Could a new documentary about Netanyahu swing the election?

Is the documentary’s wide release perfect timing for Netanyahu, or for his opponents?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 30, 2018 (photo credit: TANIA REGO/COURTESY OF AGENCIA BRASIL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 30, 2018
It couldn’t be better timing for director Dan Shadur. After working on “King Bibi,” his documentary about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for three-and-a-half years, negotiating with distributors and showing it at film festivals, an election was called just a few weeks before it was set to be made available via the Yes Doco channel and Yes VOD.
Surely the documentary will hold even more interest for viewers now than it would have even two months ago. And that begs the question of what kind of impression it will make on viewers.
Is the documentary’s wide release perfect timing for Netanyahu, or for his opponents?
The answer is neither – or both.
Like so many other things related to Netanyahu, the new documentary “King Bibi,” first airing on Yes Doco next Wednesday, is like a Rorschach test, the inkblots some psychotherapists use to get inside a patient’s head.
If you like Netanyahu, you’ll see one thing; if you don’t like him, you’ll see something else entirely.
The film doesn’t provide any new information, but still manages to shed light on how Netanyahu became “King Bibi.” It is made up of existing footage of the prime minister, spanning his entire life. The focus is mostly on how Netanyahu’s rhetorical skills buoyed him to the premiership and how they have served him since. In fact, the only parts that don’t consist of existing footage are clips of a tape playing advice by Lilyan Wilder, the public-speaking guru who trained Netanyahu.
The prime minister’s supporters will see clip after clip of Netanyahu speaking in English from the 1980s through last year and be impressed with his rhetorical skill and ability to captivate audiences, whether they consist of Charlie Rose or both houses of the US Congress. They’ll be impressed by former US president Ronald Reagan expressing admiration for Netanyahu’s book on fighting terror and being invited to speak to a Congressional committee on that same topic some 17 years later. They’ll boo at the multiple instances of former US president Bill Clinton intervening on behalf of Netanyahu’s competitors for the premiership.
In its attempt to tie Netanyahu to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, they’ll see echoes of what many in the media have been trying to do for 23 years, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Notably, this documentary does not include the clip of Netanyahu saying at a rally that Rabin “is not a traitor, he is mistaken.”
They may see a tragic arc in Sara Netanyahu’s life. From being Netanyahu’s young, third wife – looking shy and naïve, and sweetly trying to keep sons Avner and Yair out of trouble in a clip from the Prime Minister’s Residence – she becomes hardened over time, as news coverage of her grows more negative and accusatory.
They’ll watch one of Netanyahu’s first interviews as a politician, after his return from being ambassador to the UN; see comedian Rivka Michaeli, who’s known to be left wing, ask on her talk show how he thinks he can be a politician if his only work experience in Israel is as a furniture salesman; and be appalled by the media’s elitism. The press has been out to get Netanyahu from day one, is what they’d likely think.
And then, some of Netanyahu’s opponents may take Michaeli’s side. The director, Shadur, said he considers himself a leftist, but that he was appalled by Michaeli’s question. But there are some on the Left who feel otherwise – like Labor MK Lea Fadida, who has called Netanyahu “Benjamin” in recent months, as though there’s something inherently wrong with having an English name. It is implied that he’s an American interloper – this is clearly the subtext.
Those who don’t like Netanyahu will sneer at the various millionaires and billionaires – Lauder, Milchan, Adelson, Kushner and more – who support him. Even US President Donald Trump makes an early appearance, over a decade before becoming president; he appears fixated as Netanyahu gives an address about the Israeli economy at the New York Stock Exchange. There’s a quick mention of his current corruption issues at the end, but it’s clear that this film was made before the police recommendations emerged to indict Netanyahu.
And there is Sara with Yair, their oldest son, who chats with Trump and first lady Melania Trump when they visit the Prime Minister’s Residence, shouting at a photographer not to film him when he’s around five years old.
Of course there’s the narrative about Rabin. And there’s Netanyahu showing up at the scene of a bus bombing in Tel Aviv shortly before the assassination; they’ll side with the media figures asking him if he’s not inappropriately politicizing a terrorist attack. They’ll see how even many on the Right didn’t want Netanyahu anymore in 1999 – though, for entirely different reasons than the Left.
Shadur said that he received many positive responses from Netanyahu supporters, and that at least one journalist who attended Wednesday’s special screening lamented that the film was too “pro-Bibi.”
“I don’t think it shows him positively,” he said. “I think we’re used to seeing him either glorified or totally negative, and this is something different.”
Asked if his opinion about Netanyahu changed, Shadur said it became more nuanced with time.
“My worldview is different from his, so my opinion did not change in that way – but I have more respect for him. As a left-wing person, you have certain ideas about him, and I learned that they’re not accurate,” he said.
In a way, the film is the most accurate picture one can get of Netanyahu, because since he is a politician whose detractors and supporters seem to see so differently, it often appears as if they are describing two different people.
Like a Rorschach test, how people view the documentary says more about the beholder than the inkblot – or the film – itself.
“King Bibi” airs on the Yes Doco channel on Wednesday, January 9 at 9 p.m. and will be available on the Yes VOD service.