At Jerusalem’s Israel Museum last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a reception for the foreign media to toast the forthcoming new year. I went along.
Facing banks of TV cameras and rows of journalists, the prime minister made a speech and then took a small number of questions.
This was the first time I’d attended a press conference with Netanyahu. I expected a bravura performance. For whatever you think of his politics, he is renowned for his skills in presenting Israel’s case.
Well, what a surprise I had. His performance was remarkably maladroit.
There in front of me was a vivid demonstration in real time of precisely what is wrong with Israel’s public diplomacy strategy.
His speech ran along predictable lines. Israel was the bulwark of European values. It was the only place in the Middle East where journalists were free to write whatever they wanted. In Gaza last summer, Hamas was guilty of war crimes but perversely Israel was being investigated at Geneva.
Europe was silent about Palestinian incitement and lies.
Everything he said was true. The problem was that it could have been said anywhere. The one set of people who were guaranteed to remain unmoved by any of it were the journalists sitting in front of him.
They were ready to report the story he would give them that would make news. He didn’t give them one. He missed the opportunity to tell this captive media audience, and behind the cameras the watching Western world, a few long overdue home truths.
For example, he railed against the Europeans’ refusal to acknowledge the crimes of Hamas, the false depiction of Mahmoud Abbas as moderate and his incendiary lies about a Jewish attack on Temple Mount. But it was the foreign media sitting in front of him whose twisted and selective reporting had created this false impression.
Netanyahu should have seized that opportunity to address the great issue of our age: the waging of the war of annihilation against Israel through the unique strategy of falsehoods, distortion and demonization disseminated by the media. But he didn’t.
Worse was to come, however, when he took journalists’ questions.
These ranged from critical to deeply hostile, as you would expect.
Yet Netanyahu displayed an inability to recognize and address the deep misapprehensions or neuralgic hostility that lay behind them.
For example, an Associated Press reporter asked why the prime minister had made in his remarks no mention of settlement construction, even though this was a priority for the Europeans.
Netanyahu’s answer was that the settlements weren’t the issue; there had been no settlements in the decades before 1967 when the Arabs had repeatedly attacked; Israel had always said it would discuss the settlements; it had pulled out of Gaza; the Palestinians had always agreed that, in the event of any final agreement, the three main settlement blocs would remain.
Well, saying the settlements are not the issue and look at what happened after disengagement from Gaza cuts no ice whatsoever among people for whom the settlements are the number one issue. This is because the belief fueling this obsession is that Israel is building on Palestinian land.
So Netanyahu should have given AP both a lesson in international law, under which the settlements are perfectly legal, and in the history of the land in question, which never belonged to a people called “the Palestinians.” But he didn’t.
An Al Jazeera reporter then accused Israel of killing more than 2,000 Palestinians in last summer’s Gaza war. To which Netanyahu replied that no one regretted the loss of civilian life more than Israel, but Hamas had used civilians as human shields and targeted the innocent while Israel tried to avoid killing civilians.
Lame, or what? He should have said that the Hamas casualty figures were distorted and mendacious, as they made no distinction between civilians and fighters; that these false figures had nevertheless been accepted as true by the UN and the media, thus poisoning minds throughout the West; and that the true ratio of civilians to fighters killed in that war – never reported – was around one to one, a civilian attrition rate far lower than in any other conflict. But he didn’t.
The Frankfurter Rundschau reporter asked just what was problematic about delineating a state of Palestine alongside Israel.
Netanyahu replied that it was better to negotiate this; that Israel would be flooded with millions of Palestinians; that it was wrong for them to have a state if the Jews weren’t allowed to have one; that the great change now was that the Jews could defend themselves; that “I will always defend Israel and keep it strong.”
This series of non sequiturs failed to make the obvious point about why negotiation was necessary – that otherwise a state committed to a war of extermination against Israel would arise down the road from Jerusalem, and if the IDF pulled out of the West Bank it would turn overnight into Gaza, Islamic State or a proxy of Iran.
A Sky News reporter delivered the most aggressive question.
This might be the last such New Year’s toast Netanyahu gave as prime minister, he said: meanwhile there was uncontrollable violence in Jerusalem, the international community was doing the opposite of what Netanyahu wanted and recognition of a state of Palestine was growing. Was this a legacy the prime minister could live with? To which the answer was: “The public in Israel knows I’m the only one who can best defend the state of Israel against tremendous challenges.... they give me credit for pushing back on demands we make concessions that would endanger security.”
The answer should have been that the violence in Jerusalem has been incited by Abbas, a fact that media outlets like Sky News fail to tell their viewers; and that international hostility has been generated by people like Sky News, presenting Israel falsely as belligerent, illegal occupiers while failing to report Israeli victimization by Arab violence. But instead the reply consisted merely of bombastic boasting and electioneering.
In short, the whole thing was a massive missed opportunity.
Netanyahu could have used it to make information the media fail to report into a story they had to report. He had the chance to delegitimize the delegitimizers by telling their audiences of the lies by which Israel is demonized.
He could have wrapped Israel in the banner of global freedom, law and justice. He did none of these things.
To persuade people, you have to understand their mindset and tailor your remarks accordingly.
Netanyahu made no attempt to do either. He spoke to the media as if he were speaking to anyone – including the Israeli public on the election hustings.
If even the prime minister with his fabled presentational skills doesn’t get it, small wonder that Israel has lost the PR war so badly.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist with
The Times (UK).