Netanyahu's Media Horribilis: Whatever Happened to Bibi?

Deja vu? The contradictions now tearing Netanyahu's current government apart are starting to look eerily similar to the ones that ended his first term.

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
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Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

What ever happened to Benjamin Netanyahu, the great communicator? His cheerleaders always argued that even if you didn’t buy his policies, his media presence alone was enough of an asset to the State of Israel to inspire admiration, if not gratitude, among his many critics.

If that legend was ever true, Netanyahu’s multiple communication blunders in the past fortnight have buried it for ever.

January was Bibi’s media mensis horribilis. It marked a year since his election - in which, as Channel 2 reported last week, he has not given a single interview to the local Israeli media. He even canceled the traditional interviews given twice a year on the eve of Independence Day and Rosh Hashanah. The last time Netanyahu was interviewed in Hebrew was on Eretz Nehederet last May. At least he was funny.

Netanyahu has given interviews while abroad to endless US networks and even to the BBC Persian service, but precious few to correspondents actually based in Israel.

Two weeks ago, he summoned the resident foreign press corps to an annual reception where the assembled hacks were rewarded for their two-hour wait at the most inconvenient time of the reporting day with a speech of such sullen vacuity it could have been Tweeted.

The foreign press corps generally holds Netanyahu in contempt, precisely because of time-wasters like these. If you’re going to subject them to intrusive security searches in the freezing cold followed by a long wait right across the daily filing deadline, then at least announce something or give them a piece of news to make it worth their while. And if you finally deign to meet them once a year, allow more than three questions.

Instead, Netanyahu wasted the opportunity to make headlines around the world and said nothing. If anyone was wavering, he lost them that night. We could all have stayed home and saved everyone a lot of bother.

Then last weekend, Netanyahu shattered the long-standing unwritten rule whereby the Israeli press almost completely ignores the private lives of its leaders. The attacks on Sara Netanyahu notwithstanding, Bibi’s own family has benefited greatly from the wide berth given them by local reporters. No-one photographs his grandchildren, follows his ex-wives to the supermarket or snaps photos of his younger sons as they emerge into adulthood.

It seems It was Bibi himself, apparently starved of sense in the oxygen-thin uphills of Davos, who let slip to a Norwegian reporter that his son Yair was seeing a non-Jewish student from Oslo. The right-wing religious outrage that ensued was entirely predictable – and completely of Bibi’s own making. His children used to be all but off-limits to the Israeli press. Now he has placed them in the eye of a media storm.

And then came last weekend’s bizarre briefing by “officials close to the prime minister” suggesting that West Bank settlers might like to stay in their homes, but under the rule of a future Palestinian state. The anonymous suggestion prompted predictable ridicule from the Palestinians and outrage from settler leaders, most of all from Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.

By midweek, Netanyahu’s “office” was demanding an apology from Bennett for denouncing a suggestion that Netanyahu himself had never owned up to making in the first place.

If Netanyahu wants to be understood, he should start using the endless platforms at his disposal to express himself clearly, instead of larding his public pronouncements with empty rhetoric and relying on leaks and rumors to make policy on the hoof.

Netanyahu’s first government fell apart in 1999 because he so eloquently told the competing factions in his cabinet what they wanted to hear – even if they were completely at odds with each other. When the right finally called his bluff, there was no ballast behind the bluster and the coalition fell to pieces.

Netanyahu must be experiencing a strange déjà vu. The contradictions now tearing his current government apart are beginning to look eerily similar to the tensions that ended his first term in office. Back then, everyone thought theirs was the real Bibi – today, no-one has a clue where the real Bibi is.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum last week. Has he changed hias political direction?Credit: Reuters

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