exhausting off-the-record briefings with anyone who even looks like a journalist, changing the media narrative has increasingly consumed Netanyahu in recent years. While his American fans may believe the prime minister is dedicated to saving Israel and staving off its enemies, he actually devotes most of his time to safeguarding himself and tampering with the media.

There are several aspects of Netanyahu’s compulsive efforts to control the media that are indeed highly distressing. Given that a sizeable part of both print and broadcast journalism are already in his camp, it seems that Netanyahu’s aim isn’t to achieve a fair and balanced equilibrium but to stamp out the voice of the opposition and channels of dissent. In light of the general corrosion of Israeli democracy over the past few years, it is understandable that many Israeli liberals view efforts to stop Netanyahu now as a desperate, last ditch-bid to save the country’s soul.

Nonetheless, sometimes I also feel sorry for him. I find it hard to believe that after three-and-a-half decades of politics, the supposedly media-savvy Netanyahu doesn’t know that articles written by columnists and commentators, popular as they may be, have very little influence on public opinion. It is the news sections, the editors’ choice of stories and headlines, which set the agenda and shape people’s minds.

In the published transcripts, Mozes gently tries to make Netanyahu understand that this is what is important and this is what he can deliver, but the prime minister keeps going back to packing Yedioth with one or two more columnists who will write in his favor. This is what will make his day.

There is no compelling national interest or political logic in Netanyahu’s machinations. Articles written by this or that columnist won’t make or break him and certainly don’t justify backroom deals that Netanyahu certainly knew were suspect. What comes through clearly from his talks with Mozes is Netanyahu’s great vanity, compounded perhaps by the complaints he hears at his pretentious home, where Cuban cigars and Dom Perignon are the norm.

More than anything else, in his talks with Mozes, Netanyahu exposes his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his inability to escape his fragile ego and to take to higher ground. Despite the fact that he is Israel’s most powerful politician, Netanyahu constantly feels hounded, by the media, by his political rivals, by leaders around the world. He is always on alert, eternally victimized, endlessly surrounded by enemies. He is desperate to save himself from dangers that exist only in his fevered imagination, to the point where breaking the law, or at least coming close to it, seems like a reasonable course of action.

His supporters don’t care. They view his narrow escapes from previous scandals and charges of corruption as vindication: Bibi is King, they chant, whenever he manages to confound prognosticators and stay in power. But he is a haunted man tormented by demons of his own device, fighting off ghosts that can do him no harm. When I see him flailing desperately in the air and stooping down to new lows, the one sentiment that repeatedly comes to mind is: What a pity, what an utter waste.