Analysis

Netanyahu Dropped by for a Surprise Interview. He Won't Do It Again

In his impromptu Channel 12 appearance, the prime minister rediscovered something he has forgotten in recent years: Not all interviewers are parrots dutifully reciting the questions dictated to them

Screen capture of Netanyahu's speech for Channel 12 News

We were like dreamers. Just before the weather report, someone entered the Channel 12 studio, insisted that he was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and began answering questions. The interviewee spent 35 minutes there, twice the length of the interview granted his main electoral rival, Benny Gantz, a week ago. This didn’t stop him from complaining frequently about the air time “the studios” were giving the other side.

After the initial shock, it turned out that the surprise guest really was Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister and defense minister. On his way to Ben-Gurion Airport, his convoy turned right and stopped in Neveh Ilan. He said he came to dispel “the lies disseminated by his rivals in the Kahol Lavan party” about his investment in a steel company’s shares.

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In defiance of the Central Elections Committee chairman’s orders, the interview wasn’t broadcast with a 10-minute delay so it could be stripped of campaign messages. But if Netanyahu had hoped that presenter Keren Marciano would stay silent, her jaw dropping at the honor that had befallen her, and let him recite his talking points unhindered, he was disappointed.

Marciano was tough, well-informed and nothing less than stellar. Aided by political analyst Amit Segal, she showered him with questions about various issues.

Netnyahu was tense. More than once he had trouble answering. He twisted and turned, his eyes darting about in confusion. It was evident that suddenly, he didn’t feel like the ruler of his kingdom. Perhaps, in the privacy of his own heart, he regretted coming. What we wouldn’t have given to hear the first words he said to his wife when he returned to the car and sat down beside her.

A few comments about the substance of the interview:

1. With regard to the shares, which apparently disturbed his equilibrium and removed him from his comfort zone, he focused mainly on the monetary profit he made. But that isn’t the issue. The problem is the severe conflict of interests he had when he continued to handle the submarines deal even as his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, who had done so much for him in so many ways, continued to own the company at issue. That’s a conflict of interest Milikowsky may also need to explain to the American tax authorities.

2. Netanyahu claimed that his agreement (or failure to turn up his nose, in his words) to let the Germans sell strategic submarines to Egypt was concealed from the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the defense minister because “there are secrets only the prime minister knows.” This would insult the intelligence of an idiot, much less someone of average intelligence. Two bureaucrats who headed the National Security Council were allowed to know this terrible secret, but the defense minister and the chief of staff weren’t?! It’s not clear this interview has improved Netanyahu’s legal position.

3. If anyone doubted that he plans, if reelected, to try to pass a law giving sitting prime ministers immunity from prosecution, both what he said Saturday night and the way he said it provided confirmation. He reiterated that he’s never dealt with this issue and assumes he won’t in the future, either. On other issues, he was much more decisive and convincing.

4. On the issue of Gantz’s hacked cellphone, he wasn’t able to answer an elementary question: How can a private individual, whose phone isn’t equipped with scramblers and jammers and other protections given only to defense officials, protect his phone from hackers? When Marciano and Segal pressed this point, he seemed less sure of himself than he does in his video clips.

5. To the eternal question of whether or not he will form a unity government, he responded, “First I’ll form a national [i.e. rightist] government, with the current members. I don’t see Gantz and Lapid having a place in it.” Surprise! But if it’s a question of seats around the cabinet table and the distribution of portfolios, one can safely wager that if he’s reelected, a phone call to Gantz won’t be long in coming. And here’s another wager: Gantz and his colleagues will tell him “nyet.” Let him stew.

6. On Saturday night, Netanyahu rediscovered something he has forgotten in recent years: Not all interviewers are parrots like Eliraz Sade, dutifully reciting the questions dictated to them, or the herd of toadies in Channel 20’s studio. There are journalists in Jerusalem, and in Neveh Ilan and other places. We won’t see a debate between him and Gantz, and we certainly won’t see him flitting into another studio.