'King Bibi' Wins Back the People

The prime minister shows the Iranians how to do a real charm offensive, and wins over Israel. Again.

Netanyahu in 'Matsav Hauma'
Netanyahu in 'Matsav Hauma.' Niv Eshet Cohen

Over the past year he’s been eulogized. He’s been mocked. He’s been called “old”, “irrelevant”, “outdated”. Some even denied that he ever existed.

But this Sunday, “King Bibi” came back. The brilliant media manipulator, the charmer, the one who Israeli songstress Hava Alberstein sang about in her song “The Wizard” 16 years ago: “He does wonders, he's spectacular, he’s bewitching - he’s a combination of magician, hypnotizer and sorcerer”.

Hosted by the popular comedy show "Matsav Hauma" ("State of the Nation”) this Sunday - the culmination of a week-long press blitz - Benjamin Netanyahu showed how he became “King Bibi” to begin with: he was charismatic, humorous, self-deprecating, authoritative-but-loose. He's a guy who can take a joke and then return the favor.

You think Obama was great on "Between Two Ferns?" You haven’t seen Netanyahu being bombarded with punchlines by three comedians and gracefully taking it all in stride.

Usually, when a prime minister agrees to appear on a comedy show, he does so because of political necessity. Obama needed to deflect the PR disaster of Obamacare. Bill Clinton famously answered the question “boxers or briefs” on MTV’s "Enough is Enough" forum in 1994 to promote his national crime bill.

Bibi himself did it last April on popular comedy show "Eretz Nehederet" to promote his (then) new government and the upcoming, controversial budget.

But you could not find two appearances more different. On Eretz Nehederet he was awkward, visibly nervous, not the media-savvy Bibi of yesteryear. This time, he was relaxed, composed, his timing excellent as ever.

“Why don’t you two move in together and help (solve Israel’s housing shortage)? “, he zinged co-host Lior Schlein, whose significant other, MK Merav Michaeli (Labor), famously doesn’t live with him. “Me and Sara decided to join Meatless Monday and not eat meat on Mondays - why don’t you have a don’t-attack-and-slander-the-Prime-Minister Monday”, he jokingly asked co-host Orna Banai.

For the first time in a very long time, he made people laugh.

Could use an image renaissance

As is the norm with such guest appearances, the setting was of course carefully selected, and the questions and ״punches״ were coordinated in advance. Nothing is truly at risk, but it still has to believable. The public has to believe this is real.

Netanyahu’s need for an image renaissance was acute this time: the past few weeks have been terribly embarrassing for Israel’s prime minister. First, there was the campaign demanding that he speak to the Israeli press after more than a year of not answering questions in Hebrew. The campaign finally forced Netanyahu to break his domestic silence.

Then there was lawsuit by the former caretaker of Netanyahu’s official residence. Meni Naftali is demanding 1.1 million shekels ($350,000) in damages, claiming he was abused by Sara Netanyahu. His allegations, which have been all over the news since they first broke out, reiterated Netanyahus’ notorious bad history with domestic help and reminded Israelis how much they absolutely love to hate Sara.

Then, of course, there was “Bogie”.

Netanyahu’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, graduated from unruly subordinate to actual rebellious menace last week, threatening the balance of Israel-US relations and causing a diplomatic crisis by bluntly referring to president Obama as “weak” and endorsing an Israeli attack on Iran.

Remember what's-his-name?

But in the background, Netanyahu had an even bigger problem spurring him to make another leap to the land of TV satire: people started talking about him in the past tense.

Following the rise of new political stars like Finance Minister Yair Lapid and the acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman, last year’s elections were seen as the kickoff of a war to succeed him. And as housing prices continued to surge, Netanyahu appeared to be less and less relevant to ordinary Israelis. He preached about the Iranian threat and Tehran's “smile offensive”, but Israelis began to see him as obsolete and remote. Nothing to do with them. Constant reports about his luxurious lifestyle sure didn’t help.

So Netanyahu geared up for bear. People wanted him to talk? So he began to talk, endlessly – granting interview to almost every major newspaper and TV channel.

Charismatic, authoritative and knowledgeable as ever, he showed the Iranians how a true “smile attack” is done.

The culmination of his resurgence was his turn on Matsav Hauma. Netanyahu joked, smiled, took the brunt of jokes at his expense with batting an eye. He zinged the hosts about their diets, their relationships, their scandals, and got roaring laughs. He carefully supported and admonished Ya’alon, and also passionately defended his wife. “People try to paint her as a burden. She is not a burden. She is the source of my strength. She is the woman I love,” he said.

He even spoke about Iran, a little. But even that went well with the crowd.

In the end, it seemed as though had endeared himself again to the public. “I loathe Benjamin Netanyahu the politician, but I adore the character Bibi,” wrote sarcastic blogger Racheli Rottner at news website Walla! .

Many leftists, in fact, while stressing they still would never vote for Bibi even if their life depended on it, could be heard positively surprised, and more than a little taken aback by Netanyahu’s comedic talents. A new, softened tone had taken over their criticism.

Laughter, they say, is the quickest way to win over a country. At least a country named Israel.