Between Him and Her

In the Monica Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton failed to follow the example of young Benjamin Netanyahu.

1. “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal,” said MK Benjamin Netanyahu in 1993 on the eve of the Likud primary. He repeated the sentence three times and wagged his finger at Channel 1’s police reporter, Uri Cohen-Aharonov.


“Did you have intimate relations with another woman?” Aharonov began with that obvious question − like a prophetic foreshadowing of Jay Leno’s famous question to the actor Hugh Grant after he was caught with a prostitute in Los Angeles: “What the hell were you thinking?”


What the hell were you thinking, Mr. Netanyahu, when you brought that woman into your life, that hooker into your car, Mr. Grant?


“Yes,” admitted Mr. Netanyahu, referring to the extra-marital relations. His hair was thicker and richer-looking then, his face was free of wrinkles and even his outdated striped necktie was tightly knotted around his neck and lay properly on his chest. A lot better than the expensive blue silk ties lying on his chest nowadays.


He hastened to add two things: 1. “This will remain between me and my wife.” 2. “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal.”


“You’ve brought something of the American style into Israeli politics,” Cohen-Aharonov told him. But he was mistaken: Bibi did not conduct the ritual according to the rules of the American media. He did not invite the camera crew into the living room of his home, he did not lay his hand on his betrayed wife’s knee and did not confess, his eyes glistening with shame and guilt: “I did have sex with this woman, Mrs. Ruth Bar.”


No, “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal.” More than anything else in the world, Bibi Netanyahu, who shared his betrayal of his wife with the entire world, looked like the loneliest man on earth. Alone, flanked by two male interrogators (Yaakov Ahimeir and Uri Cohen-Aharonov), as well as hundreds and thousands of viewers, he faced the cameras in order to save his political career from what seemed like a foolish attempt by political rivals to rub him out.


Looking back, after logging hundreds of Benjamin Netanyahu hours, many thousands of words and scores of neckties, it seems like that moment, when he admitted to the biggest lie a man can tell his wife, was the most sincere moment he ever shared with the Israeli public. Paradoxically, from the position of a hunted man, wallowing in shame and guilt and nearly helpless (the gap between the determination with which he spoke and the slight tremor that gripped him was no less than heartrending), Benjamin Netanyahu built himself a brilliant political career.


Because what Israeli politicians forget is that all the medals for courage in the trophy cabinet and all the smooth talk and all the silk neckties don’t count for anything when you look straight into the camera and say the sentence that only someone who has felt like the loneliest man in the world can understand:  “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal.”


 2. At the start of his first race for the presidency of the United States, Bill Clinton was accused of adultery. He went before the cameras of “60 Minutes,” with Hillary at his side. “Are you prepared tonight to say that you’ve never had an extramarital affair?” the interviewer asked him. “I’m not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves,” said the man who went on to become one of the most popular presidents in the history of the United States, in a moment that defined him. If you like, this was English for: “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal.”


The year was 1992 and a few days earlier Gennifer Flowers, a model and actress, had given an interview to an American tabloid in which she said that for more than a decade she had had a sexual relationship with the governor of Arkansas and Democratic presidential candidate. But his “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal” saved him. The public forgave him and the rest is history. That is, until the next time.


The next time, he behaved differently: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” he asserted, in one of the most memorable quotes in American political history. Ten years after the end of Clinton’s term in office, it seems that this sentence is his most famous and memorable; words that overshadow his tremendous achievements in economics and in U.S. foreign policy.


Eighteen years after that low point in the life of the young politician Benjamin Netanyahu, hardly anyone in Israel remembers “the hot videotape” affair. The reason is not just the differences between Israel and America in terms of the extent of media coverage, the differences between the cultures and geography, and between the public stature and importance of the people in question, but that the young Benjamin Netanyahu was really pitiful. The moment he faced the public and showed courageous weakness was the moment the Israeli public forgave him his transgression.


Ironically, it was Clinton, a person who over the years was far better than Netanyahu at presenting himself as someone human and accessible to the public, who uttered the most aloof and arrogant sentence a politician could possibly say to his constituents: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” “This is a personal matter and it will remain personal,” stupid. That is what you should have said. It worked so well the first time around. And of course there is always the option of not committing adultery.