For Netanyahu, Sorry Seems to Be the Easiest Word

Nothing cures a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease like an apology, and nobody is more versed in the art of repentance than the current prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't hesitate to whip out an apology during a radio interview last Sunday, when asked about a remark he had whispered to Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, the late former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, 12 years ago. He told Kadouri then that "The leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jewish."

On Sunday, in a joint interview to Army Radio and the Voice of Israel, part of a special broadcast intended to counter the rising tide of violence, he said, "This was a mistake, and it remains a mistake for which I have expressed my sorrow."

Netanyahu also said that he has changed since his first term as head of the government, when he said what he said about leftists, and attributed the change to "age and wisdom," which "tell me something else: we are one nation, and I am the prime minister of everyone."

Netanyahu was asked to confront his past and the changes he has undergone over the years by veteran interviewers Razi Barkai and Yaron Dekel, who connected the violent atmosphere in the country to public statements that employed terms such as "virus," which Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon recently used to describe members of Peace Now.

Netanyahu was quick to say that he had called Ya'alon to order, and that he assumed Ya'alon "will not be using the term again."

Just then, Barkai reminded Netanyahu about his whisper to Kadouri.

"It was spontaneous. Netanyahu didn't know he would be asked about this," Dekel said.

But even if Netanyahu wasn't ready for the question, he was prepared to apologize. After all, he is practiced in the art of repentance and understands its power.

The question was seemingly just another opportunity to apologize for the same incident, as he has done at least once, on television Channel 33, in a 2001 interview.

If now, when the incident is in the distant past, apologies come relatively easier to Netanyahu, at the time the remark was actually made he chose a vague, noncommittal apology.

"If someone was hurt by these remarks, and believed even for a moment that I doubted his bond to the people of Israel, the thought never entered my mind," he said then.

A history of groveling

Netanyahu has a long history of apologies and confessions. In 1993 he hastened to the Channel 1 studio to confess his sexual betrayal of his wife Sara, to ask forgiveness from her, and at the same time to blame "senior Likud party members working with a bunch of criminals."

They, he claimed, were behind exposure of the betrayal, in order to hurt his chances to lead the Likud. The blame was directed at David Levy, his main rival for the post.

Two years later, Netanyahu expressed remorse and apologized to Levy for "insulting you and your friends."

In the 2006 elections, when Netanyahu was attacked as finance minister for harming the weaker parts of society, he made a round of apologetic appearances in outlying towns and asked for forgiveness for being insensitive to their troubles.

But he also explained that he acted as he did out of concern for the economic health of the country, which was on the verge of a breakdown.

A revealing glance at the way Netanyahu grasps the act of apology may be found in a statement he made to journalist Nahum Barnea in 2001, in the journal The Seventh Eye.

"I had a private meeting with myself," Netanyahu said, "And I said to myself, 'I was wrong.' I discovered that when I admit my mistakes, people are convinced. It's quite effective."

Zohar Kampf of the Communications department of Tel Aviv University, has a doctorate dealing with the issues of apology and confession in political discourse.

"Netanyahu has no problem apologizing. He's very calculating, and he checks cost against value," Kampf said. "Netanyahu delivers a message of peacemaking in these apologies. He doesn't mind apologizing about things which people hardly remember today."

It's the apology, stupid

Netanyahu is not the first politician to use apology as a weapon. In September 1997, when Ehud Barak, as head of the Labor Party, planned to campaign for the prime minister's job, he apologized in the name of his party to generations of Sephardic Israelis for "the injury we caused you."

Unlike Netanyahu's apology on Sunday, Barak's public apology was made after much thought and planning, and is often seen as part of the strategy charted for him by American political consultant James Carville.

Carville is the same person who advised former U.S. president Bill Clinton to apologize in 1993 for the historic injustice America imposed on Hawaii 100 years earlier; and who advised Tony Blair, as leader of the British Labor Party, to apologize to the Irish people for the historic injustice Britain had caused them.

"Barak, like Blair, turned to the population whose members had an emotional block against voting for his party," Kampf says, "Is it just opportunism? Every apology has an element of opportunism. We never can know whether are apologies are meant honestly."

A new model

Netanyahu and Barak represent a new model of politician: elected directly by popular vote, aided by American advisors, and with an understanding of political correctness in an age of multiculturalism.

It's enough to recall Golda Meir when she was prime minister, who said about the (Israeli Sephardic) Black Panthers that "they are disagreeable," and never looked back.

Like Netanyahu, Barak too has learned the wisdom of apology and uses it frequently.

For example, when he ran against Ariel Sharon in 2001, he requested forgiveness from members of his party for not being attentive enough to them.

Barak used these tactics once again when he returned to the political arena, and in 2006, he made a round of apologetic appearances at party branches.

He even instigated private meetings with thousands of people who were hurt by his management of the party. He apologized in his public speeches too.

Barak was a pioneer in another area of repentance too, in 1999, as prime minister.

On the Knesset stage, he expressed his sorrow in the name of the government for the suffering caused to the Palestinian people, but was careful to clarify that he made his statement out of a feeling of responsibility and not out of guilt.

That same year, Kampf found no less than 88 instances of apology in Israeli public discourse, from public statements of acceptance of the need to atone, to apologies carried out in public, to requests to express apologies.

Kampf emphasizes that there are points in politicians' lives at which they are more likely to apologize for mistakes, usually after losing elections.

"That's the time to apologize to friends in order to get ready for next time," Kampf says.

Another form is the confession, "which works well during a campaign. In most cases, the politician will talk about mistakes in a general way, never specifically," according to Kampf.

Kampf's research is based on apologies reported in Haaretz from 1997 to 2004, and points to the major political divisions of that period of time.

For example, Kampf found that ethnic tension reached one of its heights in 1997, when Netanyahu made his fateful whisper to Kadouri.

During the second intifada there were almost no ethnic apologies, as the external crisis highlighted other subjects, which were mostly ideological.